THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden–a Review

I feel terrible that it has taken me so long to write this review. It’s certainly not because I didn’t like The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Quite the opposite. I loved this book. In fact, the hardest part of writing this review has been organizing my thoughts beyond, “Wow, go buy this book now!”

Believe me, a positive review was the last thing on my mind when I first heard of Arden’s debut novel. I started getting e-mails from NetGalley and the publisher giving a very hard sell, which made me very suspicious. But, despite all the lofty claims, I realized that there wouldn’t be a push like this if the publisher didn’t think this novel had what it took to be a bestseller. And despite my reluctance, despite my suspicions, Arden won me over. Of course, it didn’t help that like her, I had studied in Russia. I’m a sucker for its legends and fables. And so I fell for this book. Hard.

This book lives up to the hype. Arden offers an original take on old legends, and she sets her story in a rich, authentic world populated by a cast of detailed characters torn between the traditions of the old world and their desire for something better either in the next world or just next year.

Bear Nightingale Arden

The Story

Vasilisa is the daughter of a Russian frontier prince and a woman who had strange, magical powers. During birth, Vasilisa’s mother died, so Vasya was raised by a nurse who filled the girl’s head with tales of Winter and the spirits that inhabit the woods that surround her home.

Years later, her father travels to Moscow to find a new wife. He returns with Vasilisa’s new stepmother and a stepsister (yes, this story hit a lot of fairy tale markers, but they never feel like a trope), as well as an ardent priest, driven to strip these people of their old world beliefs. He also returns with a strange talisman for Vasilisa that a strange man gave to her father.

The snow piles up, the stores of crops grow thin, and the region’s spirits begin to die off. But Vasilisa has been learning from those spirits while doing her best to sustain them. But the villagers—and especially her stepmother—call her a witch and shun her. Does she bring doom or their last chance for salvation? Is it Winter knocking at their door, or something worse? Will Vasilisa the fearless, the stubborn, the wild save her people?

The Review

I’ll get to the characters in a minute, but I want to start with the world of this book. There is an authenticity here. Arden’s scholarship, her experience shine through. I remember visiting villages and wooden churches outside of St. Petersburg. This is the world Arden inhabits.

But it’s more than the buildings. It’s also the relationships, the clothing, the attitudes. And the fantastical elements as well. From the larger characters like Winter to the smaller household spirits, it all rang true. And if you are unfamiliar with Russian elements, the story won’t throw you. It will feel familiar to any fan of fairy tales. But just in case, there is a brief glossary in the back.

Now the characters. There is a large cast here, but main character or secondary character, Arden has given each strong motivations (the lord fighting to protect his fief, the wild and fearless princess defying all in the name of a larger good, the devoted priest absolutely confident in his faith, the doting nanny sacrificing for the children in her care). There is a saying that plot is character–that the choices well-motivated characters make determine the plot. But it can still be a tremendously difficult thing to pull off. Arden succeeds and separates her tale from most fairy tales where the characters are more like two-dimensional stereotypes, more puppet than person.

The pacing of the story has a slow burn in the beginning, but Arden draws you in and puts you under her spell. Before you know it, you’re lost in her world, just like Vasilisa in the dark woods that border her village. It’s an adventure, and only the strong and the bold will survive. Thank goodness readers have Vasilisa to show us the way.

Bottom Line

The Bear and the Nightingale was the first book I read in 2017. Part of me is worried that I might have peaked early. But if the rest of the year is as good as this book, 2017 will be something special. And all those hard-selling comparisons I mentioned above? Yeah, Arden does belong with Naomi Novik and Neil Gaiman. I can’t wait to see what she reads next.

AFTER ATLAS by Emma Newman–a Review

My regular readers will have realized that my blog has been quiet lately. This has been caused by a couple of factors. The first is a personal thing that I will likely blog about within a few days. The second is the recent American presidential election. The results of the election–and its consequences for women, people of color, immigrants, the climate, the law, the future–well, it’s just depressing as hell. So it’s odd that I would look for escape in a book that deals with governments run by corporations, omnipresent surveillance, and people distracted by social media and games. But After Atlas by Emma Newman did turn out to be just the trick to cheer me up. Not only did I really like the world building, but like Planetfall, Emma has once agree created compelling, damaged characters. Only this time it’s not a sci-fi story but a murder mystery.

