The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

*This is a spoiler free review*

The vast majority of my all-time favourite books have various things in common. They’re likely to be classed as fantasy, and include some sort of fantastical creature. They’re likely to influenced my mythology, fairytales, and legends. Most will have incredible leading female characters that defy all expectations. Very rarely, they will encompass all of these things.

Allow me to introduce one of my new favourite series: The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, an incredible historical fantasy. The series order is as follows: The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch.

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My first thought when I started The Bear and the Nightingale was that it was beautifully written. The prose is very lavish and poetic in its descriptions, making a wonderful sweeping rhythm as you read. I have heard from a few friends that they found it quite boring and too long in descriptions when they started reading, but personally I found the writing too lovely to care. It definitely does have a slower start, but as I’ve found with all three books the plot picks up. With the first in the series, this perhaps doesn’t happen until the latter half of the novel, which can be expected as Arden is slowly weaving together her world and its characters for the majority of the novel. With the second and third book however, the plot really takes off much sooner and meant that I preferred these over the first title just for the sheer pace they set.

The plots themselves are incredibly well crafted. For me, the first book definitely had that classic, fairytale vibe – you have the legends of Winter Kings, conflicting family dynamics including a new stepmother, a young girl who wants a life not permitted for young girls, and the struggle between old legends and new religion. It’s difficult to say too much about the plots of the following two books, but what I can say is that they both took me by surprise. In the second book, there were plot twists I hadn’t seen and an edge of anxiety throughout as you wait to see whether or not everything will come crashing down around the main protagonist. The third book actually had a huge plot twist that occurred around half way through – and it was here that I had believed the series would end, only to find that Arden reinvents the tropes and creates a far better, more imaginative, conclusive end to such a fantastic series.

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Next up: the characters. In the first book, we follow a family that live in Russian wilderness surrounded by forests and lying some distance from Moscow. In particular, we follow the young Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, who is a strange child compared to her siblings. One of the main reasons she is her gift to see the old creatures of Russia, domovoi and other beings that live in houses, stables, woods, and more. When her mother dies, Vasya’s father ventures to Moscow and returns with a devout stepmother who is determined to bring in her new religion (a beloved priest alongside her) and cast out the old beings. When evil in the forest creeps nearer and the battle of new and old truly begins, Vasya must choose whether to obey by marrying or joining a convent, or go against them all and use her gifts to save her family.

Vasya is a fantastic character. Whilst she is very young in the first book, at no point does this diminish her incredible characterisation and Arden’s ability to make you root for her. She makes stupid mistakes through the whole series, but has brilliant growth from each one. In The Bear and the Nightingale, the perspective is mainly Vasya’s – when she is too young, we see Vasya through the eyes of her father and nurse – and the priest who is brought to her home. There is a frost demon (and who doesn’t love the odd frost demon thrown in) who has his own plans that as a reader you are unaware of, along with the smattering of household domovoi who pop up throughout the book. My favourite character is actually not introduced until toward the end of the first book, and just happens to be a horse (but of course).

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The atmosphere is just the best thing about this book, and if you like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted then I’m sure you’d adore this series. One of my favourite aspects is of course the various legends and fairytales throughout the books, but storytelling in general. Whether it’s a character telling a legend within the book or Arden herself telling the story of Vasya, the language and narrative are just so stunning that I couldn’t help but sink into the pages.

Originally I didn’t pick up this series as it was always on the romance table, and whilst I love a bit of romance every now and then it just didn’t seem to stand out to me. A colleague however told me that she adored it, and as soon as I knew it was a historical reimagining set in Russia with folklore and fairytales I was in. It was a relief that the third book came out so soon after I picked up the first one, as I’m not sure I could have waited for each new instalment.

So to all of you who are looking for a new series – this is the one to pick up, as the trilogy is completely published! Rejoice for not having to wait for the sequel! If you’re a fan of fantasy I’m sure you’d love it, and for those who are new to fantasy or who don’t read fantasy, this is the perfect book to dip your toes into the magical worlds. It’s a wonderful blend of historical fiction with fantastical elements, and the lush language and wintery atmosphere are ideal for this time of year. It’s enchanting, to put it simply. I can’t recommend it enough.

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December Wrap Up and Favourite Books of 2018

It is mad that it’s already January 12th – I feel like New Year’s Eve was only yesterday, and I was planning to write about the books I read in December not that long ago. Yet, here we are, and I’m left having to do a great 2-in-1 deal of a post. First up: what I read in the month of December.

