Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

bear-nightingale

Favourite quotes:

“We who live forever can know no courage, nor do we love enough to give our lives”.

“All my life, I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me”.

“They smelled the city long before they saw it, hazed as it was with the smoke of ten thousand fires, and then the brilliant domes – green and scarlet and cobalt – showed dimly through the vapor. At last they saw the city itself, lusty and squalid, like a far woman with feet caked and filth. The high golden towers rose proudly above the desperate poor, and the gold-fretted icons watched, inscrutable, while princes and farmers’ wives came to kiss their stiff faces and pray”.

 

Vasilisa, or Vasya, loves a good story, a good fairytale. Especially those her nurse Dunya tells her and her brothers on a cold winter night – which is almost every night if one lives at the edge of Russian wilderness, beyond the Arctic Circle. Her favourite is that of Morozko (Frost) – a winter demon that claims the souls of the unworthy and rewards those who display courage in the face of the lethal cold. She loves fairytales and stories because she knows them to be real. The spirits that inhibits them are real – Vasya has seen them. Others in her household might not see them, but they honour them nonetheless, despite Christianity rapidly taking over and replacing the pagan beliefs in the old gods.

Soon, however, Vasya’s harmless stories and games aren’t so harmless anymore. Some years after her mother – daughter of a vedma (witch) dies, her father goes to Moscow to introduce her brothers to the Tsar and to find himself another wife. Vasya’s new stepmother is Anna, and she sees what Vasya sees. But she is afraid. She sees the household spirits as demons, devils. Throwing herself completely into Christianity, Anna and the new priest Konstantin, sent by the Tsar to Vasya’s village, forbid the people from worshipping the old gods, honouring the old ways. Vasya is the only one who sees, who understands the disasters that are arising as a result. The weather becomes worse, the crops fail, the wolves come closer and closer to the village, and Vasya is powerless to stop it. Or is she?

Can Vasya – a fourteen-year-old maiden now – defy her stepmother and make sure that the people remember the old ways and save them? Or will Anna and Konstantin send her to convent before she manages to do anything? And what if Frost isn’t real after all and Anna’s demand for snowdrops in midwinter make Vasya freeze to death – a fate fitting for a vedma?

 

Most of you know that I have Russian family and am fluent in the language. This is why I have such ambivalent attitude towards books based on Russian culture written by non-Russian authors. Some of those authors, like Catherynne Valente, get it so right that my heart weeps with nostalgia for childhood. Others, like Leigh Bardugo in the Grisha Trilogy, are talented in their own way, but fail to grasp the nuances of the culture and the history. Thus I was apprehensive when I picked up “The Bear and the Nightingale”.

I needn’t have been.

I’ve previously made dessert analogies in relation to reading books, and I must say that reading “The Bear and the Nightingale” was like eating a massive, decadent yet light and smooth, chocolate mousse. There were a lot of things packed in this page-turner, but they flowed so incredibly well that it was impossible to be overwhelved. And the writing was absolutely stunning.

The book strikes a perfect balance – just enough flowery prose, just enough descriptions and metaphors, and just enough references to history to satisfy the reader without overindulging them. And for me, it was a double treat – what with my Russian heritage and all! Although I should say – some of you might find a few “nuts” in the decadent “mousse” that is “The Bear and the Nightingale”. These “nuts” are Russian words that appear quite often throughout the text. Fortunately, there is a very helpful guide at the end of the book to help you figure out what the words mean.

I’m biased, as a Russian speaker, but I never get tired of seeing foreign words in an English text – especially those that fit! Some books, like “Black Widow” by M. Stohl were 90% hit, 10% obvious miss with the Russian vocabulary. “The Bear and the Nightingale” was a 100% hit. In fact, I’m not convinced that the book wasn’t originally written in Russian! It just flows so incredibly smoothly – I “translated” a little in my head and could see how well the grammar structures and sentences worked in both Russian and English narration. Miss Arden, I thus nominate thee an Honorary Russian! Although with the author’s background, it’s not surprising that she’s managed to craft such a beautiful, such a Russian masterpiece.

