Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale 

I loved this book. It fired me up, it led me to look up poems I hadn’t read in ages and it made me think. I enjoyed it for its surface, its story, its beautiful writing. Most of all, though, I loved it for what it meant to me as a woman in this historical moment. To me it’s a timely book, a prescient picture of a past that may be future. 

Not long ago I came across an essay called “This is How They Broke Our Grandmothers.” It begins:

“Once, there were witches. 

No. There were never witches. Not the way men said, anyway.

Once, there were many indigenous polytheist and animist faith traditions in what is now Western Europe. Their customs supported varying levels of respect and authority for women. They had holy women, woman healers, and woman leaders.

Once, there was a church that was a kingdom, built on the body of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. This church was a principality in truth, ruled by princes who had a lust for land and gold that was almost as insatiable as their burning hatred of women.”

Subversive women have always been perceived as a threat to the  establishment, a more viscerally terrifying threat than any other. We are living in a moment right now when the hard-won rights of women and girls are in danger of being scaled back across the globe, to say nothing of the rights we have yet to win.

The Bear and the Nightingale is about a wild,  gangly, magnetic, subversive girl, and she’s the kind of girl we need to read about now more than ever. Her name is Vasya.

I can imagine Vasya marching on Washington, fully formed, wearing a jacket with a patch that says, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.”

For she is the granddaughter of a witch. And her grandmother wasn’t burned but died a slower death. She was tamed. 

Vasya refuses to be tamed – by man, nature, old gods or new. She’s kind of my hero.

Mild spoilers below.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in a distant Russia on the verge of a deep, wild forest. This Russia may be Christian, but in the wilder parts people remember and keep the old ways, honoring them with story-telling and leaving offerings for household spirits like the domovoi.

Vasilisa, called Vasya, is a special child. Her mother chooses to give birth to her despite her later age because she knows Vasya will be like her own mother, a witch who married the tsar. She dies in childbirth, and leaves Vasya to be raised by her own childhood nurse and elder children. Vasya grows up wild in a warm home full of old stories, and has no idea the future in store for her. From her birth she is a potential pawn of older powers, but she also must contend with religious repression based on her sex, and the encroachment of people who are fearful of her nature and seek only to tame her and make her fit into her society’s roles for women.

Vasya is alone in her family in her ability to see spirits like the domovoi and speak to them. As the rest of her world is gradually convinced that the old ways are evil, that nature spirits are demons, only Vasya can see them fading, dying, asking for help. She alone understands that turning their backs on the old friends of humankind will lead to imbalance, famine, and death. That is, until her father re-marries and Vasya realizes that her step-mother can also see the old beings. Where Vasya sees creatures who are complex, both good and bad, Anna only sees demons. Enter in a Christian priest, Konstantin, who develops a twisted love-hate for Vasya as he watches her grow, and Vasya is soon outnumbered and labelled a witch. Konstantin can’t help but become enamoured of Vasya, but he feels threatened, tempted, and emasculated by her unselfconscious wildness.

She is not afraid, Konstantin thought dourly. She does not fear God; she fears nothing. He saw it in her silences, her fey glance, the long hours she spent in the forest. In any case, no good Christian maid ever had eyes like that, or walked with such grace in the dark. For her soul, and for the souls of all in this desolate place, thought Konstantin, he must have her humility. She must see what she was and fear it. Save her, and he would save them all. 

Vasya fights hard for what she knows is right and refuses to be yoked. I feel like Konstantin sees her as paganism personified. Her struggles to just be herself and do what’s right can be seen as universal but I feel like she very powerfully shows us a picture of women’s ongoing fight for…being. Just being. Uncloistered, unbound, and free.

Beyond her freedom as a woman, Vasya must also fight for her world, suspended between supernatural forces who want to use her for their own end.

I truly loved everything about this story except for one thing: the anticlimactic ending. Now that I know it’s first in a trilogy I feel less let down, but it seems like a long build up for such a short payoff.

My favorite part of the story was the contest between Konstantin and Vasya, however, so I was less disappointed in the lack of attention to certain characters and major plot points than others might be. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts! What did you think of the book? 

I mentioned at the first that reading this book made me think of a few poems I haven’t read in a while – I figured I’d share them:

“Witch-Wife,” Edna St. Vincent Millay

“Circe,” H.D.

“Her Kind,” Anne Sexton

Book Review: The Winner’s Curse

coffee is
always
a good idea.
.png

“I must get my soul back from you; I am killing my flesh without it.” – Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals

Continue reading “Book Review: The Winner’s Curse”

Book Review: Keturah and Lord Death (or, When Death Gives You Lemons…)

I simultaneously felt bewitched and disturbed by this beautiful, dark fairytale. There is something there, some undercurrent in Keturah’s words and acceptance at the end, that stings a little. I cried reading the resolution, and though I knew where it was going — we usually know where fairytales will end — I was satisfied and devastated and happy-sad.

