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Monthly Archives: July 2017

“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

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One of my favorite books last year was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy set against an Eastern European backdrop. Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in a similar setting, and also features as its protagonist a girl with a previously unsuspected magical talent. Bear, however, is more deeply rooted in real-world Slavic folklore. Beings such as the domovoi and rusalka play a major role in the unfolding of the story.

The novel also delves into the political intrigue of Moscow. The Grand Prince’s attempts to secure his son’s succession, the tension between the Orthodox Church and the folk beliefs of the people, and the delicate situation with the Khan of whom the Grand Prince is theoretically a vassal, all contribute to the plot. (One plot thread, however—a faction in Moscow that wants to rebel against the Khan, whose own political situation is seen as precarious—never goes anywhere.)

The main character has a large household: a father, stepmother, stepsister, four siblings, a priest who comes to live with the family, and a nursemaid who plays a grandmotherly role. Arden does a good job of differentiating all these characters (particularly the siblings and half-sibling) from each other, maintaining consistent characterization so that the reader doesn’t become confused as to who’s who.

Arden is planning to release a sequel, The Girl in the Tower, in December. I’m excited to read it and see where the further adventures of Vasilisa (a name that was surely not chosen by accident!) take her.

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“Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day” by Seanan McGuire

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My introduction to Seanan McGuire’s writing came through Every Heart a Doorway, the first book in her Wayward Children series. I enjoyed that novella enough that when I saw Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, I immediately bought a copy.

McGuire’s new tale presents a twist on the classic ghost story trope of people who died before their time (typically through some form of violence) becoming trapped in the mortal world as ghosts. Dusk takes the “before their time” part literally: a person who dies before they were supposed to must steal time from the living in order to “age up” to the age at which they should have died. The time they steal from mortals doesn’t shorten the living person’s lifespan; on the contrary, it makes them younger. As you might imagine, some living folks have found ways to exploit this process, and one such person’s scheme threatens every ghost residing in New York City.

One of the promotional blurbs at the front of the book described it as a “love letter to New York,” but I found it to be more of a love letter to small-town America. The main character comes from a tiny hamlet called Mill Hollow, and while she currently (un)lives in NYC, her hometown still remains prominent in her mind. As is the case with most of us, it shaped her personality and outlook, and it’s where she died. I love books that have a vivid sense of place, and Mill Hollow shines through the pages as a place that, despite its physical smallness, is vibrant.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book was the poem it uses as an epigraph. Not only is the poem itself beautiful and poignant, but references to it, whether oblique or explicit, are woven throughout the narrative. Following that thread through the book enriches the story. (I had never heard of the poem’s author, Martha Keller, before. Apparently, the poem was published in the July 1940 issue of Harper’s. It’s titled “Widow,” and given its subject matter, I have to wonder whether it was written with the then-current devastation of WWII in mind.)

As with Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire has managed to cram interesting worldbuilding and a thematically rich narrative into a relatively small space. This book won’t take you long to read, but you’ll be glad you did.

“With Blood upon the Sand” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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Sometimes, the middle book in a trilogy gets so caught up in being a bridge between the first and third books that it forgets it needs to be interesting in its own right. I’m happy to report that Bradley P. Beaulieu’s With Blood upon the Sand doesn’t suffer from this problem.

One of the major themes in this book is that the factions we were presented with in the first volume aren’t as united as they initially appeared. The increased complexity of the conflict, and the revelation of some of the players’ agendas, is one of the things that kept me turning the pages. In particular, some of my favorite parts of the book centered on the struggle between Hamzakiir and Macide for control of the Moonless Host. The novel also gives us additional details on the factions within the Kings and the individual powers and personalities of the monarchs.

While With Blood upon the Sand follows the continuing adventures of Ҫeda, Emre, and Ramahd, it also gives us a new viewpoint character, the young scholar Davud. Introduced in the first book, he becomes much more important to the central plot here, and also experiences a great deal of character growth. Davud’s arc also serves as a vehicle for a deeper exploration of a form of magic we were first introduced to in Twelve Kings. Although Davud only gets a couple of viewpoint chapters, they do a lot of work in terms of character development, setting explanation, and plot.

One of the things I liked about Twelve Kings in Sharakai was the innovative fight scenes. Ҫeda started out as a gladiator, and Beaulieu did a great job of writing bouts for her that included interesting weapons and tactics. In Blood, he brings this element to a larger-scale battle, with one of the sides using a unique method to bring down a major structural obstacle.

My one gripe with this book was the usage of the “bloody verses,” poems that foretell the ways in which each King might be defeated. There’s one poem for each King…which is a lot of poems. While it could certainly get boring to have the poems repeated every five pages, I feel like Beaulieu went a bit too far in the other direction. In many stories with prophecies, part of the fun is in trying to figure out what the prophecy means and whether a given situation might fit into it. But with so many bloody verses, it’s tough to remember a particular King’s verse at any given time when that King is in a difficult or dangerous situation. A quick reminder every so often would have helped.

With Blood upon the Sand provides a satisfying continuation to the storylines established in Twelve Kings, while also setting up new conflicts. Those will presumably come to a head in the concluding volume, A Veil of Spears, which is due out in March 2018. I’m looking forward to that book, and am also planning to check out Beaulieu’s other series, The Lays of Anuskaya.