Fantasy

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The wonderful Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I think her wisdom can also be applied to books.

I have a memory of a goldfish and hardly ever remember what I just read. But I never, ever forget how I felt when I read a certain book.

Why am I telling you this?

The Bear and the Nightingale triggered an emotion in me I cannot forget.

It brought me nostalgia, that bittersweet feeling of sadness mixed with longing and laughter.

It transported me back to my childhood. Back to when my grandma would tuck me underneath a blanket whilst reading me stories of Rusalka. Back to when she would tell me about Mrazík (Morozko) before she would kiss me goodnight. I terribly miss her, and I would give anything to hear her reading me one more tale. Seeing those old folk stories in The Bear and the Nightingale brought me my nana back.

 

bear and nightingaleLet’s get the summary of the book from GoodReads first:

A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind–she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed–this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

It’s not a fast-paced story at all. To me, The Bear and the Nightingale was all about its atmosphere.

There is a poetic feel to it. The slow pace of its story reminded me of sitting in the woods whilst watching a river go slowly by, enjoying the warmth of sun on my face.

Because of Arden’s skilled writing, you can feel being cold in the Russian winter woods. You can also experience that creepy anticipation of terror as something bad is hiding in the dark corner of your room.

 

The narrator is Vasya / Vasilisa and we follow her a coming-of-age story. There is a powerful sense of innocence mixed with ancient wisdom as she learns to trust her intuition whilst honouring her traditions. There is also a sense of uncertainty as old beliefs are disappearing and new ones are becoming ‘the truth’. That reminded of Neil Gaiman’s American Goods.

“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.” 

I liked Vasya for her feistiness as well as for her values. It is a fierce character that can be stubborn and sometimes hasty. But she evolves and that’s why I cared about her.

Side note: I would recommend reading the glossary in the back of the book first to anyone without any Slavic language knowledge. It can be utterly confusing seeing several, sometimes very differently sounding names, being referred to the same person. For example Sasha (Saša) is the shortened version of Alexander and Alexandra. I can see how that could put someone off this book.

To her credit, Arden remained true to how Russians would call each other, and I really appreciate it. It wasn’t just a book set in ‘Old Russia’, I felt I was there because it seemed authentic. (Cough cough, still can’t get over Daughter of Smoke & Bone and how ‘un-Czech’ most of those Czech characters felt…. sorry, just saying…).

I highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to anyone who enjoys atmospheric books as well as Slavic fairy tales.

Verdict: Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple 5/5

Random facts about my name: My name is Vera. In Czech it is Věra. The Russian meaning of my name is faith (вера). My name can be softened to show an affection to Věruška. My Czech family and friends also call me VěrkaVěrča or Věruš. 🙂

Fantasy

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

I have a confession to make. I want to be liked. I can be whoever I need to be for you to like me.

Why am I telling you this?

I don’t enjoy criticising. Trust me, the irony of starting a critical book review blog is not lost on me. I did it on purpose though. I want to push myself whilst battling those inner demons of mine. 🙂

With that said: DING DONG, DING DONG, a not so popular review coming your way.


wintersongWintersong is narrated by Liesl and follows her quest to save her sister Käthe, who is taken underground by the Goblin King.

“There is a law that for spring to begin, a life of a maiden must be given to the land. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth.”

If you are thinking of the film Labyrinth, you are on the right track.

It is a retelling of Labyrinth that was also inspired by the poem Erlkönig by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!

~ Erlkönig translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring

Initially, I picked Wintersong because of its haunting writing. But sadly, this book was not meant to be. Don’t be put off by what I am about to say. This book has received many five star reviews and maybe I was just not its target audience.

Let’s break it down. I felt the entire book could have been summarised in a page. I felt, not much happened throughout the story.

Then there was Liesel, whom I found exasperating. She would fulfil her dreams via her younger, ‘gifted’ brother, whilst being envious of her ‘beautiful’ sister. She would not honour her own gift of music composing as she was afraid to be judged.

She was described as ‘plain’ – seemingly having a ‘character’ was not something she would recognise as necessary.

I guess I was supposed to like her as she ‘sacrificed’ herself to stay underground instead of her sister. Regrettably, I did not see her offering as a true sacrifice as she fancied the Goblin King and had an inner motive to stay.

