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Living legends January 29, 2019

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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In some ways, 2019 had a most auspicious beginning for me, at least as far as reading was concerned: three of my most anticipated books of the year were published in consecutive weeks of January. This meant that each week began with a new literary delight appearing in my ereader for me to savour. By a strange coincidence, each book represented a different stage in a trilogy — one the explosive beginning, another the middle book, doing far more than just bridging the gap between introduction and conclusion, and the third the extremely satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary series. And each book, in its own way, built on a foundation of religion, myth, and fairy tales to construct something exquisite, powerful and page-turning.

First off the mark was Katherine Arden, with The Winter of the Witch, the final book in her medieval Russian fantasy Winternight trilogy. In this series, Arden weaves folklore and fourteenth-century Russian history with a sweeping, all-encompassing battle of good against evil. Her heroine, Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the eponymous witch, can perceive the ancient supernatural powers of the land — these range from pagan gods of death and winter to smaller deities of hearth and home and gateyard — and has found herself as entangled in their supernatural battles as she is in the more earthly political struggles facing the rulers of her land. Both temporal and supernatural Russia stands at a crossroads: there are tensions between the old religion and the new, the threat of invasion from the Mongols is ever-present, and indeed the region we now know as ‘Russia’ is only beginning to conceive of itself in this way, giving birth to itself amid war, fire and violence. Meanwhile, various supernatural beings are taking advantage of the chaos to fight battles of their own, while — as Arden has elected to go for an underlying mythology in which gods require belief in order to exist — struggling to survive in a world which increasingly denies their existence.

cover - winter of the witch

Arden is a master at balancing these grander, broader struggles with the more personal concerns of her heroine. As the story progresses, Vasya uncovers more buried secrets about her uncanny family history, grows in self-knowledge and confidence in her own powers, and embraces the role her magical mentor and protector Morozko envisaged for her: as a bridge between the earthly and supernatural, the old religion and the new, and the otherworldly power struggles of immortals and the violent birth of the Russian state. In previous books in the series, Vasya would have fled from such a destiny, protesting that her preference was for a quiet life roaming the forests with her beloved horse Solovey, but in The Winter of the Witch she has accepted the inevitable — and realises that she relishes the role of bridge-builder and protector. Part of this lies in accepting her connection with Morozko, and all that this implies, and the way that this renders her partly monstrous, and the old death god partly human is beautifully done and one of my favourite elements of the series. The result is a land protected on both supernatural and earthly fronts, leaving Vasya free to roam the stark, wintry landscapes, the line between otherworldly and mundane forever blurred.

We move from the ice and frost of medieval Russia to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and the beautiful cities of Central Asia in The Kingdom of Copper, the second book in S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy. To be more precise, these landscapes are the otherworldly equivalent of their real-world counterparts, inhabited by djinn and invisible to the human eye. The simmering political tensions of Chakraborty’s imagined world were on the brink of bubbling over, with various djinn factions jostling for supremacy and — being long-lived, if not immortal — unable to let go of long remembered grievances. In the previous book, we had left the trio of point-of-view characters in rather desperate circumstances: Dara, the murderous nightmare or courageous freedom fighter (depending on one’s political perspective) and Ali, the frustrated young prince locked in a fight to the death, and Nahri, the lost daughter of a legendary healer making bargains and compromises (including a political marriage) in order to survive the cut-throat power struggles surrounding her. After setting her pieces in place, Chakraborty jumps the narrative forward by five years, to see how the various split-second decisions made by these three characters are working out for them. For the most part, things are going disastrously: Ali has been politically and geographically isolated, Nahri, hampered by a chronic inability to trust and a genuine fear for her life, is unable to effect real change, and Dara is swept up in a rebellion which values him for his ability to deal terror and violence.

cover - kingdom of copper

Chakraborty draws deftly on Islamic legend and lore about djinn and other supernatural beings, as well as extensive historical research into Abbasid-era Baghdad, and the result is a tense political thriller in which the fantastical elements blend seamlessly. She is particularly skilled in showing how her characters’ personal weaknesses and blind spots hamper their ability to solve the larger political problems of their kingdom — Dara’s prejudices, Nahri’s wariness and suspicion of others’ skills and motives, and Ali’s dogmatism and inflexibility — and how, were they to pool their resources and compromise, the results were extraordinary. Ali and Nahri’s personalities are particularly conflicting, and for this reason every scene they had together was explosive and a joy to read, especially as the book hurtled towards its denouement. I cannot wait to read the concluding book in this trilogy to find out what happens next.

One of the subtler themes of the Daevabad books is the idea of appropriation — Chakraborty’s djinn profess to detest humans, and view them with contempt, but they relish human innovations from architecture and engineering to food and fashion. Where Chakraborty keeps this theme understated and metaphorical, Roshani Chokshi brings it front and centre in The Gilded Wolves, the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Belle Époque Paris. Hers is a world in which magic is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy families, who supplement their power with magical objects that they ‘acquire’ and make use of. Chokshi’s magical acquisitions are, like their real-world museum counterparts, more often than not looted, uprooted by colonial powers with no thought as to their cultural significance or the moral right of colonised people to retain ownership of their own treasures. In keeping with this story that asks readers to look beyond the comforting pieties former colonist countries tell themselves, Chokshi’s main cast of characters are almost all people marginalised by empire in some way. Two are the mixed-race sons of powerful French men, and women from countries colonised by France, grudgingly accepted into the halls of power if they constantly deny and devalue half of their heritage. One is a migrant from India who has to perform a palatable version of her culture for public consumption, and who defensively embraces this sense of performance of the ‘exotic East’ as a way to maintain a semblance of control. Another — a Polish-Jewish scientist — reads to me as a hint at the antisemitic Dreyfus affair and the associated ugliness lurking at the heart of supposedly progressive and rational countries. My favourite character is a Filipino-Spanish archivist who hangs around on the fringes of revolutionary Filipino groups, yearning for acceptance and longing to commit himself to their cause.

