The Bear and the Nightingale

by Katherine Arden

You know how some books can really put you under their spell? Make you unable to put them down, fully dragging you into the narrative, so deep you forget to come up for air? The Bear and the Nightingale has that kind of pure, raw magic to it. Before I was even halfway through this book, I knew I needed the hardcover.

Summary25489134

A young woman’s family is threatened by forces both real and fantastical in this debut novel inspired by Russian fairy tales.

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, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift – a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, Pytor hides the gift away and Vasya grows up a wild, willful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

Musings

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made me love this book so much. I think, first of all, the storytelling quality it has to it. The style has that folktale feel to it, even though it’s much more complex than the kind of story you would be told around the fire on a cold winter’s night. The fact that it manages to tell tales while being a tale itself really made me enjoy it even more.

Maybe that’s why it was so engrossing. The way I could be pulled into the stories inside the story. The way it made me feel the snow and the cold, to wish there was a fire beside me. The way it shared Russian mythology with me, while turning these folk characters into ‘real’ people, with complex problems and motivations.

Vasya is a firecracker. She grows up playing in the woods, befriending the spirits there. She learns to speak with the horses, and they teach her to ride. She gives up her food and her own blood to those who protect her, and she protects in return. But this kind of action has her labeled as a witch, a wild child who will never be able to hold down a husband. She is very much a modern girl in this tale, even though she is the only one to believe the old stories as everyone else moves on. She bold, strong, and caring, and overall fiercely loyal, all without coming off as annoying. A brilliant character whom I loved.

Overlaying this on a landscape and a time period where the only options for a woman are matrimony or the convent, Vasya struggles to find her place. Well, I should say, other have a hard time placing Vasya: Vasya knows what she wants.

The major theme here at play seems to be the first of old tales versus new beliefs. As christianity is brought – or, I should say, enforced – into the small villages, the old beliefs are swept aside, and the spirits are fading. No wonder people think Vasya is a witch. The priest, Konstantin, sees he child as the enemy, someone trying to undo gods work, trying to tempt him. The fight of old versus new grows, as an old threat returns. Pretty bad timing for a priest.

A few minor things ticked me off, like how Vasya’s growth into a woman was handled – some of the comparisons were a little creepy, as well as the looks of men. That, and I’m not quite sure about the Nightingale in the title, since it only shows up towards the end. I assumed Vasya would be the nightingale: maybe it’s a metaphor that flew over my head (pun not intended.)

Another little detail – that’s mainly my own problem! – was that, to respect the Russian culture and spelling, a lot of the character has multiple names. Their first names, nicknames, nicknames built off nicknames… a little confusing as there were so many. Again, my own issue.

All in all, this is a fantastic, beautiful book. It reminds me of Uprooted, by Naomi Novik,  which I also adored this year, but with some of the themes Neil Gaiman loves to write. So if you love either of them, you’re going to devour the Bear and the Nightingale. Out January 10th.

 

Sounds of War

by Cindy Chen

Reviewed by SA

I love doing Self Published Saturday! I really do! I get the opportunity to read, and share, books I would not have even known about if it wasn’t for the amazing self published community. It’s when reading books like Sounds of War that you really wish the book was a physical copy rather than an epub, so you can shove it into all of your friends hands. I really did not expect this book to be as beautiful as it was, and everyone needs a chance to read it.

Summary

People were dying. Bodies were lying along the streets. Air raid sirens were about to go off at any moment. Nobody was shown any mercy.

For Anna, life had always been about music. An aspiring pianist and composer, she studied at the renowned Leningrad Conservatoire under some of the greatest musicians to ever walk the face of the Earth. Her studies came to a halt, however, when Nazi troops surrounded Leningrad in September, 1941, intending to shell and starve the city into submission. She watched as her once-beautiful city transformed in front of her eyes: people became living skeletons, their only food being a mere 125 grams of ration bread a day; buildings were reduced to rubble, pieces of bricks and broken glass strewn along the streets; cats, dogs, rats, and horses disappeared as people chose to eat them instead. One by one, the citizens of Leningrad were losing hope, and Anna was desperately trying to find a reason to hold on and a way to continue…

What a fantastically beautiful book.

I’m going to say it right now: I’m not into music. GASP. I listen to it, any kind, but it’s usually just something to keep my mind focused on a project or two. Never did I think I would actually GET it. Somehow, through words, by creating sound out of ink and letters, this novel made me suddenly love music. It made me see how powerful a few notes and cords could be. I was transported to a world of sound and song through a novel about war. The trips to the Conservatoire, the piano playing between friends and family, Anna’s dedication to writing music: these moments truly came alive for me, and managed to resonate like real music would.

All this cuts a sharp contrast with the description of wartime Lenningrad. The beauty of the music clashes with the death and despair on the streets of this city, and as a reader, you truly feel the pain and anguish of life there. It’s terrifying: while the music really is beautiful and warm, the description of life in 1941 makes you feel cold inside.

Chen really has a way with words: from creating music out of thin air, to creating sorrow on the next page, you wonder if you’re even reading a book at all anymore. I devoured this book in a one hour bus ride, and was so enthralled I almost missed my stop. Even when I got off the bus, I had five pages left to read, so I sat down at the stop and finished it. I really was transported to wartime Russia. This book is a real gem. Its subject matter is hard, and at every page you turn and think: “Wow, how can their situation get any worse?” – spoiler alert, somehow it does. The author never seems to exaggerate, creating an environment which felt wholly realistic to me.

Anna herself is a great character: she’s realistic, relatable, and determined. You feel her emotions through the pages, you yearn to reach out a hand and pull her out. But when she plays music, you really feel as if you’re seeing the real Anna. She dwindles when she’s away from an instrument for too long.

The relationship that develops between the protagonist and her best friend is just as realistic as the rest. An atmosphere of “Will they, won’t they” sometimes hung in the air, (or in the pages I should say), and I was so pleased it didn’t go the way or the popular historical fiction (I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything). It’s a friendship I envy, one with mutual respect, a shared passion for music, and with honest conversation.

But yes, this book is painful. It’s set during WWII, after all. if there wasn’t the beauty of music to soften it, I would have lost it – which I think is the point! There is death, loss. Pain. Horror. Moments you wish you could put the book down, if it wasn’t so darn addicting. The ending, however, is perfect, and makes all the pain worth the read.

Make sure you pick up this amazing book!