The Bear and the Nightingale: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.”

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine ArdenAt the edge of the wilderness in northern Rus’, winter might as well last forever. Huddled near the stove, stealing warmth from the embers of the fire, Vasya and her siblings listen to their nurse Dunya’s tales. The old woman weaves stories of dutiful domovoi, vengeful nymphs, and thrilling tales of Morozko–the blue-eyed demon who brings snow in his wake and claims souls who cross his path. Those who are wise do well to honor and care for the house spirits who guard their territory from Morozko and other, darker, creatures.

But things are changing throughout Rus’. Only one god is worshipped in Moscow, not a god who has room or time for house spirits and the old ways.

When Vasya’s widowed father remarries, her devout step-mother tries to bring the new ways to their home in the wild forest. Others are quick to bend to the beautiful, sophisticated mistress of the household. But Vasya sees things that others do not. She watches the spirits wasting away to mist without their regular offerings. She sees something dangerous lurking in the shadows as old rituals are neglected.

Trapped between threats of a forced marriage or confinement in a convent, Vasya is more certain than ever that her place is in the forest protecting her home and her loved ones. But as misfortune circles her family and her home, Vasya will have to challenge everything she has ever known and forge a new path for herself if she wants to face a threat straight from her childhood nightmares in The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) by Katherine Arden.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s debut novel and the start of her Winternight trilogy which continues with The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch. This historical fantasy is set in the 14th century in the territory that was eventually united as Russia. All characters are presumed white. Arden includes a historical note at the end of the book detailing her inspiration, real historical events, and her own divergences from history within the novel.

The Bear and the Nightingale brings together historical events with fairytale creatures to create a richly layered story. Covering a wide span of time and adhering to traditional Russian name conventions, the beginning can feel dense as there are many characters and names to track. But, like any good story, Arden soon draws readers in as new viewpoints are explored and new elements of the plot are teased out as the story also touches on moments of horror and Vasya’s character arc as she comes of age and dares to forge her own path.

In a world where the safe paths for a woman are marriage or life in a convent, Vasya chafes as she grows older and her freedom dwindles. Vasya’s story is intensely feminist as she struggles throughout the novel to fit in the strict confines placed upon her as a woman in society–something which becomes a central theme of the trilogy–while also clinging to her agency even when it means she is literally targeted as a witch.

A slow build and deliberate pacing add tension to the story as the plot builds toward a final confrontation between Vasya and those who oppose the old ways. The Bear and the Nightingale is a story of opposites that explores the liminal spaces between blind faith and genuine belief, between feigned duty and true loyalty; a tale about familial ties and devotion to both the people and places that feel like home.

Possible Pairings: The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Romanov: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Romanov by Nadine BrandesAnastasia “Nastya” Romanov expects her family to be exiled in the wake of the revolution that dethroned her father Tsar Nicholas. Instead, Nastya and her family are soon imprisoned in Ekaterinburg and the family’s hopes to live their days out in quiet obscurity are dashed.

The Bolsheviks are reluctant to let the Romanovs go–especially with growing political unrest and threats of their rescue by the royalist White Russians.

On her way to Ekaterinburg Nastya has one task: smuggle a mysterious magical spell back to her family. The spell’s secrets have been lost to time, but Nastya’s father is still sure it is the secret to saving their family.

Imprisoned and isolated, the family tries to find small joys–and small kindnesses–where they can. As Nastya grows closer to Zash, a Bolshevik soldier with his own secrets, Nastya will have to decide what will pose a bigger danger to her family: the cost of using the spell or trying to befriend the enemy in Romanov (2019) by Nadine Brandes.

Find it on Bookshop.

Brandes’ standalone novel infuses the history of the doomed Romanov family with magic and a bit of hope as it leans into the long-held legend that Anastasia and Alexei survived their family’s execution.

Romanov is well-researched and immediately evocative of both the dangerous unrest in Russia after the revolution and also the claustrophobic isolation Nastya and her family must have felt during their imprisonment in Ekaterinburg. The depiction of Nikolai’s hemophilia is done especially well.