I read 4 books in December, which meant that I ended the year on 44 books out of my 45 goal – which I’m really happy about. I read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book that I felt was so poignant for the world we’re living in at the moment in terms of the attitudes that we have and that need to be changed, that I ended up buying it as a Christmas present for someone. A very quick read, you could definitely finish this one in a couple of sittings.

Then I read what ended up being my (spoiler) favourite book of 2018, which was Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton. This is a non-fiction memoir all about love, be that romantic love or familial or the love between friends. Dolly is an incredible writer, and managed to capture the atmosphere of the places she is in so well. In the opening chapters where she talks about relationships as a young girl, chatting on MSN and characteristics of her friends, had me laughing after only a few minutes reading. She writes with the relatable flair that feels like she’s talking directly to you, and it’s so easy to sink into her narrative. There are moments of harsh reality, devastating moments of pain and anguish alongside memories filled with laughter and fun. It’s a book I feel that I’ll need to reread over the years, and I desperately hope she writes more in the future.

Following this non-fiction marvel, I read the acclaimed, Waterstones book of the year Normal People by Sally Rooney. This is a book that I have seen everywhere, and have had friends raving about it. I struggle with books that are considered to be ‘literary’, especially when authors have an aversion to using speech marks. Rooney, however, has made me see that you don’t need to have a PhD to enjoy a book such as hers. It charts the relationship between two young people from very different backgrounds who grew up in the same town, and dip in and out of each other’s lives for various reasons. I definitely had a lot to say about this book, from some of its infuriating characters to scenes that really affected me. A great modern day classic.

The final book I read in 2018 was The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke. This is a fantasy that follows a group of girls who are paid to end the lives of those suffering, be it from incurable diseases to old age. It’s a reimagining of Beowulf, with the girls hearing about a monster plaguing lands, so they decide to go on a quest to fight the beast. On the way they meet witches and all manners of marvels. I enjoyed the novel, and thought the pace of the book worked well. It wasn’t my absolute favourite book, but I by no means disliked it. I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for a fantasy novel that isn’t a behemoth, and plays around with characters and setting.

And so, this leads me to my favourite books of 2018. I decided to go for my favourite five, as it seems silly to list almost a quarter of the books I read in a Top 10.

As we know, Everything I Know About Love was my ultimate, but the others are in no particular order – and, no surprises here, they are all fantasy books.

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor has to make the list. Laini’s imagination is unrivalled, and her stories never fail to fill me with awe and wonder. You could describe each of them as fun and fantastical, but at the same also heart-wrenching with moments of real poignancy. It’s everything I love about fantasy, and Muse of Nightmares was no different. Muse was one of my most anticipated sequels, with Strange the Dreamer one of my favourite books from previous years. I can only hope that one day I will have half the creative talent that Laini does.

Next up is of course The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, which publishes February 2019. This beast of a book has plenty of elements that I knew I was going to adore: strong leading female characters, retellings of legends (in this case of George and the Dragon) and, of course, dragons. A standalone fantasy, it’s no shock that this book is a giant, and I truly adored the escapism and sweeping epic of a tale it was.

There was also another book by one of my favourite authors, which ended up as a true favourite of 2018: Vengeful by V E Schwab. Another author I can only dream of emulating, Schwab has a way with words that is just unbeatable. Her characters all feel like they could have books just about them, and her plots are intricate, twisting, and perfect in every way. She has also written middle grade, along with adult fantasy and YA, and at this rate I think I just need to read everything she has ever written.

Finally, it’s Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. This. Book. I truly think Tomi has opened up fantasy to a whole new generation of readers, and simply from using characters that aren’t white – this shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is and I love her for it. This fast-paced, action-packed book had me turning pages so quickly that my hands ached by the end of it. She manages to have not one story climax, but five or more, so you’re never certain that there is ever a moment of calm in the story. She puts her characters through the hell, and her imagination and little details are wonderful. I cannot wait for the sequel, also out in 2019, to see what happens next.

And those are my favourite books of 2018. Do let me know what you read and loved last year, and especially what you’re looking forward to reading in 2019.

