The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

I am a big fan of the Russian classics. I’ve read a good amount of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chesnokov. I even took a Russian literature class in college focused exclusively on Chesnokov. So in my opinion, The Bear and the Nightingale is everything you love (or maybe love to hate?) about the Russian classics, reimagined for the modern reader.

The Bear and the Nightingale is an incredibly atmospheric novel. It puts you deep into the snows of rural Russia, into a world where Christianity is warring with the old gods and old traditions. Where patriarchy is alive and well and women have little choices beyond marriage or taking the veil. In the midst of this is Vasilisa – Vasya. A strong-willed teenage girl with witchy magic who’ll do whatever it takes to save the ones she loves.

As I mentioned, this novel is incredibly atmospheric and feels like an old Russian novel reincarnated. That means the story at times is languid and utterly unhurried. The names are very Russian and difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with patronymics and the many, many nicknames each person accrues over a lifetime. But the writing is stunningly beautiful, the plot concept inventive, the setting immersive, and Vasya absolutely the kind of heroine you can root for. Also, can we talk about the gorgeous cover art?!

The first of three books, I have the sense that The Bear and the Nightingale may serve as a lengthy prologue for the story Arden is weaving. At the end of this first book, most plot points are not so much resolved as they are cracked open. A door to the real story Arden wishes to tell. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the Winternighttrilogy and seeing if my prediction is correct!

Have you read the Russian classics? Have you read The Bear and the Nightingale? Let me know what you think below!

The Girl With Ghost Eyes

The Girl With Ghost Eyes by M.H. Borosan

It’s the end of the nineteenth century in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and ghost hunters from the Maoshan traditions of Daoism keep malevolent spiritual forces at bay. Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. Her spiritual visions and the death of her husband bring shame to Li-lin and her father—and shame is not something this immigrant family can afford.

When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket. Navigating the dangerous alleys and backrooms of a male-dominated Chinatown, Li-lin must confront evil spirits, gangsters, and soulstealers before the sorcerer’s ritual summons an ancient evil that could burn Chinatown to the ground.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been on the hunt for possible comp titles for Shadow of the Magician in historical fiction. That means I’ve been deep diving on Amazon and Goodreads to find atypical novels of historical fiction to read and consider.

Of course, saying The Girl With Ghost Eyes is an atypical novel is the understatement of the decade. The Girl With Ghost Eyes is a wonderfully weird, intoxicating blend of Chinese myths and legends, ghosts, kung fu, and female empowerment set in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century.

This book was a fun ride from start to finish. I had to put it down when I went to Colorado for Christmas since I chose to bring (and finish!) Kingdom of Ash instead, but once I was back home, I could scarcely stop reading it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read and is absolutely delightful. I really hope someone makes it into a movie or tv show in the near future.

But aside from being a lot of fun, the history feels real, visceral, and well-researched. Reading through the author’s note at the back, I get the sense the author knows his stuff and so bends the facts of history/story/culture with a careful, precise hand to tell this compelling story.

I’ve already picked up the second book in the series to read, The Girl With No Face, which just came out in October. I’m looking forward to tucking into that as well, though after that’s done I’ll be stuck waiting for the next one to come out!

Kingdom of Ash

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass #7) by Sarah J. Maas

Aelin Galathynius has vowed to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. The knowledge that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, but her resolve is unraveling with each passing day…

With Aelin captured, friends and allies are scattered to different fates. Some bonds will grow even deeper, while others will be severed forever. As destinies weave together at last, all must fight if Erilea is to have any hope of salvation.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it took me to finish this book.
A LOT embarrassed actually.

I started the book after I got it in October 2018 and finished it….on the last day of 2019.

Yes, it took me over a year to finish this book.

No, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it. I think it was partly not wanting to finish the series, partly the fact the book was almost a thousand pages long, and partly because Sarah J. Maas’ writing often makes me stay up reading way past my bedtime. Since sleep was at a premium this year, I didn’t often pick up Kingdom of Ash to read before bed.

But I DID finish it.

And I loved it. It was a great end to the series and I was utterly satisfied with the way all the major storylines and arcs wrapped up. It’s a big job, concluding a series this large and sprawling. But Sarah J. Maas delivered!

If you’re on the fence about starting this series, I recommend giving it a try if you can commit to reading the first three books before stopping. The third book is where the story really took off for me personally and from that point forward, I knew I’d be finishing the series. It is a lot of books and a lot of pages, but it’s worth it. There’s a reason so many people are obsessed with this series!

Walk on Earth a Stranger

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

I’ve been interested in reading this series ever since I first heard the premise. But I moved it up many spaces on the TBR list after I decided it might possibly be a comp title for my book.

As a nineties kid who remembers playing Oregon Trail on the school computer, I really enjoyed this book. While not about the Oregon Trail, the plot follows Lee as she navigates a dangerous cross-country migration from her home in Georgia to California, the land of gold and plenty. The story is immersive, full of rich details, and peril around every corner. The fact that this historical fiction story has a touch of magic to it is just icing on the cake.

Lee is a great heroine: tough, smart, and willing to do whatever it takes to save herself and those she loves. It’s no surprise to me that this book was nominated for and won several awards. Lee is exactly the type of female character we still need more of in young adult literature. Not a spoiler per se, but for a section of the book, Lee travels alone with only her horse and a gun to protect her. If that’s not the type of kick-ass woman our kids and teens need to be reading, I don’t know what is!