She was jealous, judgemental, insecure and full of self-loathing. I would consider a character experiencing all of those traits intriguing as long as there was a growth potential. Liesel did not evolve, a missed opportunity perhaps, and for that, I found her tedious and annoying.

Let’s talk ‘real problems’, shall we?

  1. The romance between Liesl and the Goblin King troubled me.

It is below par to portray dangerous ‘monster’ men as romantic heroes.

“I am” he whispers, “the monster I warned you against.”
“You are,” I say hoarsely. “the monster I claim.” 

It may appear ‘thrilling’ to some but I have enough drama in my life without having to invite a monster into it, thank you very much.

In my opinion, such messages may influence someone into tolerating an abusive behaviour whilst justifying it as ‘oh, he/she is a monster now but he/she is ‘my’ monster’.

  1. Liesel’s radical transformation after she had sex bothered me.

BOOM BOOM BANG BANG, a girl has sex for the first time and suddenly, all her misery disappears as she becomes a happy ray of sunshine.

Not only did Liesel Elisabeth start feeling like a new person, she also finally saw herself as a woman. Something that could be interpreted as sex being a ritual into one’s adulthood. Such message irritated me, especially as this genre targets young adults.

Maybe it was just me, maybe I was in a foul mood, who knows. Sadly, Wintersong was not my thing.

Verdict:  Hot Beverage on Apple  (1/5)

Fantasy

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprooted

Growing up in, then communist Czechoslovakia, my childhood memories are full of Russian and Slav folk stories and re-discovering some of them recently has been tremendous fun.

Side note: for Russian inspired fantasy novels, some of my favourites are:

How dare they to write such beautiful stories that caused me so many sleepless nights!! How dare they… 😊!!

Now without further ado, let’s have a look at Uprooted:

Uprooted is inspired by Polish fairy tales and it reminded me a bit of The Beauty and the Beast story.

The main character, Agnieszka (Nieszka), lives in a quiet village near the mysterious and highly corrupted Wood.

“There is something worse than monsters in that place. Something that makes monsters.”

The Wood is being kept in check by the Dragon, who is a wizard that demands a price for his service – a company of a village girl for ten years of her life since the age of 17.

The book begins with Dragon’s choosing ceremony held every 10 years. He happens to choose Agnieszka instead of her best friend, Kasia, rumoured to be taken instead. Agnieszka is then ‘trapped’ in the Dragon’s tower serving him and slowly learning magic.

I honestly loved most parts of this book. I thought the pace was wonderful, I loved that slow build up of dread and how wonderfully dark, borderline creepy, the atmosphere was. Battles were not romanticised and were described in a horrible, yet believable manner and Agnieszka’s character thoroughly suffered through them in a very realistic way.

“Yesterday, six thousand men had marched over this road; today, they were all gone.”

Agnieszka is this clumsy but clearly ‘special’ peasant girl that has intuitive magic inside of her that clashes with her teacher’s magic, which is based on studies and is backed up by science. I know this may annoy some, but I personally liked it. I rely on my Intuition (despite calling myself a scientist 😉) and I believe we all have a certain inner wisdom and letting it speak to us is not necessarily a bad thing….

Now let’s explore a few ‘problematic’ things:

•  Early on in this book, Agnieszka narrowly avoids being raped. This is when I started disliking the Dragon’s character. The way he suggested it could have been ‘her fault’ made me see red. I don’t mind twisted and torn characters, but I thought the Dragon was a real a$$hole and I just could not see anything likable about him…

.. which makes me move to my second point:

•  The romance part didn’t work for me. The teacher (moody, irritable, controlling) vs. his student (defiant, more talented and rebellious) dynamic was just… no thanks. Those two didn’t care for each other that much and the ending was just a bit weird.

What stood out for me was the Agnieszka and Kasia friendship. Those two were clearly in love with each other. Maybe, it was a platonic, fiercely strong friendship kind of love. But regardless of what kind of love it was, I really rooted for them. There was something special about them and I thought they complemented each other well and cared very deeply for each other.

Overall, I enjoyed this book despite those few points above.

It brought me back to my childhood and Novik’s skilful spread of dread was just phenomenal.

Verdict:  Hot Beverage on Apple   Hot Beverage on Apple   Hot Beverage on Apple   Hot Beverage on Apple    (3.5/5)

Fantasy

Everless by Sara Holland

everless

Everless was surprisingly much better than expected. I have been growing away from YA but Everless reminded me that I can still enjoy this genre.

