Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

38391059Verdict: Still in love.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Re-Telling

Published by Ebury Publishing, January 10 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

One girl can make a difference…

Moscow has burned nearly to the ground, leaving its people searching for answers – and someone to hold accountable. Vasya finds herself on her own, amid a rabid mob that calls for her death, blaming her witchery for their misfortune.

Then a vengeful demon returns, renewed and stronger than ever, determined to spread chaos in his wake and never be chained again. Enlisting the hateful priest Konstantin as his servant, turmoil plagues the Muscovites and the magical creatures alike, and all find their fates resting on the shoulders of Vasya.

With an uncertain destiny ahead of her, Vasya learns surprising truths of her past as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all…

I adored this beyond measure.

I am a huge fan of this trilogy, have been ever since reading the very first chapter of the first book. I was both super excited and a bit apprehensive before reading this book – but I didn’t have to worry because Katherine Arden absolutely sticks the landing here. This book is both a great conclusion to this brilliant series as well as a great book in its own right.

What Arden does better than most authors I read is building an atmosphere so immersive I become lost in her (impeccably researched) world. I found reading this book a very rewarding experience and I am definitely a life-long fan. Drawing on Russian fairy tales and real world figures to build a world uniquely her own, Arden tells a story of a girl and her choices. Whatever happens in this book is always filtered through Vasya’s lenses and her destiny and I am in love with this. Vasya is a difficult character but someone I could not help root for. I wanted her to find her place and be happy. She is allowed to be prickly and nurturing, she can be rash and caring, and altogether wonderfully rounded. Her relationship to the Winter King just worked for me in this book (I was not fully on board in the book before) and I really liked the overwhelming tenderness between those two.

I adore how the world becomes more complicated as Vasya grows and the scope increases. Things that seemed very black and white to her in the first book become more ambivalent, people grow while staying true to their characterization, and overall the world becomes ever more believable.

Arden has a very distinct and very beautiful writing style that hints at her influences while being very much her own thing and from the very first chapter I was glad to be back in her capable hands. There is a rhythm to her writing that I find very beautiful and this coupled with a story that wraps up strong makes this a strong contender for my favourite book of this year (I just know it’ll make the list).

Other books in the series:
The Bear and the Nightingale: 5 out of 5 stars
The Girl in the Tower: 4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Ebury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

38633526Verdict: Just incredible.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by HarperVoyager, November 1st, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Our life is brief . . .

While on holiday at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with a sinister air directs her to perform strange and uncomfortable tasks. He rewards her efforts with a strange golden coin.

As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her new domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or university, she also feels that somehow it’s the only place she should be. Against her mother’s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the institute’s ‘special technologies’ are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons maddeningly obscure, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, their families pay a terrible price.

Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of… and suddenly all she could ever want.

Sometimes a book is so custom-made for me that I am unsure whether I can reasonably recommend it to anyone or if the reading experience was incredible just because the book hit all my favourite things. This is one of those times. Combining some of my greatest loves in fiction: dark fantasy, inspired by Russian literature, set in the middle of nowhere with plenty of snow, combining boarding school tropes with unconventional storytelling, this book was everything to me.

This book follows Sasha, whose life is changed forever when she is approached by an otherworldly man who tells her she is stuck in a time-loop and the only way to change this is to get up at four in the morning (never missing a day) and nakedly swimming in the ocean. She does so every day, vomiting up weird gold coins afterwards. Returning home and to what she thinks will be normalcy, she is approached again, having to follow new sets of rules, always throwing up gold coins afterwards. She does not feel she has a choice when the man tells her she will be attending a rural university instead of the one she had planned for all her life.

This book is a wild ride, and for the vast majority of its duration it stays opaque and the reader is left in the dark just as much as Sasha is. I did not mind this one bit and I loved this introspective, weird book a whole lot. There is a menacing undercurrent here that is made even more spell-binding as we closely follow Sasha and her fears without ever really being in her head at all. I found the use of third-person narration worked really well here and made the book all that more compulsive for me.

While Sasha is definitely the heart of this book and I adored her prickliness and her focus and her love for her family, I have to admit my favourite characters were the two main teachers and her mentor, the latter one being so very fascinating and awful and just everything I wanted him to be.