If you’re looking to pick up a young adult book that doesn’t make use of the “chosen one” trope – this one is for you. Yes, there’s magic, but only a touch. It’s not history-inspired fantasy or alternate history. It’s just a great work of historical fiction that happens to have a bit of magic to it.

Warwick’s Event With Erin Morgenstern

In November, I attended a Warwick’s event at the San Diego Public Library with Erin Morgenstern. She was on tour to promote her new book, The Starless Sea. She is the author of the popular book, The Night Circus. My friend, fellow writer, bookworm, and neighbor, Kristin Luna, attended the event with me.

This was my first trip to the downtown library so I thought I’d lead this post by sharing a few must-know tips if you’re trying to attend any sort of event at this library after hours:

First, because the library is downtown, they lock it up at night. And when I say they lock it up, I mean they really lock it up. Good luck trying to find someone to help you enter it at night even if there is an event going on and you’re knocking on all the doors.

We eventually learned there’s actually an underground parking area beneath the library. And if you are attending an event at the library, this is where you MUST park if you don’t want to walk laps around the building knocking and trying every door.

Once we figured out how to get inside, the event itself was really lovely. It was held in a gorgeous conference hall they have off the center courtyard, across from the library’s own gift shop. Because we were running late, we arrived right as the talk was getting started so I didn’t get to hear who the person was that was interviewing Erin Morgenstern about her book. The whole atmosphere of the place and the discussion reminded me of the sort of literary events I used to attend on and off campus when I was going to UCSD. Very different from the last couple events I went to with YA authors. This was definitely a different crowd and the conversation was a lot more literary and craft-focused.

Erin Morgenstern reading from her new book, The Starless Sea

Morgenstern talked mostly about her new book, The Starless Sea, with occasional mentions of her famous first book, The Night Circus. I haven’t actually read The Night Circus yet, but I own a copy that’s been taunting me forever from the TBR stack. Maybe 2020 will be the year I finally read it…who knows!

After the discussion, there was a signing with the author which was highly efficient, but kind of impersonal. Not the author’s fault at all, but there were a lot of people onstage shepherding us through the process so there wasn’t any opportunity to have a chat with the author. I was able to get both The Starless Sea and The Night Circus signed, which means my little collection of signed books is growing!

We didn’t get to see the rest of the library, but we did briefly visit the library gift shop which was super fun and full of TONS of cute gifts I wanted to buy for myself and others. If ever at the library, I definitely recommend checking out the cute little shop near the courtyard.

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast–rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.

Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire, and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is ahead of her time, and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets.

Having loved the other book I read by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow, I was excited when my book club selected Rules of Civility. Though I didn’t actually end up finishing the book in time for our meeting, I was enjoying it so much I continued reading and finished the book.

Definitely if you liked A Gentleman in Moscow, you will like this book. But if you liked lighter fare like Gossip Girl and Summer at Tiffany, you will probably like this story too, which explores three years in the life of young Katey Kontent as she comes of age in the New York of yesteryear and rubs elbows which the upper crust of society.

Filled with the dense, lovely prose I’ve come to expect from Amor Towles, the story unfolds as a tapestry of characters every bit as rich and complex as the city itself. Katey herself is a strong woman who possesses a steely will and a self-assuredness we can all hope to aspire to. Though at times I wasn’t sure I was confident in the reasons why Katey made certain decisions, I was always confident that she was confident in what she was doing. Which is refreshing to see in any character, let alone a character walking around seventy years ago.

The same care and attention to detail was paid to all of the other principal characters: Tinker, Eve, Dicky, Wallace, Bitsy. Though none of the others got as much screen time as Katey, coming and going with the turning seasons of her life, each was unique and fully fleshed.

Overall, this was lovely read from Amor Towles and even more impression for the fact that it was his debut novel. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author in the future!

Debut Novel Pick for November: Blood Heir

Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

In the Cyrilian Empire, Affinites are reviled. Their varied gifts to control the world around them are unnatural—dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, has a terrifying secret. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls.

When Ana’s father, the emperor, is murdered, her world is shattered. Framed as his killer, Ana must flee the palace to save her life. And to clear her name, she must find her father’s murderer on her own. But the Cyrilia beyond the palace walls is far different from the one she thought she knew. Corruption rules the land, and a greater conspiracy is at work—one that threatens the very balance of her world. And there is only one person corrupt enough to help Ana get to its core: Ramson Quicktongue.

A cunning crime lord of the Cyrilian underworld, Ramson has sinister plans—though he might have met his match in Ana. Because in this story, the princess might be the most dangerous player of all.

Full disclosure: I’m not intending to dive deeply into the uproar on Twitter that originally led to the author deciding to pull publication of her book. It’s been highly publicized so you can use Google to read more about it.

But I will say that I was interested in reading this book when I originally read the back cover copy and was rather disappointed to hear that it wasn’t going to be published. I’m glad the author has since changed her mind (it’s unclear to me if the book has also been significantly changed or not) and Blood Heir will finally be released this month!

I’m just as excited by the back cover copy now as I was when I read it originally and I absolutely adore this cover of a moody, dangerous-looking princess with an equally dangerous-looking crown. I love the idea of a Russian-inspired young adult fantasy with magic, danger, and political intrigue.

Blood Heir is scheduled to be released on November 19th from Delacorte Press.