While Brandes brings these characters to life with convincing detail, it’s an idealized picture that fails to explore the damage done by Tzar Nicholas’ reign including the rampant poverty and the widely held theory that his lack of training to become Tsar led to incompetence and bad decisions. Nastya, understandably perhaps, keeps her father on a pedestal and does not interrogate these problems in her first person narration.

The magic Brandes tries to incorporate into the story is always clumsy and never integrates well into what is otherwise a very straightforward work of historical fiction. Instead of adding to the story it often feels tangential at best despite building suspense over when (and how) to use the mysterious spell.

Romanov is an original if bittersweet alternate history. Recommended for readers who don’t mind to read their historical fiction through rose colored glasses.

Possible Pairings: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, Last of Her Name by Jessica Khoury, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston, Dreaming of Anastasia by Joy Preble, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandraby Helen Rappaport , The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye

Be Prepared: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for Be Prepared by Vera BrosgolVera has been trying hard to fit in with her friends in the suburbs. After carefully studying all of the ingredients, Vera knows exactly what she needs to have the perfect birthday party. Except the end result doesn’t turn out quite right. The Russian pizza place doesn’t stuff their crust with cheese. The Russian bakery doesn’t have ice cream cake. And Vera’s single mother can’t afford a big house like the other girls so the sleepover is more cramped than fun.

As summer approaches and all of her friends talk about going to camp Vera is reminded that her family can’t afford camp and she’ll be spending another summer at home with her siblings. Until Vera finds out about something amazing at church: Russian summer camp!

Vera is certain that Russian summer camp is her chance to finally fit in and make friends. And even if things go wrong, it’s only two weeks, right?

Unfortunately things go wrong almost immediately.

Vera winds up at a camp filled with Russian history lessons, older girl drama, no candy, and worst of all outhouses instead of indoor plumbing! When her two weeks turn into a full month Vera will have to see if she can use her love of art and (some) animals to try and turn things around in Be Prepared (2018) by Vera Brosgol.

Brosgol’s latest book is an excellent addition to the increasingly popular graphic novel memoir arena. The story is inspired by Brosgol’s own childhood and includes an author’s note at the end explaining how she adapted her real life experiences into a compelling graphic novel.

Be Prepared has a palette of green, black, and white lending a natural feel to the artwork even before Vera (and her younger brother who is forced to tag along) show up at camp. Brosgol’s artwork has bold lines that help to convey expressive characters and detailed backdrops. Young Vera’s drawings are also integrated well into the comic with a less polished pencil-like drawing style.

Be Prepared is an utterly sympathetic story of plans gone wrong, scary bathrooms, nature, and learning to adapt. Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeie or Shannon Hale.

Possible Pairings: El Deafo by Cece Bell, Making Friends by Kristen Gudsnuk, Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Smile by Raina Telgemeier

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Crown’s Game: A Review

The Crown's Game by Evelyn SkyeUsually, only one enchanter is born to continue the line of magicians with a long history of serving the tsar and protecting Russia from its enemies. When two are born, the tsar initiates the Crown’s Game where the rival enchanters can showcase their talents and prove they deserve to be the only true enchanter in Russia.

Vika Andreyeva has been honing her elemental magic with her father since she was a child. She has always assumed becoming the Imperial Enchanter was her birthright, never imagining there were others like her.

Nikolai Karimov’s mechanical magic is unmatched–a useful quality to help him lead the life of a gentleman without the funds to match. His magic brought him to the attention of his mentor and his training gives Nikolai the life he never could have imagined as an orphan on the Russian steppe. He is determined to win the game and claim the life he has been promised.

When they are summoned to compete against each other Vika and Nikolai meet as enemies. At first. But they are also drawn to each other in ways neither can fully grasp. Only one of them can win the game and only one of them can survive. But even winning may not be enough to protect their hearts in The Crown’s Game (2016) by Evelyn Skye.

The Crown’s Game is Skye’s debut novel and the start of a series.