I do want everybody to read this, for one thing because it is brilliant and one of the highlights of my reading but also for another, totally selfish reason, I want it to be successful enough that the second book gets translated as soon as possible. I want to spend more time in this world and with this characters and I have very many theories where this might go next.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperVoyager in exchange for an honest review.

TBR: December 2018

I had given up on setting myself TBRs a few months ago as I never actually read the books I was “supposed to”. But this month there are a few books that I really should get to. I am behind on my ARCs for one thing but more importantly, next year I am planning on only reading books written by female and non-binary authors (more on that soon). This does mean that there are a few books I do need to get to this month or they will have to wait for over a year; an idea I am not too fond of.

So without much further ado, here are the books I want to read this December, starting with the books I am currently reading.

Currently reading

 

To be Read

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (ARC)

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri (ARC)

Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (ARC)

The Winter and The Witch by Katherine Arden (ARC)

To Be Read if time allows

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Do you have some books you want to read before the end of the year? Do let me know!

Review: City of Broken Magic (Chronicles of Amicae #1) by Mirah Bolender

Verdict: Very slow, interesting worldbuilding, weak characters.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Tor Books, November 20th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

I really am not that great at predicting which books I will adore. I was so sure I would love this because at the surface it does so many things I appreciate in books; but I also found its pace fairly slow and, more importantly, some of the narrative decisions when it came to the characters unfortunate.

Set in a partly industrialized fantasy setting (something I happen to really enjoy), this story follows Laura, newly employed Sweeper working for what is basically a bomb-squad but for monsters (awesome, right?). The world and the premise are brilliant – but the way this story is told might have worked better in a different medium – I would love this as a video game for example. Laura and her boss have to banish different monsters, always trying to find new ways to do so. These scenes, while exhilerating in the beginning, did start to feel a bit stale fairly soon. When the newest team member arrives, the story lost steam for me even more. I found Laura’s reaction to him deeply troubling in its lack of empathy and also not quite fitting for her character who before has not displayed this much selfishness.

I did really love the world but did not always appreciate the world building itself. There were many super interesting ideas floating around but they never felt organically integrated into the story. Ultimately the world building happened mostly through info-dumping and slowed down the pacing even more.

While I in theory appreciate the commentary on women’s roles in this society, I found its discussion in the text fairly obvious and not all that original. Laura is quick to assume everybody’s reaction to her is down to them being sexist and while that may well be the case the reader was never shown the way sexism is integral to the society but is rather told so. One major problem I had in this context was that while we were told that women were only allowed certain jobs, we were shown many women in powerful positions without anybody reacting to that at all, indicating that this is in fact normal for the society. This made Laura seem particularly thin-skinned and her reaction often overblown.

I received an arc courtesy of NetGalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Vanishing Twins: A Marriage by Leah Dieterich

37690295Verdict: Stunning, accomplished, clever.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Soft Skull Press, September 4th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

“It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: Once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”

As long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s searching for a twin–that she belongs as one of an intimate pair. It begins with friends, dance partners, and her own reflection in the mirror as she studies ballet growing up; continues with physical and emotional attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions she can’t answer about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.

How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their passionate original bond alive? This memoir in fragments looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance, and language, to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.

Vanishing Twins is a memoir about a marriage – but it is also so much more. It is an exploration of identity and gender, of growing up and finding oneself, of culture and literature, of ballet and advertising. I adored this.

Leah Dieterich frames her story both in ballet and in the science of vanishing twins, using metaphors and literary analysis to construct a picture of her twenties and her marriage. She meets her husband Eric fairly young and gets married to him at an age where most people are still trying to find themselves. Their symbiotic relationship starts to feel limiting and she proposes an open marriage to explore her queerness.

The book is told in (very) short, fragmented essays (one of my favourite styles) that grow to a convincing whole. I love how the author does not try to fit everything into a cohesive narrative, because life just isn’t that way. As she muses on her marriage and distinct memories, she also writes about other things in-between, mostly ballet but also philosophy and art history. I obviously adored this, there are few things that make me as happy as brilliant, clever memoirs. I have said countless times, I love when women unapologetically put themselves front and center in their art and Leah Dieterich does this, impressively so. One of my favourite aspects was the fact that she realizes her tendency to mirror people she is close to – from her sense of style to her haircut. I loved how this was addressed time and time again. It showed the aspects of her lovers that she most felt drawn to and it illuminated the growing distance between her husband and her while simultaneously underlining the bond between them.

