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: Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

28818313Title: IRON CAST
Author: Destiny Soria
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 384
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book takes a long time to find its feet. Though it opens with an asylum breakout, the plot slows down from there. Hints are dropped as to what the main conflict is, but it builds up very slowly, as the author takes her time to establish the setting (Boston, 1919) and introduce the magic system. Ordinarily, this would be the type of book I would abandon, but what pushed me to keep going were the characters, which are really the best thing about this novel. Every single character was vibrant, complex, and compelling, and many of their narratives subvert common tropes and stereotypes. The word “diversity” is used a lot these days as kind of a nebulous buzzword, so I try to shy away from using it, but it really fits here. I was ecstatic to be reading a about a 1920s Boston that wasn’t all straight white people.

There’s Ada Navarra, daughter of a Portuguese father and a Mozambican mother, both immigrants. Ada is biracial, and her struggles with this are alluded to in the novel, but never in ways that feel ham-fisted. Ada ruminates on her place in the world because of the color of her skin. The narrative doesn’t shy away from this; incidents of discrimination against Ada are mentioned more than once throughout the book. And though she’s got a quiet strength, she is also allowed to be vulnerable and hurt by what she endures. She is also in a steady relationship with a black boy, Charlie, a musician who is several times described as Soft and Sweet. Patient, sensible, methodical, and reliable, Ada is a steady presence.

Then we have Corinne Wells, the opposite of Ada in so many ways. Corinne is white, wealthy, loud, impulsive, and sarcastic. She has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder, but it makes her endearing. She rushes into things headfirst and doesn’t often think things through – she leaves that to Ada, her best friend. The girls’ bond was so wonderful to read about – they love and support each other wholly. One thing in particular I liked was that Corinne’s privilege over Ada was alluded to several times throughout the book, and Corinne was, in a way, called out (and calls herself out) for various microagressions.

Another character is Saint, a young gay man who takes some time to find his courage (not to “come out” or anything). There’s Gabriel Stone, a terse, seemingly aloof guard who develops into a love interest, but is given his own backstory (he reminds me a little bit of Grant Ward, but I digress). There’s James and Madeline Gretsky, a delightful married couple who run a theater, only James is in love with Saint and his marriage is one of convenience – for Madeline. There’s Eva Carson, who is a minor character, but also the head of a gang and shines like the moon on a cloudless night.

Then there’s the families of all these characters! Ordinarily, in YA, parents and/or families are dead, nonexistent, or flatly written. Not so in Iron Cast. Though Ada’s father is in prison, her mother features prominently. Corinne’s family is initially presented as your typical wealthy white snobs, but towards the end Corinne’s mother is shown to have independent political opinions and to be much more perceptive than Corinne has given her credit for. Corinne’s older brother, Phillip, is also initially presented as a stereotypical, power-hungry white man, but his layers are peeled away to reveal a compassionate brother who loves his sister dearly.

And on and on and on! There are a lot of characters in this book but they all stood out to me so clearly I felt like I had known them all my life. Every single one of them is vivid and memorable, and uplift what is an otherwise somewhat dull plot. Even as I was reading about Corinne and Ada simply talking to each other or going to dinner parties, I was enjoying myself, because I had so quickly come to care about these characters.

So: the plot. Well, it definitely had the potential to be exciting, but I’m not sure what happened. Ada and Corinne are hemopaths, which means they have the power to craft illusions using words or songs (or other forms of art). It’s certainly an interesting and original magic system, but for some reason it never really grabbed me. Hemopathy is illegal in Boston and hemopaths are being persecuted left and right – by “ironmongers” who deliver vigilante terror, by HPA agents who arrest them, and by doctors who want to perform experiments on them. Ada and Corinne are caught up in some of these dangers, but the way the plot is structured makes it difficult to keep your attention for very long. However, as I said, the characters make it compelling, and admittedly, there are some good twists and turns throughout to keep you engaged!

Overall, a solid little book! I will definitely be reading whatever Destiny Soria writes next.