After Atlas Emma Newman cover

The Story

Carlos Moreno is an indentured servant owned by his govcorp’s ministry of justice. When he was young, his mother left Earth on the Atlas, seeking God on another planet. Carlos’ dad had a breakdown, finally resurfacing in a religious cult known as the Circle and run by Alejandro Casales. Decades after Carlos’s escape from the Circle, and as the 40th anniversary of the Atlas’s launch nears, Moreno is called in to investigate the bloody murder of Casales. The more Moreno looks into the death of one of the world’s most powerful men (who used to be his surrogate father), the more sinister it appears–and the more Moreno realizes he can’t escape his past.

The Review

After Atlas is a standalone companion to Planetfall. You don’t need to have read Planetfall, and you could even read After Atlas first. Whereas Planetfall was a sci-fi story, this is more of a straight-up murder mystery (albeit with a few sci-fi elements). But this story is not a simple procedural. Think of it more as a procedural-plus. Yes, there are noirish elements to this story, but Moreno is more than a typical gumshoe. Most importantly, he is not a cipher–a sarcastic, cynical, disembodied voice. Instead, Newman has given him a strong internal plot line.

And as interesting as the mystery is, I was far more interested in Moreno’s life. He has had to make terrible choices after he ran away from Casales and the Circle. And while he has found a modicum of peace as a detective, his life is bound by a number of terrible constraints. And he is always at risk of losing what little he has fought for. It’s a terrible, desperate life. But he is resilient and tough and determined. It makes for a fascinating read, much like Newman did with her mentally ill protagonist in Planetfall.

And as I mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Newman’s world building here. The mix of near-future technology is realistic and cool, if a little creepy. Cameras are everywhere, and everyone is chipped. While Morales has an AI assistant who can help him walk through a case in a VR recreation that is picture perfect, govcorps can buy and sell people through that same mental implant. Every act is monitored, measured, reported, and filed away. Ads are inserted into nearly all of your everyday experiences. Only the wealthy can afford any real privacy.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that while After Atlas does feature some of the worst aspects of a future world under a Trump-like rule, it also offered just the escapism I wanted. Morales is so focused on solving the crime. This single drive propels the story forward and sucks in my attention. Because of his past, Newman creates a lot of empathy and sympathy for him. And in this new America, a little more sympathy and empathy are good things. And on top of that, this is a great mystery, filled with conspiracies, red herrings, and many twists and turns. So disappear from the world for a while. Unplug and disconnect. Fall into this book. The world will still be there when you return. But in the meantime, Newman has written a wonderful story.

NaNoWriMo and Me

Today is November 1, which means it is the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That breaks down to 1,667 words per day, despite weekends, holidays, or, in my case, an impending baby. NaNoWriMo is tough, but it is not an impossible challenge (I’ve written about this before–click on the keyword below).

But it’s not for everyone. And this year, it is not for me.

NaNoWriMo 2016

My Non-NaNoWriMo November

But here is what I will be doing during November (in addition to working my job, prepping the baby’s room, going to doctor’s appointments, and helping out my wife):

  • I will write. My only goal is to write some amount of fiction every day. Instead of failing if I “only” write 1,500 words, I fail only if I write zero words.
  • I will continue to work on my novel. I’m not completely ditching the work I’ve done on it, but I am going through a substantial rebuilding to improve my characterization.
  • I will read fiction. I’ve read over 60 books this year so far, which is high for me (I usually end the year in the 50s). But I have been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. I want to get back into reading more fiction. And, more importantly, I want to break it down, identify the pieces, and understand how they work together. Reading as education, not just inspiration and entertainment.
  • I will go easier on myself. Instead of focusing on how my writing is not where I want it to be, I will focus on past successes and look for improvement in my current work. Instead of whining about time I have let slip by without writing, I will focus on today and tomorrow and the words I am putting down now.

As you can see, my NaNoWriMo is not only about developing good writing habits, but also developing good mental/psychological habits. I’ve never been a fast writer. It’s always been a bit of a struggle for me. And when I get down on myself, that struggle becomes more difficult, and I start writing less. So this November, if I want to write more, I will also try to be more forgiving, more patient, and more encouraging toward myself. Now that isn’t to say that when it comes time to edit that I won’t kick my own ass. Instead, this November is about making sure that ass kicking comes at an appropriate time and place.