I was intrigued by its concept. Imagine living in a world where time is your currency. It is a world, where you can bleed your time in order to pay your rent or buy groceries or when you can drink / eat it to live longer. Sounds interesting, right?

Side note: I know that this is not a novel concept per se as some of you may have seen it in a movie In Time. But then again, what is original these days? I don’t mind when authors use already known concepts and work with them. To me, it’s the world building, developed and interesting characters as well as the story and its message that really matters.

The beginning starts with a lot of information and a girl hunting in the woods. Me? Eye roll 🙄and thinking: not again?!? 😉However once I got over the beginning, I got hooked very quickly and literally could not put this book down.

We get introduced to the world where time really matters. We meet Jules, a poor girl who just turned 17 – an age when she can start legally ‘bleeding her time’ and her ill dad, who is slowly running out of his time. The concept of parents bleeding their time to provide for their children really gave me chills as I thought it utterly believable.

Long story short: Jules is trying to save her dad and takes a job at Everless – an estate owned by one of the richest families. It also happens to be a dark place where bad things are about to happen.

My short summary of this book could be written as:

“Dad: ‘Stay away from Everless, stay away from the Queen. Bad things will happen to you’.
Jules start running towards Everless and the Queen and bad things are happening to her…”

Teenage rebellion perhaps? 😄I always have to chuckle when main characters get told literally by everybody not to do something which they promptly ignore and decide to do the exact thing that are told not to do.

Some points I struggled with:

• There is an ancient story about how time became bound to blood. The relationship between the Sorceress and the Alchemist is still unclear to me and I am confused about how they got captured and by whom. Maybe there is an opportunity for an explanation in the sequel as I really want to know please! 😄

• I also have a few issues with Jules. I thought there was a little bit of a missed growth opportunity and was a bit surprised with her crush over Roan. I suppose she could have romanticised him as he could have been her childhood crush (she was 7 though!) but still, it didn’t sit that well with me. I did like how she developed certain female friendships throughout the book and how curious, feisty and strong-willed she was.

Anyhow, I thought Holland’s language was very captivating, the pace and the steady build up really worked for me. I really liked the element of mystery and how craftfully it was span.

I also really, really appreciated that the primary focus was on the actual plot rather than the romance part. That may disappoint some but I am honestly fed up with books where nothing is happening apart from a girl obsessing over a guy and vice versa.
There were also some enjoyable twists; a few surprising villain revelations and the ending left me desperately wanting to read its sequel already.

“What if the person to be feared is me?” 

Overall, I thought it was a terrific debut and I honestly can not wait to read next chapter in Jules’ story.

Verdict: Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple   (4/5)

Fantasy

Heartless by Marissa Meyer

heartless

I adore Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. As a kid I was desperately searching for ‘the’ rabbit hole to find Wonderland (and still am sometimes!).

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland 

I’m not going to lie, I was a bit sceptical about Heartless as I did not want another butchered retold version of an original book. But then Valentines’ Day came along, and I thought: what a fantastic opportunity to give it a go. 😊

I was wrong, I loved this book. I am a firm believer in the magical nonsensical world of Wonderland and Meyer did a fabulous job transporting me there again.

“Perhaps we know each other in the future and you’re only remembering backward.” 

Heartless is not a true re-telling story per se. It is set in Wonderland and it does use characters we all know from Lewis Carol’s book but that’s it. It has a unique story of how Catherine Pinkerton became the Queen of Hearts. And for those, who do not know who the Queen of Hearts is, it is not a happy ending story. But it is a welcome addition to the enchanting world of Wonderland.

“It is a dangerous thing to unbelieve something only because it frightens you.” 

It all starts with Catherine’s big dream of opening her own bakery which she would co-run with her best friend, who happens to be her maid. There’s a lot cake / macaroon talking, and I believe it may be entirely the book’s fault should I have put on some weight whilst reading it. 😉

It’s not just a story about cakes though, it’s also a story of forbidden love and friendship. It is a sad and sometimes brutal story and it’s not a fast-paced story. Yet somehow, it really worked for me. I got to go back to Wonderland to meet my lovely friend Cheshire Cat, got to have some tea with the Hatter and was surrounded by all those strangely wonderful characters whom I missed dearly for years.

“Are you here for a reason, Cheshire?
Why, yes, I would enjoy a cup of tea. I take mine with lots of cream, and no tea. Thank you.” 