 

 

November Reading Wrap Up

The further I get into the year, the harder I find writing these wrap ups. You know the drill, I read three books, they were great, they were as follows:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a book that I read years ago, but had no recollection of the vast majority of. All I could remember was that there was a girl who went to live with adopted parents, a woman who called her Saumensch, Death is the narrator, and the setting is World War II. I’m so glad that I decided to pick this one up again and reread, because there was so much that I didn’t remember and characters that I fell in love with all over again. A true classic that I think everyone should read, even if it’s only to read a book where you have a narrator almost more interesting than everything else that’s happening.

The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward – I picked this book up because I was going on a short holiday away and needed a light book to take with me (along with The Book Thief, which I was so close to finishing). I had no idea what this book was about before I started, and I’m actually very glad that I didn’t. This is memoir that is part prose, part verse about childhood, growing up, and the bonds of family. I read this in a few sittings, and could have done it in fewer had I not chosen to take breaks. A really engaging, powerful read.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – now this is the kind of book I adore. Sweeping fantasy tangled up with historical fiction, with beautifully written prose, fantastical creatures, and a great plot. Set in the wintery wilderness of Russia, this story follows the grandchild of a woman who was called a witch and appeared from the woods. You follow her along with various other characters she encounters as an old evil gathers strength near by.

I set a goal of reading 45 books this year, and currently I’m at 40 – whether I can read 5 in December who knows, but we’ll see what happens…

October Reading Wrap Up

I think the last two months have included some of my favourite reads of not just 2018, but all time – September had some great books, and October was no different. Dare I say it, but October perhaps stepped up the game for brilliant reads. I’ve had a slow reading month this November, what with balancing work, trying to do NaNoWriMo, and going on holiday (all good things). Looking back at October is a great reminder of all the fantastic books that are out there, and makes me desperate to go out and find even more (which will have to wait until the next pay check, because Christmas season is crippling me already).

The first book I finished in October was The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. All of my friends were telling me that this is a book that I’d adore, something that I can only remember happening with The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller. Boy, they were not wrong. This is a retelling of the events that occur in the course of Homer’s The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the woman who is taken as a slave by the Trojan army and given to Achilles as a war prize. Although Helen is a more household name in terms of familiarity with the legend, as the one who supposedly started the war (men do like to blame women, is one of the many things that this book highlights), it is over the ‘stealing’ of Briseis that Achilles enters a wrathful sulk – the one that kicks of The Iliad. In Pat Barker’s retelling, she focuses in on what happens to the women in the Trojan war and creates a narrative and voice for Briseis, something she does not have in the original text. The characters speak with a modern vernacular, the crude modern day language bringing a new sense of life to the ancient setting and making the old seem far closer than expected. I truly enjoyed this book, and would recommend to all whether you know the original book or not. If I could, I’d prescribe both this book and The Song of Achilles to all.

The next marvel that I devoured in October was Muse of Nightmares by Lani Taylor, the sequel to Strange the Dreamer that I’ve been pining for. Laini Taylor just has an unbeatable imagination, one that I wish I could exist in. She manages to craft worlds – plural – that come to life in all of her books, and somehow link them together so that you have one universe that melds together but maintains unique characteristics in each separate world, each that are so dynamic they each deserve their own story. This is the second series I’ve read by this author, and if possible I love it even more than the first series. The characters are enchanting, the world mesmerising, and the plot kept me flicking through the pages long after I should have put the book down. This series is a wonderful escape for any fantasy lover – and even if you’re not much of a fantasy fan, I dare you to try and read a few lines of Laini’s prose and not to get drawn in.

The third and final book I finished in October was An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I remember seeing this book when it first came out, and for some reason I didn’t pick it up. Ever since it’s been popping up here and there, taunting me, and after some over-enthusiastic encouragement from a friend I decided to pick it up. To put it simply: I put aside a Sunday and made sure to have no plans so that I could just sit and read this book. I feel all my reviews are the same, but the characters! The world! The plot! All so brilliant, and I’m so very very glad that the rest of the series is published and ready for me to dive into.

And that was my October! As I said, November is off to a slow start but by no means is that due to slow, boring books. I’m also going away for four days this week, which I’m hoping means that I’ll be able to get some seriously good reading done.

September Reading Wrap Up

Well, September was quite the month. I read what will most likely be one of my favourite books of 2018 – possibly two of my favourite books of 2018 – along with a book that has taken me over a year to finish. Halfway through the month I thought I’d only finish 2 books, and it got to the end of the month and I somehow realised that I’d read far more than anticipated.