The book might technically be “fantasy” but it is also a terrific study of a little-known period of Russian history – post-Mongol invasion, pre-Peter the Great. It takes place a few years after the introduction of Orthodox Christianity to Russia (or Rus’, as it was known back then), and makes history and religion both important plot points and significant details of the overall atmosphere of the novel. And one thing “The Bear and the Nightingale” certainly doesn’t lack is atmosphere! I believe that one would enjoy reading this on a cold winter day/evening, curled up in a comfortable chair, under a warm blanket – that’s what I did. Best weekend in a while! I can’t really imagine rushing through a book like this one when you’re on a train, for example. No, these kinds of book demand being invested in them – both in terms of time and emotion. “The Bear and the Nightingale” is tricky to put down! Once you get pulled into it, only Solovey (Nightingale) himself can help you out of it! And that’s only because he would be exhausted of Vasya trying to braid his mane and need something to do.

Like I said above, this isn’t a quick book. But if you’re looking for a novel you could really get into, get invested in the plot and the characters (both the human heroes and the storybook villains), and enjoy the inevitable book hangover that follows, you need to pick up “The Bear and the Nightingale”. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I can wait too long for the sequel! Rating – 8.5/10.

 

Recommendations

You would enjoy “The Bear and the Nightingale” if you liked:

“Egg & Spoon” by Gregory Maguire

“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik

“Deathless” by Catherynne Valente

 

Have you read “The Bear and the Nightingale”? What are your favourite books inspired by Russian folklore and history? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading this review and don’t forget to check out my Etsy charity shop before you go!

 

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Book Review: Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

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I’m only a boy born a dragon’s tooth

In the nick of time, sad but true.

No father or mother, just two hundred brothers

All telling me what to do.

I want to belong to the two hundred strong,

Yet here is the dismal truth:

I’ll never get older

Or grow up a soldier,

I’m a boy born a dragon’s tooth”.

 

Favourite quotes:

“When you’re young, I think, being vulnerable to desolation comes from your not being able to imagine the world beyond you.<…> Being vulnerable to desolation also arises from being unable to picture a set of choices with which to change your lot in life”.

“It seems there is no shortage of regret among the young – but then, they are young, they make mistakes. They have time to correct them and the courage to admit their failings aloud. Adults should try it. But frankly, I think it’s a miracle that adults can manage to speak to one another at all, and that the entire species doesn’t take a universal vow of silence. Some days I wish it would”. 

“Anything that can happen will happen, sooner or later. The question is whether or not the world can be made ready”.

 

My long-term readers would remember how much “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire destroyed my soul. Naturally, I got another Maguire’s book – this time it’s a YA fantasy based on Russian mythology, a.k.a the characters my family and I grew up with.

“Egg & Spoon” is set in an alternative pre-revolution Russia where magic is real. It is a story of two girls from completely different worlds. One is Elena, a peasant girl who fights for her survival and her mother’s every day. The village of Miersk is desolate, miserable and the land doesn’t produce any food. Elena’s survival depends solely on her own wits and resourcefulness. She doesn’t have her brothers to help her anymore – one, Luka, has been conscripted and another was taken away by the landowner. She needs to get one of them back. But to do that, she needs to go to Saint Petersburg to beg the Tsar to release Luka from his service.

Another is Ekaterina (Cat), a spoiled kid neglected by her parents who insisted on her meeting the Tsar’s godson and pulled her out of a boarding school in London for that very purpose. She is stuck on a train with her aunt, the butler and the governess, and the train couldn’t be passing through Russia slowly enough. By a twist of fate, it stops at Miersk – the very village where Elena struggles to survive on a daily basis. We see through our yet unknown narrator’s eye that two girls form an unlikely friendship and by another twist of fate and by virtue of several accidents, switch places with one another. Elena is headed to St Petersburg, whilst Cat is stuck in frozen Miersk with not a single friendly face around. Luckily – or perhaps not so luckily – she meets Baba Yaga. For those unfamiliar with the Russian folklore, she is a witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and is rumoured to lure children in only to eat them later. She is incredibly wise and can appreciate a smart girl, however. Cat, while a sheltered kid, quickly finds her wits about and gives Yaga a gift – a Faberge Egg.