There is a lot to admire here: from her clean prose to her insightful analysis of everything between ballet and advertising to art. I found this a highly rewarding reading experience that has me excited for more to come from Leah Dieterich.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Soft Skull Press for review consideration. My opinions are my own.

Review: The Corset by Laura Purcell

39098246Verdict: Phrenology creeps me out.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Historical/ Gothic Fiction

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing UK / Raven Books, September 20th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

I got retroactive FOMO for Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions because everybody seemed to be raving about it, so I knew I needed to read this one. Especially because it focusses on two women, one of them being a prisoner on trial for murder. I love books featuring unapologetically difficult women and Ruth and Dorothea definitely fit the bill.

Dorothea Truelove is a young, unmarried woman, with plenty of suitors who would rather spend her time doing charity work (do not take her to be a kind person though, she really is not). She is most interested in prisons, as she has a strongly developed theory of phrenology that she feels the need to prove (which proves my point about her being maybe not the best person). As such, Ruth seems to be the perfect specimen to research for her: Ruth is sixteen and in prison awaiting her trial that will most likely lead to her execution for murder. The story is told in these dual perspectives, where Ruth is telling her story to Dorothea and the reader is along for the ride to figure out whether Ruth truly killed her mistress with her magic needle work.

For me, this was a really uneven reading experience. While I for the most part really enjoyed Ruth’s perspective and the ambiguity of her story, Dorothea’s part of the book did not work for me (except for the last chapter). Ruth is a compelling character, whose tough and hatred-filled veneer starts to crack the further her story developes. She is still so childlike while being so very broken, it hurt my heart. Dorothea on the other hand with  her boring social life and her creepy obsession with phrenology did not quite keep my interest. This might be different for readers from different countries, but for me phrenology itself makes me very uncomfortable. I do not want to read about this and did not realize how obsessive Dorothea would be describing everybody’s skull (there is an in-story reason for this – but it did not change my gut reaction to this).

Furthermore, I found quite a bit of Ruth’s backstory to toe the line to torture porn, which probably says more about me as a reader than about the book to be honest. I would have liked to have these scenes be a little bit more scarcely used.

However, I found the ending to be very satisfying – Laura Purcell pulls together the two storylines in a really wonderful way. I was fine with the men’s storylines to be unresolved because in the end – this is a book about Ruth and Dorothea.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing UK / Raven Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

38362809Verdict: Strange, hard work, really really cool.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Published by Little, Brown Book Group UK / Orbit

Find it on Goodreads.

Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless—people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.

Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again—but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.

I am really unsure about my feelings for this one, except for this: it is pretty damn cool. And I cannot wait to see where Tade Thompson takes this story next.

Rosewater is a town in future Nigeria, built around an alien biodome which opens once a year to heal everybody in the vicinity of the opening. Since the aliens have landed, some people have started developing powers. One of those superpowered individuals, and possibly the strongest, is Kaaro, the main character of this brilliant novel. We follow Kaaro’s story, unchronologically and confusingly. I actually had to start the book over because I tend to not read chapter headings and had not realized that the book is set in different timelines.

Tade Thompson does not make it easy for the reader to follow the story – every timeline is told in present tense, even when Kaaro remembers doing something. There is a in-story reason for this stylistic choice (my favourite kind of stylistic choices are informed by the narrative, so I adored this) but this doesn’t make it any less confusing. The reader is along for the ride and either figures stuff out on their own or they don’t. For me, that worked really well – I like when authors trust their audience this way. And while I am still not completely certain to have grasped everything, what I understood of the story was quite brilliant.

I really liked how the framing of the story from Kaaro’s perspective colours the book – especially because he is not a particularly great person which only becomes obvious after a while. He does not feel the need to be a good person or to save the world or to do anything really, and as such he makes for a very interesting protagonist. The way other characters react to him shows more of his personality than his own narration  – which I just found so cool.

So yes, I thought that this was a lot of work but I found it very rewarding in the end. I enjoy Science Fiction that feels different and books told in interesting perspectives, so this was always going to work for me.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK in exchange for an honest review.