Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Web of Frost by Lindsay Smith

37913374Web of Frost is the first book in the Saints of Russalka series, which is set in a fantasy country inspired by Russian folklore and the Russian revolution. It incorporates both political and religious themes, with a magic system based on saints and blessings. It promises court intrigue, a compelling romantic dynamic and a perfect wintry atmosphere.
Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver.

For most of the book, I didn’t love the main character. She starts the book being a naive fool, then she takes a 180 turn to ruthless fool and control freak, and doesn’t understand anything of what is happening around her until 70% into the book. Which wouldn’t have been a problem (I do like unlikable, messy heroines) if I hadn’t guessed everything that was going to happen during the first chapters. I said this other times, I will say this again: predictable political intrigue makes your book feel cheap.

I really liked Katza’s character arc – she has a lot of development and she learns from her mistakes – but you still have to endure almost 300 pages of her being oblivious while you know exactly where the story is going. Was it worth it? I don’t think so.

The romantic plotline was a disappointment. I’m always here for pairings like this one (love interests who are kind of monstrous? Girls who might be worse? Sign me up), so this should have been perfect for me, but it wasn’t. The problem I had with Ravin is that he’s really… monotonous. When I fist met him, I thought he was a creep. When I was in the middle of the book, I thought he was a creep, and not an interesting one, as he kept repeating the same things over and over. At the end of the book, I thought he was a creep. There’s no depth to him, he has no character development, and he’s just not that compelling as a character. I didn’t understand the pull between him and Katza.

To me, Web of Frost felt like one of the many books set in Russia that try to explore themes similar to those in Shadow and Bone (light/dark dynamics, unhealthy romance, saints and religion) and fail. Leigh Bardugo did it better.
The beginning reminded me of Burning Glass by Kathryn Purdie because of its setting and naive, inconsistent main character, but at least Web of Frost tries to develop the political intrigue and themes instead of being driven only by the romance.

I also didn’t love the writing. It didn’t flow well, and there was no atmosphere, which was a disappointment: this setting has so much potential. It didn’t abstain from bad similes, however – I know I read an ARC, not the final edition, but was that sentence about the corset being so tight Katza’s breasts could have popped free and smacked her chin necessary? That’s the kind of thing that makes me cringe, taking me out of the story.

This book wasn’t completely bad. I ended up liking the main character, and I appreciated that she was angry and messy and inexperienced, but “angry and naive” is just not a combination that works for me. At least she grows out of it. Another thing I liked was the magic system – it was really interesting, and I loved its symbolism. I also really liked how the book showed that you can’t solve everything with the awesome magic power you inherited from your super special bloodline. That’s a trope too many fantasy books fall into.

My rating: ★★

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Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

34050917The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the Winternight Trilogy.
The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favorite books of 2017, but this? This was a mess.

The problem with predictable books isn’t only that you already know what’s going to happen. It’s that the protagonist doesn’t, even when the answers are obvious. Predictable political intrigue makes your whole book feel cheap.
Here, the foreshadowing was heavy-handed. I already knew what was going to happen, there were so many hints I wonder how the characters didn’t understand it until the ending.

Vasya was so headstrong it was irritating to read. And I don’t mean “I won’t join a convent” kind of headstrong, I mean “I will challenge anyone and anything and intrude in things I don’t understand” kind of headstrong. Why?
I know why. The book needed a plot, but when your plot is driven by the characters making one terrible decision after another, you have a problem.
I still like her. One of my favorite aspects of this book were the characters, when there wasn’t miscommunication involved. I loved the family dynamics here: Vasya’s siblings want to help her, but what they want for her isn’t necessarily what she wants, and her just existing could get all of them in trouble.
Vasya and Solovey’s bond was still my favorite part of the book. And I really liked the romance – the scenes set in the forest were the best ones. But there weren’t enough of them: most of the book was set in Moscow, and that just didn’t feel as magical or atmospheric.

For most of this book, Vasilisa is dressed as a boy, and calls herself Vasilii. I love reading about gender-non-conforming female characters, but here the crossdressing plotline was handled terribly.

it was predictable. Of course someone is going to discover she’s not a boy. Someone is going to see her while she’s naked and notice that ~she’s actually a girl~. And guess what? It happened not once, but twice! Two naked reveal scenes!

all the unfortunate implications. The naked reveal scene is a transphobic trope; the author is using a transphobic narrative without exploring it in a book where there are no trans people. While I can understand that because it’s historical fiction (you could say that trans people are still more realistic than frost demons, but I understand), trans people today very much exist and are going to read your book. I hate when a book is clearly written with the assumption that a certain group of people is never going to pick it up.

it’s just not what I want to read. It’s “I want to throw the book across the room” unpleasant. No, I don’t want to read about a gender-non-conforming woman who is stripped in front of a crowd to demonstrate that ~she’s actually a girl~. Why would I want that.

Am I going to read the third book? Yes, because I loved the first one, and I still really like the characters and the writing. Also, both the badly-written political intrigue and the crossdressing plotline are wrapped up at the end of this book. But I’d like to pretend The Girl in the Tower didn’t happen.

My rating: ★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel set in rural medieval Russia, and one of the best books to read during the winter.
It was the first book I read in 2017, and now it’s the first book I read in 2018 – its wintry atmosphere makes it the perfect book for the season.It feels like a dark fairytale, beautiful and magical, but not without its creepy aspects. Winter in Russia is not an easy season, and as an old threat rises due to the carelessness of men, so do the dead.

This book follows Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna and her family. She’s Pyotr Vladimirovich’s daughter, and she has the sight. She can see and speak with the chyerti (guardian spirits from Russian folklore), she can talks with horses, she has seen something terrible when she was a child exploring the wood. The Bear and the Nightingale is her story; you see her grow up, and you can’t not love her – she is a wild, magical girl living in a place where not conforming strictly to gender roles marks you as a witch. Everything gets worse when her devout stepmother and a new priest from Moscow come to the village.