What neither Elena nor Cat know, but Baba Yaga strongly suspects, is that the Firebird is missing and there is no egg from which a new one can hatch. A Firebird is like a phoenix and without it, magic – which is the essence of the Russias – cannot exist either. Our narrator knows that too, and he is scared. Can Elena, Cat, Baba Yaga and the Tsar’s godfather Anton successfully defy the Tsar and find the Firebird? Or will the magic of Russia disappear forever and the lands swallowed by the Ice Dragon?

 

Gregory Maguire is not the sort of author whose books you can just “flick” through. His novels require focus and complete immersion into the worlds that he weaves or adapts. Doing that with “Wicked” has destroyed me in the best way possible, and doing it with “Egg & Spoon” was an amazing ride, too, from start to finish. We are introduced to the narrator early on, but we don’t know who he is until the end of the novel, which adds an element of mystery to an already well-crafted, well-written story that twists Russian mythology in a way I’ve never seen before, and, as someone with Russian ancestors, can appreciate. “Egg & Spoon” to young Russian aficionados is what “Deathless” is to those who are a bit older. Yes, in essence it is a children’s story, with protagonists in their early teens. We have two very different young girls, a boy who is thirsty for adventure, a reluctant mentor figure whose sass can easily match that of “Deathless”‘ Baba Yaga, an equally sassy cat, and a quest. In other words, this has all the elements of an amazing YA novel, and it takes a writer like Maguire to twist them into a story that would appeal to adults and children alike.

I’ve been to St Petersburg a few times by now, and I’ll never get tired of that city taking my breath away, making my soul soar and playing with my emotions to her heart’s content. Needless to say, reading books that take place in St Petersburg is something I love doing, and I am a glutton for punishment when it comes to the city’s atmosphere being reflected in literature and having the power to break my heart over and over again. “The Bronze Horseman” has done that to me earlier this year. “Egg & Spoon” might not have broken my heart like “Wicked” has, but it certainly did leave its impact. It’s been about a week since I finished it, and I’m still feeling it. Not just because of a setting that’s close to my heart, but also because of how real the characters felt to me, of how easy it was to recognise my much, much younger self in all of them, and also because of the overall tone of the book. The narrator tells the story of Cat and Elena in a way that tugs at your heartstrings, but there are also moments when you can’t do anything but laugh out loud at Baba Yaga’s antics.

I should point out that the poem that begins this review is one of the saddest bits of “Egg & Spoon”, and is uttered by a character who NEEDS his own spin-off.

 

Maguire, you’ve done it again. You’ve managed to hold my attention for the entirely of a novel, and I want more. 8.5/10 is my rating of “Egg & Spoon”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “Egg & Spoon” if you liked:

“Deathless by Catherynne Valente”

“Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen

“Tsarina” by J. Nelle Patrick

 

Have you read “Egg & Spoon”? What are your favourite Russian fairytale retellings? Let me know! And Happy NaNoWriMo 2016!

Book Review: Wicked by Gregory Maguire

wicked

I apologise for my prolonged absence, dear readers. I had to complete a lengthy assignment, followed by an internship in London. If you want to know, it went quite well. I also managed to tick an item off my bucket list – well, it means a lot more to me than just a check on some list. I went to see “Les Miserables” live, which was one of the most wonderful experiences. As you know, I love Hugo and I love musical theatre, and Les Miserables (closely followed by “Phantom”) is my favourite musical. Watching it live was quite different from watching the film in the cinema (which I’ve done three times, don’t judge!) or watching the 25th anniversary on DVD (also done numerous times). I won’t lie – I started losing it at the part with the Bishop!

 

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because this post is a review of a book which served as a basis for another wonderful musical, that I have yet to see live. “Wicked” tells a story of The Wicked Witch of the West, or the villain in Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I confess – I have never read that one; however, I was not unfamiliar with the Emerald City. Some of you may have heard of a Russian author called Alexander Volkoff who wrote a series of books taking place within the world surrounding The Yellow Brick Road. Nonetheless, I’ve heard that Baum’s novel is not quite the same, and I’ve never seen the musical, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect from “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”.