Now I can’t measure my progress in this endeavor the same way I would for NaNoWriMo. But I can gauge how I feel about myself and my writing, and see how many days in a row I have written something. Yes, I wish it was more concrete, more measurable, but I’ll take what I can get. Maybe I should add another point–to write more here about my process, good and bad. Maybe by reflecting a bit more, I can help improve my processes. It may not be 50,000 words, but in the end, if I have written something and feel better about doing it, I’ll call that a win.

My Latest Review on Fantasy-Faction

I have another review up on Fantasy-Faction. This month, I reviewed Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente.

This novella is absolutely stunning, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s not a retelling of Snow White, but a transformation of the tale to fit America, and the Wild West in particular. And Valente’s writing is incredible–she’ll make you laugh, cry, and re-read dozens of her poetic lines. And if you have a friend who only reads literary fiction, pass this along to them–the magic is minimal, it’s character-driven, and the writing is excellent.

So head over to Fantasy-Faction and give it my review a read. Then go order the novella. It’s 160 pages of awesome.

Oh, and when you’re done with that, check out Valente on Twitter. During this campaign season, her political tweets have been on point. If you like the stuff I’ve been posting and re-tweeting, odds are that she pointed me to the good stuff.

THE RISE OF IO by Wesley Chu–a Review

The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu is a summer blockbuster of a book. It’s fun, action-packed, tells a good story, and makes me eager for a sequel. And for those who haven’t read Chu’s Tao books, don’t worry. The Rise of Io is a great entry point.

Rise of Io Wesley Chu

The Story

The Rise of Io is the story of Ella Patel, a thief and a con artist living in an Indian slum, Crate Town, that has been devastated by the war between two alien factions and their human allies. She’s small, quick, and ambitious. If you like a sarcastic rogue whose dreams exceed her grasp, Ella’s your gal. When she gets involved in a fight that isn’t hers, she ends up being inhabited by (and sharing her mind with) Io–one of those aliens I just mentioned. And it’s not a great fit. Despite that, Ella now has to join the fight. Io’s mission becomes Ella’s mission. You see, Crate Town just so happens to be prime real estate for the rival faction’s new secret facility. And that rival faction just brought in its best assassin, Shura the Scalpel, to make sure no one interferes.

The Review

I said earlier that this is a good place to start if you are new to Wesley Chu. The Rise of Io takes place about a dozen years after the Tao books. And everything you need to know is established in this book. For those who have read the Tao trilogy, The Rise of Io offers plenty of easter eggs and a nice contrast (Ella and Io don’t make for a good fit, and Io hasn’t exactly helped her humans blaze a trail of glory). Wesley Chu balances new readers’ needs against keeping his old readers entertained, so old and new alike should enjoy this book.

What I most loved about The Rise of Io are the characters. Ella is smart, capable, and funny. The war has left its scars on her, but she still pushes forward, finding a way to make a life in this new world. I liked that as a con artist, she doesn’t always resort to fighting. Instead, she bluffs, bargains, and lies. Or at least tries to. I also enjoyed her struggles with Io, and how they come to an agreement, if not quite a friendship. Wesley Chu has also created a great antagonist, Shura. Incredibly competent and ruthless, she is nevertheless sympathetic. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m rooting for her, but I understood why she does what she does. She’s a good baddie, not a shallow boogeyman.

I also enjoyed Chu’s world building. The history of the aliens’ involvement on Earth, the recent war, the alleys of Crate Town are all portrayed with a great deal of detail and creativity. It’s exactly what I’m looking for in a novel like this. The rules are spelled out, and things feel real.

Bottom Line

This is a fun, fast-paced, adventure slash science fiction. At a time when I’m being bombarded by sad news stories or political posts on social media, this is exactly the break I needed. Every time I read a bit, I finished with a smile on my face. So go grab your popcorn, and get reading. And while you’re at it, if this is your first time reading Wesley Chu, go get the Tao books too. You’ll want to read them when you’re done with this one anyway.