The religious conflict is the heart of this book – because of Christianity, men are forgetting the old ways, leaving behind “paganism” and “fairytales”. They are not feeding the domovoi and the stables’ vazila. That makes them vulnerable to the monsters who live at the edge of the woods: upyry and something worse – the bear, who is Frost’s brother.

Frost himself is a significant character – he is Morozko, the winter king, the blue-eyed demon in the fairytale of Vasya’s childhood. I loved his scenes, and I hope to see more of him in The Girl in the Tower.
Other things I loved were the historical details and political intrigue. I want to see more of that too, and possibly also more of Vasya’s family. They were well-developed, but so were all the side characters, including the human antagonists (you understand them, even when you hate them) and Vasya’s animal companions. I mean, one of my favorite characters was a horse.

The writing was lovely – it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be (yes, I always have this fear when it comes to historical fiction), and the atmosphere was perfect. This may be a slow-paced novel, but it’s also one of the very few books that managed to keep me awake at night during a reread because I didn’t want to stop. It’s that good.

I’ve heard that as a novel set in Russia written by an American author, this is very accurate (unlike… many others) but there is one thing that didn’t sit well with me. The author says this about the transliterations in the author’s note:

First, I sought to render Russian words in such a way as to retain a bit of their exotic flavor. This is the reason I rendered Константин as Konstantin rather than the more familiar Constantine, and Дмитрий as Dmitrii rather than Dmitri.

Look, I’m not Russian, so I don’t know how much of a big deal this is, but American authors: the “exotic flavor” isn’t a thing, and the word “exotic” is something you should delete from your vocabulary when you’re talking about people and cultures. It’s othering. Stop.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Adult · Book review

Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

8694389Will I ever be able to review this? Probably not – it has so many layers! Everything has a meaning! – but I’m trying.

Deathless is a mythpunk retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless set in the first half of the 20th century (ending around 1942). It’s a story that weaves politics, history and war together with Russian folklore – it shows you the terror, the silencing, the deaths, but it feels like a fairytale. It’s the story of the life and death of Marya Morevna, and the endless war between Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and Viy, the Tsar of Death.

My review will never do justice to Catherynne M. Valente’s writing; the only thing I can do is show it, with some quotes. If you do not like flowery writing, unhealthy relationships and blue-orange morality, this book isn’t for you.
Deathless isn’t exactly a book you want to read for the characters. Their decisions will seem forced sometimes, as if they were moved along by the author. That’s intentional – Deathless is as much about life, death and Russian history as it is about stories, the stock characters and the tales we always tell the same way.

This book is divided into six parts, six stories, and there are usually time jumps between them.

Part 1: A Long, Thin House
The first part of the novel has always been my favorite. It’s about Marya discovering the magic, the domovye, meeting Likho for the first time and then Koschei. It’s exactly like a fairytale, with its use of repetition – rule of three: the story starts with birds falling from the trees and transforming into the men that will marry Marya’s three sisters.
This part ends with the seduction chapter, which is kind of creepy, really intense and hypnotic. It also has the best food descriptions.

Part 2: Sleep with Fists Closed and Shoot Straight.
Probably my least favorite part (because, for some reason, I really hate these sex scenes…?). It’s about Marya’s life in the country of life. Everything in it is alive – the buildings, too. In this part, we meet Marya’s companions, Madame Lebedeva, Zemlehyed the leshy, and Naganya.
Marya wants to marry Koschei, but she has to overcome three tasks for that. I loved Marya and Baba Yaga’s meeting – Baba Yaga’s car has chicken legs, of course, and Baba Yaga has braided eyebrows.
While this is the part I liked the least, it’s also the one with the best quotes. The conversations in which the characters talk about censorship and the inner workings of stories were really interesting.

That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.

Part 3: Ivanushka
This part starts with the introduction of the Ivan of this story, Ivan Nikolayevich. We see how Marya has changed in all these years – she’s cold, she has forgotten how it feels to be human. In this story, Marya leaves Koschei for Ivan, because that’s what is always going to happen.
The end of this story is A Long, Thin House, but backwards. We meet Marya’s sisters again and I love them.

Part 4: There Are No Firebirds In Leningrad
Marya and Ivan are living in Leningrad, and Koschei is chained in their basement.
Zvonok’s part makes me cry every time. It’s so painful to read – it’s set in 1942, with the war approaching and then slowly starving Leningrad. I never like this kind of stories, they feel like tragedy porn most of the time, but here? It was worth it just for the power of the writing. It was almost scary.

I will not let her speak because I love her, and when you love someone you do not make them tell war stories. A war story is a black space. On the one side is before and on the other side is after, and what is inside belongs only to the dead.

Part 5: Birds of Joy and Sorrow.
This is the part set in Yaichka, and the part in which we get to know the Tsar of Birds. Yaichka is an utopian, perfect Russian small town. After the heartbreaking tale of Zvonok, this is welcome.
The people of Yaichka are all russian historical figures, who live peacefully with each other – just before the fall.
Death always reaches you.

Part 6: Someone Ought to Be
This one is really short, and the first time I read the book I found it confusing, but now I think it is the perfect ending. Bittersweet, maybe, but listen to what Baba Yaga implies:

And on my life I would never suggest to you that stories cannot be forgotten in the bone, even when a brother or a wizard or a rifle says you must, you must forget it, it never happened; there is only the world as it is now, and there has never been another, can never be any other.

It’s about the death of Marya, the death of Russia after the war, but the stories will always remain.
They will come back to life, and so will the country.

My rating: ★★★★★