The first book I finished in the month of September was an 800+ page beast of a book, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. Thanks to very good friends and the lovely world of publishing, I managed to get my hands on an early review copy. As we all know, I adore all things fantasy and dragons – and this tome did not disappoint. Sweeping landscapes, extensive character lists, and intricately intertwined plots made this standalone epic a true delight. I truly hope that Shannon has a chance to write more in this world, as it’s probably the first 800+ page book that I’ve ever finished and wished for more. Highly recommend to any fantasy lovers, or those looking for a fresh, feminist take on typical fantastical tropes found in legends and lore.

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The next book I read was On Writing by Stephen King – an unexpected gem. I’ve been desperately trying to get back into a good writing habit, and thought a little bit of non-fiction writing wisdom from one of the greats might inspire some motivation in me. This book did that and more – it told the story of how Stephen King became, well, Stephen King, along with the tools and habits that he picked up on the way. There are snippets of advice, hints, and tricks to guide you on your way, along with incredibly poignant and moving episodes and anecdotes that came as a complete surprise to me. I found myself wanting to highlight passages like it was a textbook I needed to study, and now that I’ve finished it I know I’ll be dipping back into its pages to try and unlock even more.

Then came the book that I’ve been literally reading for over a year. It’s no secret that I’ve been trying to get through the Harry Potter books on audiobook, and I was enjoying listening to them so much that I thought it would help me get through other, very different, titles. After finishing The Order of the Phoenix, I decided to listen to something else before continuing my listening journey with Harry and the gang – what a mistake. A year and several months after starting, I have finally finished listening to 36 hours of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I can’t quite collect my thoughts on this book just yet, so thrilled I am to be finished, but it is finally, finally, over. Goodbye Esther and Jarndyce, it’s been quite a ride.

The last book I finished this month was a sequel I never thought I’d get to a book I never thought could get better – Vengeful by V.E Schwab. Honestly, Vicious was one of my favourite books when I read it, an incredible reimagining of the Frankenstein myth in a new, superhero format with dark edges, twisting plots, and brilliant characters. Vengeful was like Vicious at 100 miles per hour. The characters were even better, with new characters that definitely fit the current mood of the world where all women want to burn everything to the ground (which is exactly what we got with Marcella). Schwab has a great way of setting up lots of different plot lines and little details, some that she’ll use later and some that she won’t, and drawing all of them together in a huge, climactic finale that has you reeling. Beautifully written, gripping all the way through – it is no surprise that I finished this book in just a few sittings.

And that was my September. It’s going to be a struggle to top it in October, but I suppose with the cold nights drawing in and the increase in evenings spent curled up in blankets with candles lit, I’m sure I’ll get some good reading in.

August Reading Wrap Up

Plot twist: I did not read four books this month, like every other month. I read fewer books, but in my opinion more pages as last night I finished an 800+ page fantasy book that I adored – stay tuned until next month to find out what that was, or just look at my Instagram where I’ve already told everyone about it.

The first book in August that I finished was the incredibly powerful and moving Almost Love by Louise O’Neill. This is my third book by this author, and I still don’t know how I don’t seem to realise beforehand that, like all of her other books, this one would also wreck me in its own, gutting way. In some ways this one was similar to Asking for It, in the way that the main character isn’t immediately ‘likeable’. She’s a tough character to stick with, I’ll give you that, but mainly because you’re watching a woman who has been abused push everyone she loves away – and the worst part is, something you see from page 1, is that they let her. This is a story split into two narratives – the present, and the past. In the past you watch the main character in a ‘relationship’ with an older man, and in the present you see how the abuse from that affects her still, especially with her current partner. I didn’t read this quickly because I felt it difficult to read in long periods of time – not because it was a bad book, more the opposite. It was so well written, so poignant and close to real life that I found it difficult to stay in that ‘world’ for long.

After that tornado, I went to my happy place: fantasy with dragons. This time I picked up Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman – I read Seraphina a few months ago and really enjoyed it as a very differently written fantasy. Tess of the Road was no exception, but this time I far preferred the main character and her journey. Tess, our heroine, is sister to Seraphina – but unlike her esteemed sister, Tess is the opposite. From a past mistake, she is a disgrace to her family and destined to forever be a nun or a maid to her sister. One day, she decides to take a risk and runs away from home to find her own happiness elsewhere. A really enjoyable read, this was exactly the kind of book that I was after following the heartbreak from Louise O’Neill gave me.

