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: The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

38206879Verdict: Fast-paced, fun, but slightly lacklustre.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Thriller

Published by Random House, Ebury Publishing, July 12th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Have you ever played two truths and a lie?

Emma has. Her first summer away from home, she learned how to play the game. And she learned how to lie.

Then three of her new friends went into the woods and never returned . . .

Now, years later, Emma has been asked to go back to the newly re-opened Camp Nightingale. She thinks she’s laying old ghosts to rest but really she’s returning to the scene of a crime.

Because Emma’s innocence might be the biggest lie of all…

I had a lot of fun reading this, and fun was really what I needed. I read around 250 pages in one sitting (something I rarely do); I also went to bed way too late because I just needed to know how this one ends. But, this book really does not hold up to scrutiny and there were a couple of things that did not work for me.

When Emma was 13-years old and spending her summer at a camp for rich kids, her three roommates disappear. Now, 15 years later, Emma is a painter who has been painting and then painting over her friends for years, when she is invited back to the newly re-opened camp. Hoping for closure she accepts the invitation, but things might not be as idyllic as they seem.

I highly enjoyed the dual timelines (this is something I often adore) and thought Riley Sager brilliantly used this to develop his story. I did however grow increasingly annoyed at the way Emma withholds information from the reader. This is difficult to achieve in first person narration and here it did not work for me. Another thing that annoyed me about the narrative voice is the way in which people, especially women, are described. Emma is 28 and talks about herself and other women in the story as both old and spent, which, you know, grated. Especially when contrasted with the way the only significant male figure in the story is described: because obviously he just got hotter. While I understand why Emma might project her self-loathing onto her looks, I don’t buy that she would think this way about other women. Speaking of self-loathing – I also thought Emma’s guilt was maybe a bit over the top because, I mean, she was 13 when everything happened. The way people kept holding her behaviour as a kid over her head did feel a bit unneccessary.

In general I thought some of the characterization worked a lot better in the past than in the present. I thought Emma’s relationship to Vivian (one of the girls who disappeared in the past) was done excedingly well. I had a very similar friendship as a teenager: my best friend was both the best and the worst person possible for me. When she wanted, spending time with her felt radiant, she was funny and brilliant and unbelievably charismatic (I used to half-joke that I have never met a boy who didn’t fall in love with her – something that wasn’t as funny when she set her eyes on somebody I quite fancied – this happened more than once), we had so much fun. But, and here she is similar to Vivian, she could also be cold and uncaring. Riley Sager captured this part of (some) teenage friendships so unbelievably well that in contrast the weird mirroring with the girls in the present really did not work for me at all.

The book was well-written in a way that I just flew through. I could picture the camp perfectly and got a great sense of place and mood. I also enjoyed the mystery side to the story, for the most part. I did think that a couple of developments were a bit too convenient but overall, I did enjoyed my time with the book.

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

Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

34846987Verdict: Uneven, very description heavy, not quite my cup of tea.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Published by Random House/ Ebury Publishing, February 8th, 2018

Find it on goodreads.

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open!

It is 1917, and London has spent years in the shadow of the First World War. In the heart of Mayfair, though, there is a place of hope. A place where children’s dreams can come true, where the impossible becomes possible – that place is Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium.

For years Papa Jack has created and sold his famous magical toys: hobby horses, patchwork dogs and bears that seem alive, toy boxes bigger on the inside than out, ‘instant trees’ that sprout from boxes, tin soldiers that can fight battles on their own. Now his sons, Kaspar and Emil, are just old enough to join the family trade. Into this family comes a young Cathy Wray – homeless and vulnerable. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own. But Cathy is about to discover that while all toy shops are places of wonder, only one is truly magical…

I struggled with this. It took me about two months to read and I never felt compelled to pick it up. This is not a bad book by any means and I am still struggling to pinpoint what did not work for me. So stick with me as I am trying to figure out my thoughts.

I adored the first chapter and was absolutely convinced I would love the book to pieces. It brilliantly introduces Cathy, knocked-up and desperate, who flees her parents’ home to find work in Papa Jack’s Emporium. Her sense of desperation is wonderfully juxtaposed with the wonder of her new work place and here the immersive and inventive descriptions worked really well. When the Empirium closes for spring and summer, she decides to stay and hide as she has nowhere else to go. This is a trope I struggle with in books: lying and hiding makes me anxious.

What developes next is a love triangle between Cathy and Papa Jack’s two sons: Kasper and Emil. I have no patience for love triangles; especially not for those between brothers. While it makes sense in the way the two have always been in direct competition (mostly for their father’s approval), it’s just not something I enjoy in books.

In general, I thought the characters were the definite weak point of this book. While Cathy is nicely developed (espcially in the first half of the story) and I couldn’t not root for her and her courage, I found the brothers caricature-like and Papa Jack a non-entity. Perhaps this book would have worked better for me had it been written in a first person perspective. This way I would have been able to spend more time with Cathy and less time with the waring brothers. I also found Emil and Nina to be very abrasive characters whose motivations did not always quite work for me.