 

I’ll say this, however – any preconceived notions I may have had about the story, including the mistaken belief that it was a children’s book, were shattered after the first couple of chapters. Part 1 tells us about the Witch’s, or Elphaba’s birth and family. It wasn’t easy being green in a preacher’s household, especially with a depressed mother. The people of the land, or the Munchkinlanders don’t harm her, however, because her father is respected in the community. We don’t find out much more about the family until the last part, which I’ll get to in a moment.

 

Part 2 introduces the University of Shiz, a prestigious higher education institution that has only just started accepting women, and is one of the remaining few places where Animals can still have jobs. Animals are representatives of Oz’s fauna that can speak and have a human mind. They used to be treated equally, but it’s no longer the case. Elphaba is now a student at Shiz, and she has a roommate – a seemingly air-headed beautiful Galinda. The two are initially annoyed and repulsed by each other, but the animosity soon grows into a beautiful friendship. Elphaba also reunites with her childhood buddy Boq and together, they work with an Animal, Dr Dillamond, who is a Professor at Shiz. Elphie and Boq aspire to make Animals equal again. Their research is put to an end, however, when Dr Dillamond is brutally murdered. The Head of Shiz, Madame Morrible, hushes it up, however, which triggers Elphaba’s path towards “Wickedness”. Together with Glinda, Boq, his arrogant friend Avaric and the dark-skinned Fiyero who is from another part of Oz, they try to solve the murder, but no such luck. Elphie and Glinda, who begins to call herself that in memory of Dr Dillamond who couldn’t pronounce her full name, then go see The Great and Terrible Wizard in the Emerald City in the hope that he can bring the murderer to justice and help Animals gain their equal rights back. They are met with disappointment however, and part ways in a heartbreaking farewell.

 

In part 3, our characters have been separated from each other for almost seven years. Glinda is a prim and proper high society wife, whereas Elphaba is part of a mysterious underground movement. She, however, has her own reasons for being a part of it, which, as you can guess, relate to Dr Dillamond and Animals. The not-so-brainless Fiyero finds her and they start what is arguably one of the most epic and heartbreaking love affairs in paranormal literature. We know, however, that Elphaba’s wickedness did not stem from being happy. Fiyero’s tragic end is one of the last straws that will eventually break the back of her good nature. That is, if she ever had any in the first place.

 

The last two parts talk about her life with Fiyero’s family. She goes to seek forgiveness from them, for the role she allegedly played in his death. As one can figure out, she never obtains it, thanks to the Great and Terrible Wizard’s brutality and cunning. Her misfortunes don’t end there, however. The death of her crippled sister, Nessarose, caused by Dorothy Gale’s house, are arguably what pushes Elphaba over the edge and allows evil to completely consume her.

 

I finished “Wicked” two days ago and I’m still reeling from the emotions.

I hated the novel.

I hated how much I loved it.

I hated how immersed I became in Elphaba’s character and I hate how much I cried at Fiyero’s demise.

I hated how skilfully Gregory Maguire makes parallels between our world and Oz.

I hated how much Elphaba reminded me of young people who are doing their best to make an impact on human rights.

I hated her beautiful complexity and I hated how Maguire made all the tragedies in her life turn her into a Wicked Witch.

 

But seriously, this book is – well – Great and Terrible. And so is Elphaba’s journey. From Munchkinland to Shiz to the Emerald City, from the convent to the land of the Vinkus, and back to Munchkinland – she has met her fair share of wicked things.