The Crown’s Game is a historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia where magic flourishes and is a key part of Russia’s heritage, not to mention its defenses. Skye grounds this story in well-researched and thoroughly described details of Russian culture and history. The novel is written in close third person with chapters alternating between the points of view of several characters including Vika, Nikolai, the tsar’s son and heir Pasha, Pasha’s sister Yulia, and others. While the variety of characters rounds out the story it also, unfortunately, decreases the chances for character development.

Despite the title and the marketing for this book, The Crown’s Game is not the high stakes battle readers might expect. Instead of a fierce battle, the game proves to be more of a magical showcase where, during its early stages, the stakes and ultimate outcome of the game often seem to lack real consequences.

Skye does an excellent job of bringing her version of Russia to life. By contrast the fantasy elements of this story are weaker. The magic system lacks internal logic to match the urgency suggested by the story. In particular, it feels arbitrary that there can be only one enchanter. While this may be something that will develop in later installments, it serves as little more than a plot hole here.

The Crown’s Game is an ambitious novel is rife with ambience and intrigue as both Vika and Nikolai discover uncomfortable truths about their pasts as they move through the game. Twists, shocks, and surprising relationships further increase the tension. Recommended for readers with a fondness for Russian settings and light fantasy that is heavy on the romance and angst.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett, Romanov by Nadine Brandes, The Game of Love and Death by Martha A. Brockenbrough, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Blood Red, Snow White: A Review

“There was never a story that was happy through and through, and this one is no different.”

Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus SedgwickArthur Ransome left his family and his home in England to travel to Russia where he found work as a journalist. His love story with Russia started the moment he set foot on its snow-covered ground and continued as he compiled his first published book–a collection of Russian fairy tales.

Over the years Russia would continue to draw Ransome back to it through the first murmurings of unrest in Tsarist Russia, into the first bloody revolution, and beyond. Reporting on the turbulent political climate for an English newspaper draws Ransome unwittingly into the middle of the conflict between White and Red Russia as he is courted to be both a spy and a double agent.

All Arthur wants is to hide away and marry the Russian woman he loves. But that proves difficult with her position as Trotsky’s secretary and his own murky sympathies. With history being made and the world changing from moment to moment, Arthur will have to choose a side and make hard choices to survive in Blood Red, Snow White (2016) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blood Red, Snow White was originally published in the UK in 2007 and made its first appearance in the US when it was reprinted in 2016. This book follows the sensational real story of novelist Arthur Ransome during his years in Russia as a suspected spy before he would write his Swallows and Amazons children adventure novels. Blood Red, Snow White was originally written shortly after Ransome’s MI6 file was made public–details Sedgwick relates in an author’s note which includes excerpts from those files.

This novel is broken into three parts. The beginning, written in third person, relates the beginning of Arthur’s life and journey to Russia as well as the early stages of the Russian Revolution as short fairy tales. The second part of the novel, in a closer third person point of view, follows Arthur over the course of one night in Moscow as he decides if he will agree to act as a British spy. In part three Arthur narrates his story in first person as he tries to make his way back into Russian and extricate himself and Evgenia from the political machinations around them.

This fast-paced, literary novel looks at a moment in history through an unexpected lens. Readers familiar with Ransome’s own books will, of course, find this novel fascinating. Although some of this novel is, necessarily, speculation it is well-researched and thorough with detailed information about Russia during Ransome’s time there as well as key details of Ransome’s life.

Blood Red, Snow White is an approachable and ambitious novel filled with atmospheric settings and a gripping story of love, adventure, spies, and Russia.

Possible Pairings: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson, Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Wayfarer: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Wayfarer is the conclusion to Bracken’s Passenger duology. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning with Passenger*

“All of us have had to come to terms with the fact that our loyalty is to time itself. It’s our inheritance, our nation, our history.”

“We can live in the past, but we cannot dwell there.”

Wayfarer by Alexandra BrackenEtta’s preparations for her debut as a concert violinist feel distant in the wake of revelations that she and her mother are part of a long line of time travelers who have drawn Etta into the center of a dangerous battle for power.

Etta has gone around the world and through time searching for a coveted astrolabe that can control and manipulate the timeline itself. She knows the astrolabe has to be destroyed. But she also knows she will need it herself if she hopes to save her mother.