cover - the gilded wolves

What brings this marvellous cast of characters together is a spectacular heist, and, like the best of all heist stories, The Gilded Wolves is filled with puzzles, races against time, and the squabbles and struggles of a fractious group of people whose skills they bring to the job do not compensate for their clashing personalities and disparate personal aims and motives. I love a good heist novel, particularly if — as is the case here — the characters responsible for pulling it off are marginalised, somewhat traumatised outsiders who find a family in each other. Their resourcefulness, talents, and, ultimately, ‘us against the world’ mentality stand in sharp rebuke to the society that views them as lesser, other and outsiders. Their presence amid the champagne flutes, Art Nouveau architecture, and bank vaults stuffed with looted treasures is a reminder on whose backs empires were built, the ugliness sitting like poison at the heart of even the most beautiful places. Chokshi has created a powerful and resonant work, and I can only hope that the remainder of the trilogy continues as it has started.

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‘That love of maidens for monsters’ September 15, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Every so often, a work of fiction, whether series or standalone, will creep up on me like a welcome surprise, seemingly crafted to appeal to my exact tastes, its combination of elements so perfectly designed to fill a void in my reading I didn’t even know existed. Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, of which two books are currently published — The Bear and the Nightingale, and The Girl in the Tower; the third, The Winter of the Witch, will be published in January, 2019 — is one such series of books. Arden’s series is a work of historical fantasy, set in a slightly tweaked version of fourteenth-century Russia (or rather, to be more precise, the region we now know as Russia) in which the supernatural hovers just out of sight, where elemental gods and magical horses roam the snow-filled forests, and where most people’s beliefs comfortably accommodate both the icons and pageantry of Orthodox Christianity and the more earthy household gods of kitchen and stable.

Cover - The Bear and the Nightingale

Through this intriguing landscape strides Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the daughter of an aristocrat whose lands are in the frozen north, in a liminal encompassing both farm and dense forest, and a mysterious witch who died giving birth to Vasya, her fifth child. In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya grows up wild in her father’s lands, equally at home on the capacious stove in the kitchen, listening to her nurse’s stories, and roaming from river to stables to forest, chattering with the supernatural, otherworldly beings that only she can see. Arden’s is a world where gods require belief and offerings in order to survive, and Vasya provides these happily, while attracting the particular attention of Morozko, the old god of winter, frost, and death. This fragile peace is shattered by the arrival first of a new stepmother, a princess who would have preferred to remain unmarried and in a convent, and later of a zealous, charismatic priest sent north by the secular rulers concerned that his popularity could make him a rival to their own power. Both find Vasya’s unconventional nature disturbing and threatening, and, as she grows from a girl to a teenager, they seek to contain and constrain her, and attempt to stamp out the lingering pagan beliefs still held by the people of the household. Their zeal, however, has unintented, far-reaching consequences, inadvertently unleashing a horrific supernatural threat that will require all of Vasya’s skill, courage, and ingenuity to overcome.

The Girl in the Tower paints on a wider canvas, as Vasya leaves her familiar northern home, travelling to Moscow on Solovey, the magical horse given to her by Morozko, disguised as a boy, seeking her older sister Olga. However, her plans are thwarted by broader politics both earthly and otherworldly, as mysterious raiders ransack villages, stealing children, and the Grand Prince of Moscow weighs up whether to challenge the Mongol khans whose power wavers but who still extract tribute from their vassals in Russia. At the same time, a new supernatural threat emerges, a shadowy being who needs Vasya for purposes of his own. Vasya does her best to navigate these treacherous waters, but is challenged at every turn by the constraints placed on women in her society, yearning to ride free and unencumbered on Solovey in a world that would see her confined in either married women’s quarters or convent — or else as a threat that must be destroyed.

Cover - The Girl in the Tower

For all the latter book’s emphasis on the grand sweep of medieval Russian politics, the scope and focus of the series is pleasingly domestic — whether the kitchen stove of Vasya’s family home, or the private suites of rooms that comprise the women’s quarters of Olga’s marital palace. Arden makes much of the everyday labour of women: preparing food, sweeping hearths, embroidering elaborate headdresses, assisting in the birth of children. The lives of these women may be circumscribed, lived within a narrow space, travelling between hearth, bathhouse, and church, but they are not inconsequential. This is a series in which the labour of a mother giving birth to a child is of greater supernatural significance than the outcome of a battle, where a girl slipping bread crusts to household gods does more to forge alliances than the political machinations of men in Moscow palaces. I have praised this kind of emphasis in fiction before, and I’m very pleased to see it’s becoming more prevalent.

This is a series that revels in its darkness. There is no attempt to soften or humanise Morozko (although Arden does make use of one of my favourite tropes: the monster who loves a human for her humanity, and the human who loves a monster for his monstrosity, who are able to reach an uneasy accommodation of humanity and monstrosity together), and the cruel harshness of the landscape and the capricious beings that inhabit it is constantly reiterated. But these are the indifferent cruelties of nature, which is indiscriminate in the hurt it causes. True viciousness in Arden’s works is reserved for human beings, who make their own choice to be violent or hurtful. And then, fairytale-like in its contrast is the shining, luminous goodness of those like Vasya, whose integrity and moral courage light the way through fear, and danger, and darkness.