It must be said that fighting for equal rights can almost never be an evil pursuit. What Elphaba was initially doing for Animals is admirable. However, once she was consumed by revenge, the noble pursuit ceased to be so. One of the biggest themes in “Wicked” is the issue of evil. There is a fascinating discussion between Elphaba, Avaric and his family at the end of the book about what constitutes evil. Some called it a mere absence of good, while others referred to it as an attribute. Elphaba, however, has very different ideas. She says that the real thing about evil is what stays in the shadows of one’s personality, that the nature of evil is to be secret. If one follows that logic, however, it cannot be said that she is Wicked, for her pursuit of revenge/justice is something she wanted to be known. She wanted to die, with the world knowing that she was a murderer of the person who killed Dr Dillamond. What she has kept secret even from herself, however, is Liir. Liir was a young boy who travelled with her to Fiyero’s home. She tells her Nanny that she did not remember anything during the two years at the convent following Fiyero’s demise, and that Liir might well be her and Fiyero’s son. The fact that Maguire never reveals it explicitly, coupled with what Elphaba said about evil, tells us that she herself considers Liir’s existence. to not be a good thing. If she was sure that he was Fiyero’s son, it can almost certainly be said that she would have loved him. The secret of his background is one of the evils in Elphaba’s head.

 

The other thing, from which Elphaba’s belief in relation to evil stems, is an event that had happened to her at Shiz. Madame Morrible attemps to recruit her and Glinda for the government’s secret service and bewitches them so that if they say no, they can neither remember or talk to each other about it. Elphaba eventually remembers the situation and tries to get to the bottom of it. It can be suggested that her never finding the answers is another stepping stone to her transformation to a villain.

 

The most significant factors in Elphaba’s development can be suggested to be:

1) Animals’ mistreatment and murder of Dr Dillamond. While the former was widely known across Oz, the murder was proclaimed an accident, and the mystery haunts Elphie for the rest of the novel

2) Fiyero’s death (I still get tears in my eyes just thinking about it). One doesn’t realise that he is dead until later in the chapter – it is only said initially that he sees his own blood. Elphaba doesn’t find out until the end why he was murdered, and, while that mystery is not the main thing on her mind, it can be argued to have played a role in her downfall.

3) Inability to receive forgiveness from Fiyero’s wife. She is imprisoned and murdered before Elphaba can tell her of the role she has played in his death, and it is not something she can ever get past.

4) Nessarose’s demise. Despite what Elphaba may have said, family has always been important to her. Her sister’s death was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

5) Lack of Elphaba’s belief in a soul. While I do not wish to get involved in any metaphysics debate, the idea of a soul is significant in the novel. What Elphaba does not like about the concept is its close ties with religion. The Unnamed God is worshipped by most of Oz, including Elphaba’s own family. She is, however, an atheist and believes that a person who doesn’t believe in anything, can’t believe in a soul. That’s another mystery she could never understand, and one that she never wished to.

 

There are many things one may argue about in relation to “Wicked”. What I discussed above doesn’t cover a quarter of the themes and issues in the book. I don’t think, however, that I’ll be reading the rest of the series – mainly because Elphaba won’t be in any of them! I urge all of you to go pick up “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, so that you all could get to know Elphie and consider – is she really as wicked as they say. 9/10 is my rating for the novel.

 

Favourite character

You know that in this section, I normally write about a character that I liked the most. Usually I judge them by likeability and/or complexity. Here, however, I have come to a halt. I think I’ll say this, though – in terms of likeability, I would have to go with Fiyero. Yes, I am not ashamed to say that, after listening to his songs from the musical, I have developed a slight crush (which totally has nothing to do with Aaron Tveit). “As Long as You’re Mine” gives me chills every time.

Perhaps my choice stems from the fact that I have not cried at a character’s death like that for a while. I don’t know if he dies in the musical, or if he’s even dead at all, but it was devastating to read about.

 

Favourite character development

Here, however, I have no hesitation in writing about Elphaba. While Glinda’s transformation at Shiz is something one can easily relate to, Elphie’s character journey is the driving force behind the plot of the book, and Maguire writes it really well.

 

Favourite quotes

“I never use the words humanist or humanitarian, as it seems to me that to be human is to be capable of the most heinous crimes in nature”. 

“Oh, I forgot the size of the human imagination. How very large it is, after all.”

“As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention.”

 

Dreamcast

The Original Broadway Cast has gotten it right the first time – I can’t really add to that!

 

Recommendations

You would like “Wicked” if you liked:

 

“Harry Potter” by JK Rowling – Shiz and Hogwarts aren’t too dissimilar

Anything Oz-related – musical, Baum’s novel, Volkoff’s books, etc.

“Deathless” by Catherynne Valente