I also figured something out just now: the book was overly descriptive. It feels like the majority of words were used to describe the Emporium in incredible detail; there must be hundreds of inventions described. And while I enjoyed this at the beginning, when the reader followed Cathy’s awe, it did not quite work for me later in the book when darker themes started to emerged. Then I felt the whimsy of the description detracted from the story.

I received an arc of this courtesy of NetGalley and Random House/Ebury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Toymakers? What were your thoughts? Has it happened to you recently that you loved the first chapter of a book but not much else?

Review: The Girl in The Tower (The Winternight Trilogy #2) – Katherine Arden

35004343My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 13th, 2017

Published by Random House, Ebury Press, January 25th 2018

Verdict: Atmospherical, beautiful, stressful.

Find it on Goodreads.

For a young woman in medieval Russia, the choices are stark: marriage or a life in a convent. Vasya
will choose a third way: magic…

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile bandits roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping its daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse.

Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, thought to be dead or a witch by her village. But when Vasya proves herself in battle, riding with remarkable skill and inexplicable power, Sasha realises he must keep her secret as she may be the only way to save the city from threats both human and fantastical…

I adore the world Katherine Arden has created here. The things I loved, loved, loved about the first part of this series are still all here:

  • brilliant characters with believable interactions,
  • sibling relationships that are complicated and true,
  • an atmosphere so all-encompassing that it makes you forget your own surroundings,
  • wonderfully immersive descriptions,
  • a surprising and wonderful way to construct sentences that just sound like nobody else (in the best possible way) while still retaining that fairy-talesque rhythm that makes this series so readable,
  • an understanding of the essence of fairy-tales that shows itself in the brilliant way the familiar tropes are both used and subverted, and
  • the wonderful setting of Medieval Russia.
  • And many more things.

From the very first chapter I was fully immersed in the story as we follow Vasya fleeing her home town after the events of the last book lest she be burned as a witch. Having only herself and her horse Solovey to rely on, this book has much higher stakes than the first one. Vasya pretends to be a boy and gets not only herself but her older siblings Sasha and Olga caught up in a web of lies.

I was not quite as enamored as I was with the first book (although to be fair, that book was one of the best things I have read in years…). Most of that comes down to simple genre preferences. This second book is a lot more fast-paced while the first one created a wonderfully slow narrative with clever twists on familiar fairy tales; this book reads more like a conventional YA-Fantasy (albeit a brilliantly written and very beautiful one). My biggest problem was the “pretending to be someone else”-trope. This is one of my least favourite tropes and stresses me out to no end. The dread this built made this a very different read for me.

But beyond this tiny little issue, I was wildly pleased with this book; I adore what Katherine Arden has created here and I find her vision and her voice beyond exciting. I am happy to have been there from the beginning and I cannot imagine not reading each and every single thing she will ever write.

First sentence: “A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Random House, Ebury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) – Katherine Arden

33797941My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: November 18th, 2016

Published by Random House, Ebury Press, January 2017

Verdict: Beyond great.

Find it on Goodreads.

‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman.

Do you know that fuzzy feeling when you find a book with a world so immersive that you don’t want it to ever end? This was a book like that for me. I absolutely adored it – and I am not quite sure if this review will at all be coherent, but I’ll try my best.

This was a book that I was super super excited to get to read early. I love books set in Russia, especially the North of Russia; I love Fairy Tales; I love the books the blurb compared it to. I only wanted to read the first chapter because I have loads of unfinished books already but I was immediately drawn in and did not feel like reading anything else. I absolutely devoured it and when I came up again I was a bit sad that the book wasn’t longer (especially because the last 3% were the glossary so the book ended a good 15 pages before I thought it would!). That so rarely happens with me!

The book tells the story of Vasya, a child whose mother was a bit other-worldly and who died giving birth to her. Vasya is different herself, being able to converse with household-spirits that nobody else can see. In true fairy tale fashion, her father remarries and the stepmother is, well not exactly evil, but one of the main antagonistic forces of this story. In a world where the new Christian beliefs are at odds with the older, heathen beliefs, this conflict comes to a head when a new priest is appointed to their little village and sets into motion a series of events that will have the heroine come face to face with arcane powers.

Set in the North of Russia with its seemingly ever-lasting winter, the author creates an atmosphere so believable, and enchanting, and surreal, and creepy, and beautiful, I could picture it every step of the way. Her characters are equally believable and even though they all fit the tropes of the genre, Katherine Arden adds little twists that make this story incredibly original and readable. One of my favourite of her decisions was the complete lack of romantic interest the heroine shows. She just wants to decide her life for herself; a difficult thing to do in a time when the two options open for her are a) marriage or b) joining a convent.

Overall, in case anyone missed it, I absolutely adored this book and its main character. I love the little nods to fairy tales I grew up with and I love the focus on making your own choices rather than just doing what is expected and/ or easy. The only slight negative I can find is that I found the ending to be rushed; but then again I just didn’t want the book to end, ever.

I received this book curtesy of NetGalley and Random House, Ebury Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!