The last book I finished in August was Fen by Daisy Johnson. This was an unexpected book, one that was sensual, dynamic, and pointed – far closer to the themes of Almost Love than Tess of the Road, for sure. Haunting as much as it was illuminating, this short story collection shows the contrast between the routine, everyday life and dark, magical wild that lives close by. I read a review of this that talked about the themes of Otherness, desire, and loss – and that’s exactly what these stories encapsulate in every line. It is twisted, dark, and exists on a very different plane. Some stories I loved, others I struggled with, but overall really enjoyed the full experience.

And that was my August. Unlike last month, I’m sat here in a jumper not even thinking about ice cream, so it definitely feels like Autumn is on it’s way. Although I’m sad to see the hot sun leave once more, I can’t wait to bundle up in scarves and jumpers, light candles every evening, and restock my bath bomb supply – and, of course, read some fantastic books.

 

July Reading Wrap Up

Every time I try to sit down and write this wrap up, I keep having to abandon all progress I make because it’s too bloody hot to be sitting down with a laptop and all I really want to do is lie in the shade with an ice cream. But, here I am, ready to bash out this wrap up post in a prompt fashion so I can go back to finding ways to keep cool.

It seems my average books per month this year is the nice, even number 4, and July was no different. I was off to a flying start in this month because I picked up a fantasy novel I’d been meaning to read for a while, which only fed my fantasy addiction so I picked up another straight after. The first was Beyond a Darkened Shore by Jessica Leake, a fantasy set in a historical Ireland where the main threat consisted of Nordic Viking invaders. You follow the heroine Ciara, who has strange and powerful gifts to control the minds of people in battle, as she is forced to partner up with her enemy to defeat a greater threat. There are great elements to this story, blending two different folklores such as The Morrigan with Norse Mythology, and doing it very well. I loved the opening chapters, with these engaging storylines and well paced plot – any book with Norse mythology in it will obviously keep me very happy, but I think there was definitely more that could be done.

On the whole, the book was paced well, but scenes towards the end seemed cut short – a huge battle that is essentially the ‘boss fight’ lasted no more than two or three pages. And let’s be honest, I love a good bit of romance and I liked the two leads, but I was the complete opposite of invested which isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a fun fantasy adventure. Overall a good book and a fun read, but definitely think there was more room for development – especially in the second half of the story.

Whilst I was still in the high of whizzing through that fantasy, I dived straight into Onyx and Ivory by Mindee Arnett. And, again, I finished this in two or three days. A really enjoyable, quick read – which was exactly what I wanted from it. For me, I think whilst I did enjoy the book it definitely needed some more worldbuilding and explaining of magic systems, religions, and the actual reasoning behind some parts of the story. There are also more YA fantasy cliches and tropes than you know what to do with, which can be a bit of a slog if you’re fed up with similar plot ‘twists’ and character traits. I’m hopeful that the world will develop more in the sequels, and maybe the following books will give answers to elements not covered in the first book. Overall, I found it gripping up until the last quarter, where the end felt forced and rushed. Still, I would recommend for a light, fun read if you’re not too worried about large world building elements and rich detail.

Deciding that I needed to make sure July wasn’t a fantasy-a-thon, the next book I picked up was I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. Wow, is all I can really say. An incredible memoir of Maggie’s near-death experiences, from reckless childhood behaviour to illness to giving birth. There are accounts of encounters with strange men on deserted paths, being robbed on holiday, and ending with protecting her daughter from a condition that leaves her vulnerable to the world around her, for who the book is written for. I honestly could have read this all in one sitting, but it was the perfect book to read on the tube, dipping into one episode after the next on each journey. A truly fantastic, powerful read.

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Finally in July, I ended on a bit of a slog with The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Despite all the acclaims, praise, and recommendations, I just couldn’t get into this one. I really struggled to pick it up and read, and so ended up talking half the month just to finish it. In comparison to the fantasy I read, this was the exact opposite where I had to force myself to find time to read it, and felt like I’d read 50 pages when I’d barely got through 10. It is very well written, but unfortunately wasn’t for me.

And that was my July! Four books, all memorable and different in their own ways. I’m on track for my Goodreads reading target for the year, but since leaving working at a bookshop my TBR pile has really shrunk – hurrah! This means I’m on the hunt for reading recommendations, so if you have any definitely let me know. I’m also on the hunt for a proof of Samantha Shannon’s new book The Priory of the Orange Tree, but I have a feeling I’ll have to wait a long while for that one.