Like the lemons that become so central to the story, this book is bittersweet.

Continue reading “Book Review: Keturah and Lord Death (or, When Death Gives You Lemons…)”

Gritty, Real, Satisfying Dark Fantasy: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (*Spoilers*)

The Queen of the Tearling.png
 *This review contains spoilers for a major plot point.

Continue reading “Gritty, Real, Satisfying Dark Fantasy: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (*Spoilers*)”

Biggest Book Disappointment of the Year: A Review of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

grave-mercy
Details and Synopsis
My Rating: 3/5 stars
US Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
17 year-old Ismae is marked by St. Martain, the saint-god of death, because she survived her mother’s attempted abortion. She bears this mark physically in a gruesome scar, and in the otherworldly abilities she has yet to acknowledge. A medieval woman living in Brittany, she’s married off in an agreement between her abusive father and an equally horrible man who shows Ismae on their wedding night that he will not only continue her father’s brutal treatment, he’s going to add to it. Thankfully, she’s smuggled away by adherents of St. Martain, and taken to His convent of assassin nuns. There she’s trained to do her part to keep Brittany’s sovereignty from the kingdom of France, but the path she walks is full of treachery, politics, love, and other dangerous things.

Continue reading “Biggest Book Disappointment of the Year: A Review of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers”

Book Review: Empire of Storms (or, more accurately, my immediate, barely articulate emotional rant)

Continue reading “Book Review: Empire of Storms (or, more accurately, my immediate, barely articulate emotional rant)”

Book Review: Graceling (or, Not Your Run-of-the-Mill “Strong Female Character”)

Graceling.png

“Usually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged by male energy.” -Bjork

The quote above applies to books, too. I just listened to author Kameron Hurley (in this interview) discuss that, unfortunately, “strong female character” has become a trope of its own; it’s so over-used and bloated that it’s morphed into giving a woman a gun/sword/super powers, having her perpetrate some traditionally masculine violence, and generally just take ye-olde-fantasy-male-hero character and give him lady parts. I’d add to this that those lady parts usually come with extraordinary beauty (she can be strong but she has to also be sexy) and vulnerability to soften her just enough. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of books that do this. But I really, really, really appreciate that Graceling does not.

Graceling has been out for a while, and it’s not necessarily obscure, so I’ll say briefly that I thought the writing was excellent, the story fascinating, the world immersive, and the characters compelling. But below I’m going to outline what made this book one of my favorites of all time, and the things it does that make it truly unique to so much of what I read. Minor spoilers proceeding.

Continue reading “Book Review: Graceling (or, Not Your Run-of-the-Mill “Strong Female Character”)”

Book Review: Angelfall

Angelfall

Title_ Into the Dark LandsAuthor_ -2

“I wonder which will get you killed faster–your loyalty or your stubbornness?”

Synopsis

Penryn is 17, her mother is schizophrenic, her father is gone, and her 7 year old sister, Paige, is paralyzed from the waist down. If her responsibilities weren’t great enough, the world has ended and angels have decided it’s capital-A apocalypse time.

The book begins with Penryn moving her family to a safer part of town; her mother has been off her meds for days, and her sweet-hearted sister is slow-going in her manual wheelchair. Feeding her family and dodging angels and human gangs is all she has time for, so she surprises even herself when she comes to the aid of an angel who’s being attacked by his own kind, his wings severed.

That angel is Raffe, and with Penryn’s help he survives. But one of the attacking angels steals Paige, and Penryn realizes that Raffe is very probably her only chance of ever seeing her sister again. The two of them strike up an uneasy alliance; he needs his wings restored, she wants her family reunited. They set out together, and the rest is not history, but a really fun, original urban fantasy.

Continue reading “Book Review: Angelfall”

Book Review: Cruel Beauty

Title_ Cruel BeautyAuthor_ Rosamund HodgeSeries_ Cruel Beauty Universe, #1US Publisher_ Blazer + BrayRelease_ 2014357 pagesMy Rating_ 4_5 stars-3

 

Title_ Cruel BeautyAuthor_ Rosamund HodgeSeries_ Cruel Beauty Universe, #1US Publisher_ Blazer + BrayRelease_ 2014357 pagesMy Rating_ 4_5 stars

“I love you more than any other creature, because you are cruel, and kind, and alive.”

God, I love hateful, willful, unruly women. Is it because I am one? Ha, I don’t know. My husband could probably shed some light on this, but I’m afraid to know just how often those words might come to mind. If it turns out it’s fairly frequent, hopefully he’ll follow that revelation like Ignifex and say that’s part of my appeal. Or maybe it’ll be one of those times I’ll be proud to be called willful and unruly, and like Nyx, I won’t care. I’ll know it’s true and glory in it.

Continue reading “Book Review: Cruel Beauty”