Orphaned by a disastrous change to the timeline, Etta wakes up alone in another place and time separated from Nicholas, her partner throughout this journey. The future that she knows no longer exists. In this new timeline Etta finds unexpected help from Julian Ironwood–Cyrus’s heir, long presumed dead–and an unlikely ally from Etta’s own past.

Nicholas could do nothing to keep Etta with him when she was Orphaned. Now he and Sophia are following every lead–every passage–that they can to find the astrolabe and Etta. Their uneasy alliance is tested by the pursuers far too close behind and the mercenary who may be trying to help Nicholas and Sophia–or stop them.

Separated by time itself Nicholas and Etta will have to face impossible odds, familiar enemies, and a dangerous new power if they hope to reunite and keep the timeline safe in Wayfarer (2017) by Alexandra Bracken.

Find it on Bookshop.

Wayfarer is the conclusion to Bracken’s latest duology which begins with Passenger. It contains major spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series, start at the beginning.

Wayfarer picks up shortly after the dramatic conclusion of Passenger. Etta is injured and alone after she is Orphaned while Nicholas is left behind in Nassau where he is forced to rely on Sophia’s knowledge of the passages to hopefully find Etta and the astrolabe before time runs out.

This novel once again alternates close third person narration between Etta and Nicholas (possibly with slightly more time given to Nicholas). Although they are separated at the start of the novel both Etta and Nicholas remain true to each other and confident in each other amidst rampant mistrust and doubts from their allies. The steadfastness of their belief in each other is heartening as almost everything else these characters hold true is thrown into doubt over the course of the story as all of the characters face difficult choices once the full threat of the astrolabe becomes clear.

Bracken expands the world of the travelers in Wayfarer with new characters (be sure to watch out for mercenary Li Min), and new backstory about the origins of the travelers and the four families. Sophia, happily, also plays a bigger role in this story after previously being an antagonist to both Nicholas and Etta. Sophia remains ambitious, angry, and delightfully unapologetic even as she begins to make new choices. The focus of this story also shifts from romance to relationships of a different sort as friendships, partnerships, and other alliances form.

One of the constant themes in this series is trust. In Passenger Etta and Nicholas have to learn how to trust each other and, to some extent, their abilities as travelers (albeit inexperienced ones). Wayfarer, meanwhile, finds both Etta and Nicholas having to form new bonds in order to survive. These changing relationships lend depth and substance to a story that is already rich with historical detail and fully developed characters.

Wayfarer is a brilliant novel about trust, choices, and time travel (of course) filled with romance, action, and more than a few memorable moments. This series is a great introduction to time travel and also ideal for fans of the sub-genre. The perfect conclusion to one of my favorite duologies. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Until We Meet Again by Renee Collins, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, Into the Dim by Janet B. Taylor, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser, Pivot Point by Kasie West, Fable by Adrienne Young

*An advance copy of this title was sent by the publisher for review consideration*

Symphony for the City of the Dead: A Non-Fiction Review

“We can trust no one. In a regime where words are watched, lies are rewarded, and silence is survival, there is no truth.”

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. AndersonIn September 1941, Hitler’s forces moved against the Soviet Union in a bid to take the country’s capital in Moscow and the historic city of Leningrad (now and previously St. Petersburg).

So began one of the longest sieges in Western history. More than a million people died over the course of the years-long siege. Amazingly, despite crippling his own military from the top down and breeding a culture of such fear that officials preferred to make ill-advised decisions rather than risk contradicting him, Stalin and the Soviet citizenry held out. Faced with starvation, blitzkrieg attacks, and the continued severity and dangers of life in Soviet Russia, the residents of Leningrad held on.

In the midst of this bleak landscape, music became an unlikely ray of hope. Varying wildly between a darling of the communist party and one of its biggest perceived heretics, Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer known around the world. With threats everywhere from both the Nazi’s and his own government, Shostakovich would write a symphony to rouse the Soviet public during their time of need.

