The winter traveller

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 It’s rare that a second book in a trilogy not only manages to stand on its own but is in fact, far better than the first book. The Girl in the Tower  (Winternight Trilogy) by Katherine Arden came as a pleasant surprise. We had read and reviewed the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, last year. Though interesting because it was so different, we had not found it riveting. But the second book was gripping and fascinating in equal measures and we found we couldn’t to put it down and became resentful when forced to.

The setting of  the tale in Russia and much of it in Moscow, during a period we don’t know much about, makes the book an intriguing read. In medieval times Rus was a vassal state of the Khans in Sarai and the story is set some years after the death of Genghis Khan. Culturally Rus was more influenced by the east rather than the west, which possibly explains the system of enclosing noble women in terems and not allowing them out in public. There was also considerable conflict between the old traditions and Christianity. Arden has added fascinating little details such as the different looks that people wear in different seasons; in winter they were wan and thin as opposed to the fuller cheeks of summer. And the descriptions of the bathing houses where people would sweat in hot steam and then jump into freezing cold water. As a result of these details, the book reads like a mix of fantasy and history.

  In the story, Vasya, who is now grown up, decides that traveling holds more appeal than joining a convent or getting married. Disguised as a boy and along with her faithful nightingale/horse Solovey, she sets out to discover the world. But while rescuing girls kidnapped by bandits she gets caught up with court of the Grand Prince of Moscow whose adviser is her brother Sasha and she travels to Moscow with them. She is also reunited with her sister in Moscow and ends up battling supernatural forces once again. To some extent her relationship to Morozko the winter king is shaping up and we particularly liked the fact that she insists on standing her ground even with him and is herself unhappy about not knowing where precisely he figures in her life. But we have a feeling there is more to come.

  Compared to the earlier book, this story is much more gripping mainly because Vasya can be more free and has Solovey to back her up. We are still wondering what the connection is in old Russian folklore between horses and birds. The glossary does not clarify this point but is otherwise an integral part of the book, we read it with as much relish as we did the story. Arden’s writing has matured since the last book with the story flowing a lot better in this one. And we definitely cheered when we found out that the third book is out in August this year. Not much of a wait.

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The blue of the spring sky

221AA37F-A534-4770-932B-B0967575BFF6  The title of this post is a line in the book “Strange the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor which she uses to describe one of the characters. But one could also use it to describe the book itself where blue is the colour constantly on the minds of all the characters and sets the tone of the story. If the style of writing could be described in colours, Taylor’s is definitely the blue of a spring sky, fresh and clear but leaving the reader with a constant sense that storm clouds are just around the corner.

Beyond that, we really don’t know what to say because Strange the Dreamer left us, not speechless which is too mild a term, but instead we would say – gobsmacked. Taylor’s writing grabs hold of your mind and literally messes with it. Long after the book was over we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Almost as if it was stalking us. Normally readers feel they can’t let go of a good book but in this case the book refuses to let go of the reader.

Strange the Dreamer is one of those rare books where the writing style and storytelling are almost two different entities running in parallel. There is really not much we can say about the story without giving too much away. Lazlo Strange goes from being an orphan dreaming about the mythical city of Weep, to junior librarian obsessed with Weep and learning everything he can about it and then finds himself traveling to Weep in the capacity of storyteller and secretary to the Godslayer. The mysteries abound. What god did the Godslayer slay? What happened to the original name of Weep to make it disappear from everyone’s minds? And why was the city cut off from the rest of the world for two hundred years?

This is a fantasy novel but it is the writing which creates real magic. Taylor’s style is lyrical and poetic and we found the book slow going because we absolutely had to keep going back and re reading paragraphs and sentences – “Swans swam past like elegant ships, and the village was all pastel with patches of blue shadow. The sky was the colour of the blush on peaches, and insect language whirred in the sweet meadow grass.”

If we were recommending one book for the year, and yes we know we are only a quarter of the way through, if you haven’t read it already, it absolutely has to be this one. Even if you are not a fantasy reader. Or, perhaps, since it is a duology, you could wait until the second book, The Muse of Nightmares, which is expected to be out in October this year.

What a con!

22D359C7-4D9C-4F84-86FA-37C3960D8F2D.jpeg The Rooster Bar by John Grisham is about a trio of law student crooks who, disgruntled with their student debt, decide to con a whole bunch of people and make some money. In the process, it is the reader who gets right royally conned. Why did we ever read this book? Well, because it is John Grisham, who has in the past managed to engage his readers with packed, interesting, legal thrillers. And we have enjoyed his earlier books. We tend to forget how bad the last few books were and keeping thinking about the earlier ones and hoping that each new one will recapture the magic. Wrong thing to do. The disappointment just keeps happening.

 The Rooster Bar takes the cake with the list of agonising, sheer waste of time books and all we want to do is to fling it at Mr. Grisham for having lured us to read it. It has nothing appealing about it. Narrated more in the style of a documentary of a heist, the story drags and even half way through the book one keeps waiting for it to get going. But it never happens. We couldn’t identify or sympathise with any of the characters because along with being financially bankrupt they are also morally bankrupt. In which universe is it ok to con others just because you have been conned? It’s one thing for a protagonist to use extra legal methods to right a wrong but surely not to perpetuate a wrong? Besides, stories where the crooks are the protagonists only work if George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are acting the parts, with Julia Roberts thrown in for good measure.