I did not like Catherine but thinking about it, maybe that was the point. Catherine is a self-centred character who primarily cares about baking and Jest. There is goodness in her too though and we get to see it when she tries to help several characters. I really didn’t like her that much, but I did feel empathy towards her. Anyone who feels trapped and that there is no way out of a situation would get frustrated and would be ready to do whatever is necessary to change that.

I’ll end of up with the riddle – why is a raven like a writing desk?

You’ll get the answer in the book. I also really love the ending note where Meyer talks about this particular riddle in greater detail. Enjoy!

Verdict: Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple   (5/5)

Fantasy

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green

smoke thieves

*** ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank both The Penguin Random House as well as the author, Sally Green, for this opportunity ***

Wow, The Smoke Thieves was clearly meant for me. It had everything I look for in a book. A powerful message, intelligent but also torn characters, diversity and lots and lots of action.

The story is told from five perspectives.

Tash, a street smart fiery girl, who also happens to be a successful demon hunter or rather a tempting demon bait.

Edyon, a compulsive thief, an aspiring law student and an extremely skilled liar.

March, a torn character that happened to get radicalized and whose mission is to seek revenge.

Ambrose, a loyal soldier torn between his sense of duty towards those whom he serves vs. his country. Full of honour but also full of forbidden love.

Catherine, an intelligent princess raised up to be a pawn and an ornament. Who happens to want more from life than that.

All characters’ paths intertwine over a bottle of illegal demon smoke.

The Smoke Thieves has a medieval fantasy feel to it that reminded me a tiny bit of Game of Thrones. The pace is relatively fast and is building up quite nicely throughout the book. We slowly start getting glimpses of the main plot and start working things out. Our characters don’t have all the information and it is fun guessing which one will work it out first.

I really liked how well developed all main as well as some supporting characters were. I genuinely cared about them and wanted to know more of them. I also thought the world was well built and the pace of the book was just right for me. There was lots of action but also lots of appropriate build up when necessary.

The message of brain over brawn is quite strong throughout the story. I think it’s so important to inspire readers to be inquisitive and to honour our curiosity.

There is also a story of radicalisation and privilege – something I see as very current and something we should be talking about.

Then there is gay representation as well as a message that family is not always the unit we are born into.

Overall, a very enjoyable story that left me wanting more!

You can tell that I cannot wait for its sequel already. 😊

Verdict: Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple   (5/5)

Fantasy

To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo

to kill a kingdom

*** ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review ***

I really, really wanted to like this book.

I was intrigued by its concept. I love both Sarah J Maas’ and Leigh Bardugo’s books, to whom this book was compared to, and I could not wait to read it.

Unfortunately I was not the target audience – going through many reviews, I can see many readers are loving this book and I am so happy for them. It was either not meant for me or I was not in the ‘right’ state to read it. 😊

To Kill a Kingdom questions if evil is born or rather made. One of the two main characters, a siren called Lira, shows signs of goodness despite being created to be evil.

I turn back to the sky, and quietly, I ask, “Do you really believe killers can stop being killers?” “I want to.”

That is something I liked about this book. I also enjoyed how the story developed and despite my comments below, I finished reading this book and I think it was a great debut novel that many will enjoy.

Following Lira’s childhood, we get a glimpse of how she was shaped into a creature she was meant to become to rule the underwater kingdom. I would have liked Lira’s inner torment to be further developed. Lira was torn but not quite as much as I would have liked her to be. There was also a hint of a story of her finding what a true belonging was when somebody (don’t want to give away spoilers) came back for her. Again, that had a potential for a powerful story but was not taken any further.

The copy I read was written from two first person narratives – Lira’s and Elian’s and there was no labelling of who was speaking when. Characters switched narrative after a chapter or two or three but I was never told who was talking when – I would personally found chapters being marked with characters’ names quite helpful as I sometimes did not know for a while who was talking. Note: I read the advanced reader’s copy, so this may not be relevant to the book’s final version!!!

There was a lot of descriptions I did not get, “I have eyelashes born from iceberg shavings and lips painted with the blood of sailor” as well as a lot of unnecessary dialog amongst the pirate crew. I’m up for jokes and humour but sometimes it was a bit repetitive and did not go anywhere.

Overall, I enjoyed the book’s message but not quite its entire story.

Verdict: Hot Beverage on Apple Hot Beverage on Apple  Hot Beverage on Apple  (2.5/5)