The symphony would speak when the people feared to, it would mark all that was lost during the Communist Revolution and the Siege of Leningrad. It would give voice to sorrow and loss as well as hope and redemption. Shostakovich’s symphony would offer common ground between the unlikely allies of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This is the story of that symphony, the country that inspired it, the compose who wrote it, and the war that shaped all of them in Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (2015) by M.T. Anderson.

Anderson offers a thoroughly researched look at a slice of WWII history that might not be familiar to many Americans. Symphony for the City of the Dead begins with the bizarre transport of Shostakovich’s symphony (via microfilm) from the Soviet Union to the United States. After that prologue the book is framed around Shostakovich’s own life from his early childhood to his death. The book touches upon the communist revolution and explores the composer’s complicated relationships with his country and the Communist Party.

Symphony for the City of the Dead includes an extensive bibliography and footnotes in the backmatter detailing Anderson’s sources throughout the novel. Strangely, for such an iconic figure, little is known as fact about Shostakovich’s life. Anderson is careful to couch his own thoughts in research and supporting documentation while also noting when the narrative veers into supposition. The book also offers a thorough and detailed accounts of the movements that led to the Siege of Leningrad ranging from Stalin’s wild incompetence and paranoia to Hitler’s Wermacht strategy.

Because of the content and the level of research involved, Symphony for the City of the Dead is a dense book. The material gains a more narrative quality after the first hundred pages but it takes a while to really dig into the material.

Anderson offers a strange mix of the bloody nightmare that was Communist Russia during the Siege of Leningrad and the optimistic hope of post-war Russia. Symphony for the City of the Dead is a fascinating example of the power of story–especially the power of art and music–as well as thoughtful look at how the truth can be shaped in the telling. A must-read for WWII history buffs and music buffs in particular. Highly recommended.

The Wolf Princess: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Wolf Princess by Cathryn ConstableSophie Smith has never been special or interesting. She is the poor girl at her elite private school complete with her shabby clothes, unbrushed hair and callous guardian.

Sophie thinks things might have gone differently if she wasn’t an orphan. But she is. Trapped in her grey English boarding school. Trapped in her grey boring life even as dreams of winter in Russia, majestic wolves and a strange forest haunt her.

Nothing interesting ever happens to Sophie. She wouldn’t expect anything different.

Then a stranger comes to the school and invites Sophie and her roommates–glamorous Delphine and bookish Marianne–on a school trip to St. Petersburg.

The following adventure is even more than Sophie could hope for as they girls are abandoned in a blizzard and whisked away to a wintry palace to rival Sophie’s grandest dreams in The Wolf Princess (2012) by Cathryn Constable.

I went into this book with high expectations and only a vague sense of what to expect beyond a rags to riches fairy tale story.

In a way that is exactly what The Wolf Princess delivers. But in other ways it was a disappointment.

Sophie is fascinated with Russia in a way that should be endearing and draw readers in as well. Instead it comes off as vaguely condescending as she describes Russian words knocking into each other and, at one point, describes a Russian character’s handwriting as distinctly foreign.

All of the characters in the story feel like caricatures complete with an icy winter princess, a sturdy Russian officer and, of course, one friend who is defined solely as being glamorous and half-French (no, really) and another who is interesting only in that she is intelligent (I don’t even remember if we were ever told her hair color).

Beyond that Sophie is infuriating. She is a mousey heroine with absolutely know self-confidence. Instead of blossoming or coming into her own as the story progresses Sophie continues to doubt herself and remind readers and her friends that she is decidedly not special. Worse, her friends are quick to agree.

The book is also oddly out of time. Reference to cell phones suggest the book is set in the present although the atmosphere and attitudes of the characters seem to suggest an earlier time period. The characters are similarly ageless. The Wolf Princess is marketed for ages 10-14 meaning, because the ages are never implicitly stated, there is a huge spread for how old the characters can be. Taken as a middle grade novel Sophie’s behavior might make more sense but I doubt it would make her more tolerable.

This story is likely to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books or wants a riff on the tropes found in A Little Princess. However readers should be wary of the flaws in certain aspects of The Wolf Princess.

Possible Pairings: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*