 This sort of trading on his goodwill is not going to stand Mr. Grisham in good stead for much longer. At least with us. In most of his books, towards the end, the main character manages to make a huge amount of money, throws up his/her career and then retires to an island in the sun to enjoy life. We think it may be time that Mr. Grisham, having made enough money out of us, does the same.

A roller coaster to nowhere

9793AEDD-156B-4F54-B3BE-AD1C60F87CFD.jpegCaraval by Stephanie Garber is a good example of why one should not go by covers and reviews when picking up a book to read. Although, there is little else to go by these days. It was a good thing that we borrowed the book from the library instead of buying it.

A magical game on an isolated island to which you need an invitation and you can choose to either participate or watch, had so much potential. The main character Scarlett had been writing for years to Legend, the mysterious game master of Caraval, requesting an invitation. From the time she and her sister were little girls, they hoped that a participation in the game and the chance to win a wish would help them to get away from their tyrannical father. After years of no response forthcoming, the invitation finally comes just before Scarlett’s wedding. But she is now reluctant to participate and her sister Tella pretty much abducts her and takes her to the island where Scarlett finds herself unwillingly drawn into the game.

The rest of the story is a roller coaster where the reader along with Scarlett does not know what is real and what is part of the game. The game takes place within what seems to be a large amusement park type setting, which can be, at times, quite frightening. Everything gets turned on it’s head at some point and none of the characters are what they seem. The descriptions of Caraval are lavish and Garber successfully  brings out the decadence of it all. The story  could have been exciting had it been strung together a little more tightly and had the characters not been so shallow. Events are just randomly put in without much explantion to make the story move to the author’s convenience.

There were no plausible reasons given to explain the intense cruelty of the girls’ father or their grandmother’s obsession with Legend. Scarlett’s haste to get out of the game after having spent her entire life trying to get there and her constant guilt for one thing or another becomes irritating. There was no real sense of a competition taking place and the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

While reading, the book moves at a rapid pace and the reader goes along willingly with it, accepting the twists and turns, with the expectation that all will be explained and answers will be found. It’s only once the book has ended that one feels cheated and hence irritated since there are no answers. Unless the author has left everything to the sequels, which in itself seems unfair. Besides, even fantastical magic should have some rules and explanation for the way it works. world building for a fantasy novel is of the utmost importance. This was truly a YA book in the sense that it lacked depth and the numerous comparisons to The Night Circus are totally unwarranted. Frankly we can’t understand why the book got such amazing reviews and was mentioned all over the place last year. It can be read if one has nothing better on hand.

The meek shall inherit

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.

Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.

There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.

Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.

A tale for winter

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A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.

Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.

The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.

We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.

Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.

In the coils of a myth

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not only a Victorian story but in many ways feels like it was written in that time. That is how authentic it is. Set mainly in an Essex village, the story itself is like the slow flowing waters of the Thames estuary and is based on an old rumour terrifying the local populace of a monstrous serpent with wings that preyed on the surrounding villages.

Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and finding herself free of an oppressive husband, has moved from London to indulge in her larger interest in fossils and in particular the recent finds in the Blackwater marshes of Essex. Intrigued by stories of the serpent in newspapers, she dreams of the glory of finding a living fossil and is convinced the serpent is not a monster but a creature that has survived from another time. She moves to the village of Aldwinter where the recent sightings have taken place, hoping to spot the serpent.

In the village, Cora, now delightfully independent, having thrown away her corsets, comes up against the superstition that is swamping it. The local parson, William Ransome, who is surprisingly a rationalist believes that science and faith can coexist and refuses to accept the possibility of there being a serpent in any form. He is left dealing with not just his panicking parishioners but also his own feelings for Cora despite the divergence in their thinking and beliefs. There are a whole host of characters, all revolving around Cora and William and their families. Perry describes each one so completely and from various points of view that the reader is able to understand their perspective of the Essex Serpent sightings without being judgmental of their responses.

Ultimately this is novel about the clash between rationality and the kind of superstition that is capable of engulfing and rampaging through societies. The serpent symbolises different things for different people and each character sees in it what they want to; a scientific curiosity, a demon sent for the retribution of the villagers, a  story inciting doubt. derision and contempt, or a symbol of the fall from Eden or even that of the serpent of healing entwining the sceptre of Aeschylus. Whether or not the serpent was real is left to the reader to believe whatever it is that they want to believe.

Set over a period of one year, the novel describes the seasons in lush detail. Through Cora, a compulsive rambler and walker, Perry gives the reader a sensory experience of the sights, sounds and smells of the area. Somehow just the visuals of  Cora striding across the marshes on her own feels emancipating. This is a book to be savoured, mulled over and enjoyed slowly. We were planning to review it earlier but took a long time to read it because of the need to go back and re read some of the paragraphs just for their expression and language. Through the backdrop of an almost gothic story, the reader is lulled into a quiet sort of beauty. Though it won a whole bunch of awards, we are puzzled as to why the book was not longlisted for the Booker prize.