Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134Title: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Author: Katherine Arden
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 322
Publisher: Del Rey Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

On a cold winter night in a northern Russian village, a mother of four dies giving birth to her fifth child: a young girl born with the promise of magic in her veins, a predetermined fate nipping at her heels.

So begins the tale of Vasilia Petrovna, a wild, willful child who grows into a spirited, brave young woman. Arden tells her story slowly, gradually, from birth to adulthood, but the narrative is no less compelling for it. Arden wields words like a painter, crafting a lush atmosphere that makes you feel warm, as though you are reading a book by the fire. That is what I first noticed about this book; it immediately drew me in and made me feel cozy.

Despite the third person semi-omniscient narration, I was able to get a good sense of the characters. I usually despise this type of narration, especially when viewpoints flit between characters in a single chapter as they did here, but Arden does this masterfully. Nowhere did I feel that her writing did not cohere beautifully. The sweeping fairy tale feel evoked by the narration does not take away from the characters, each of whom comes to life in their own way.

Vasya is the strongest character of them all, a girl so strange and willful as to be branded a witch by her village. Born with the ability to see domovoi, her friendship with these strange Russian spirits is a direct contrast to her step-mother’s terror of them. Anna, whom Vasya’s father marries at the behest of his prince, is gifted with the sight as well, but unlike Vasya she fears the domovoi “demons” so much that she is constantly on the precipice of madness. She finds solace only in church, where domovoi cannot enter, and so when an egotistical young priest named Konstantin is sent to Vasya and Anna’s village, Anna latches onto him and his fear-mongering.

Konstantin the priest is a fascinating character; holy and devout but arrogant and vain. He lives for the love of the people and nurtures a desire to be worshiped by them. At the same time he is tormented by his desire for Vasya, whose willful spirit both tempts him and infuriates him. Throughout his years in her life he alternates between love and hatred of her, and he stokes the villagers’ suspicions of her, cementing her as an unholy witch in their minds.

But Vasya is protected by her family, among them her father Pyotr, an honest, hard-working, honorable man who wields an iron fist of justice. Though he loves his daughter he is frustrated by her strangeness, her unwillingness to fit in the world, the way she throws off the shackles of womanhood in medieval Russia. Alongside Vasya as an ally is her older brother Alyosha, whose love for and protectiveness of his sister shone through more than any of his other traits, making him a memorable character in his own right. Even Irina, Anna’s daughter and Vasya’s half-sister, who could have been merely an afterthought, grows in complexity as she breaks away from her mother’s hold and comes to ally with her sister in small but significant ways.

This tale is steeped in Russian folklore, the remote, pastoral setting lending a mythical feel to the story. Like most fairy tales Arden’s tale reads like magical realism. Christian reality integrates seamlessly with Russian folklore, all coming to a head in the climax of the novel, in which Vasya finally confronts the evil that has been haunting her village and maddening Konstantin the priest, making him believe he was listening to the voice of his God.

This is a delightful tale steeped in richness and atmosphere. The evocative moods shift from tense and terrifying to comedic to uplifting, conveying the various tenors the harsh northern setting itself evokes. This is something else I must mention: Arden writes of the seasons with such utter grace, illuminating the icy danger of winter as much as the heavy heat of summer. Her lyrical descriptions are bursting with vivid color, which boosts the novel immensely, as the setting is such a significant part of the narrative.

This has been one of my favorite reads of this year: comforting, thrilling, inspiring, and utterly beautiful.

Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

20764879Title: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 512
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m going to be a Fangirl of Olde for a moment, if you’ll forgive me:

OH MY GOD OH MY GOOOOOOOD!!!! THE BADASS OPENING CHAPTER!!! THE ELEMENT GAMES!!! HOW FREAKING CHARMING IS ALUCARD??? KELL AND LILA AND THE SEXUAL TENSION AND THEM BOTH WANTING TO SEE EACH OTHER AND RECOGNIZING EACH OTHER FINALLY AND THEN *THAT SCENE* THAT HAD ME SCREAMING INTERNALLY!!!!!!!

/okay, I’m done, I think.

Clearly, I loved this book. Despite the fact that, like the first book, it starts slow and takes a while to get to the main plot (the Element Games start 60% into the book), it works better here. We already know and love all the characters, so even if they’re not really doing much, reading about them doing anything is still going to be enjoyable.

The book opens up with Lila seemingly stranded in the middle of the ocean and about to be picked up by pirates. What you at first think is a desperate situation turns into something so goddamn awesome that sets the tone for all of Lila’s chapters in the remainder of the book. I definitely enjoyed her POV a hell of a lot more than anyone else’s: she’s freaking badass, reckless, and hella confident. There’s something straight-up awesome about a character like Lila, who is special and unique and powerful and knows it and owns it. I love seeming a female character who is just powerful and completely embraces it, rather than shying away from it or denying it. God, I just love her so freaking much. What an incredible character. Truly, what an absolute gift of a character Victoria Schwab has given us.

Lila’s chapters also introduce us to Alucard, a (bisexual?) privateer/pirate captain who I’m sure is going to make most readers swoon. He’s dashing and charming and slick, but he’s also fussy and friendly and loves his cat. Victoria Schwab takes a character that could have been just another trope, and makes him utterly real. His interactions with Lila are delightful; they at first have a will-they-won’t-they dynamic that kept me hooked. After Lila makes her way aboard his ship, Alucard begins to teach her magic, which Lila picks up on quickly (she’s a maverick, that one).  Though the development of their close friendship is subtle, by the end of the book it’s clear as day that these two are birds of a feather.

Throughout the book you can feel Kell and Lila pining for one another, even if neither of them really wants to admit it. Schwab plays with dramatic irony to up the tension of their eventual meeting, and it crescendos into an explosive climax that literally had me screaming on the subway. I love these two. I love them together and apart. I love their dynamic and I love their opposite personalities and I love it when they clash and I love it when they have each others’ backs.

Everything about this book was amazing. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I know I was somewhat lukewarm about the first book, but this second one absolutely blew it out of the water. It’s tense, exciting, an absolute page-turner, features awesome new characters like Alucard, builds on old characters, develops a plot within a plot rather deftly, and ends on a wicked cliffhanger. Lucky for me, I already have the third book on my Kindle and will begin reading it immediately.