Katherine Arden’s enchanting debut novel buries readers in the freezing winter of medieval Russia, a place still steeped in myth and fairy tale. The Bear and the Nightingale is an atmospheric debut that brings to life 14th century Russian history, makes it relatable to readers and fills it with magic.
Vasya grows up in the northern wilderness, the daughter of the wealthy lord of a remote village. The family’s wealth doesn’t spare Vasya’s mother, who dies giving birth to her, or the children from spending long winter evenings huddled together around the giant kitchen stove as their nurse spins folktales about demons and sprites.
Their kind but distracted father lets the children, especially Vasya, grow untamed. She may be a little unusual, but she is also brave, intelligent and kind. She tells no one, not even her brother, that she actually sees and speaks with the sprites in the house and the horses in the stable.
When her wild behavior starts to scare off potential suitors, her father is finally convinced he needs to remarry in an effort to tame his youngest daughter.
His new wife, a deeply devout woman, forbids the villagers from honoring the old traditions by leaving out dishes of food for sprites in the house or barns. Vasya realizes it isn’t because her stepmother doesn’t believe they exist, but because she sees them too that she is determined to rid the village of these old customs. However, by starving the spirits that have kept them safe and prosperous for years, the village allows an ancient evil to creep back into their midst.
Because she can see what is happening, it's up to Vasya to save herself, her family and her village from demons straight from her nurse's stories.
The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for a cold winter night. The compelling plot and lyrical writing will hold readers under its spell, unable to put down the book or go to bed at a decent hour. Vasya is an unforgettable heroine who Arden has crafted so carefully, she seems like a real person. While readers are supplied with proper villains, their evil is complex and nuanced.
Readers who enjoy books by Neil Gaiman or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted will enjoy this title.
Karen Brown won acclaim for her debut The Longings of Wayward Girls, a suspenseful novel about two missing girls. Although her new book, The Clairvoyants, is also billed as psychological suspense, it’s really more accurate to describe it as a coming-of-age story with dark, supernatural overtones.
Martha and her sister Del grow up on a farm in Connecticut. When Martha is only 7 years old, she has a vision of her great aunt. Unfortunately, her great aunt has already been dead for many years when they “meet.” As a child, Martha is only mildly disconcerted by the event. It seems to be an isolated, intriguing fluke. But in her late teens, a harrowing incident triggers her strange gift again. She begins experiencing more visions of the dead — most not as pleasant as her great aunt.
Hoping to leave the dead behind, Martha flees to college in Ithaca. There she finds romance with a brooding photographer named William. But her idyll is disrupted when the past comes calling in the form of her impulsive sister Del. Just as Martha tries to reconcile herself to being her unstable sister’s caretaker, a fellow student on campus vanishes. Martha’s visions return with a vengeance.
Although the missing girl is pivotal to the plot of The Clairvoyants, Brown’s story is too leisurely paced to feel like suspense. Her focus is less on finding the missing girl and more on understanding Martha’s unwillingness to use her “gift.” Indeed, Martha’s reluctance to get involved in the case becomes a symbol for her reluctance to take charge of her own life.
Readers who enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper should enjoy The Clairvoyants. Like these authors, Brown uses the suspense genre to explore the rivalries that shape women and their relationships with one another.
When travelling between realities you may stumble upon The Invisible Library, the largest single collection of fiction books taken from all over the multiverse, and its librarians, professional spies who infiltrate alternate realities in search of rare books wanted for the library’s collection. Irene is one such librarian, whose most recent assignment is to steal a book of fairy tales from an alternative version of London.
But when she and her assistant Kai arrive, they soon discover that the book they are looking for has been stolen, and its owner murdered. They’ll have to race against a group of biotechnically-enhanced terrorists, a cat-suit-wearing burglar, a contingency of Fae and a murderous rogue librarian to find the book first if they want to succeed in their mission.
Genevieve Cogman blends real world elements with fantasy to create her London. The owner of the stolen book? Vampire. High society gentleman who knows more than he should? An agent of chaos. The plot is an interesting mix of murder mystery, suspenseful intrigue and steampunk fantasy. Everyone is hiding at least one secret, some more damaging than others. Not everyone acts in the most morally acceptable way; Irene in particular has a morally ambiguous world view because she won’t jeopardize the library’s mission — to preserve as many books as possible, no more and no less. And the best mystery is why the library even needs this particular copy of fairy tales. How much damage can one book do?
A Library Reads selection for June, The Invisible Library is the first in a series that has already been published in the UK. The Masked City (Book 2) and The Burning Page (Book 3) are slated for release in September and December 2016. If you enjoy The Librarians TV show, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series or the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, check out this series.
The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a bildungsroman legend coming out of the often overlooked Baltic country of Estonia. It is set during an awkward and mysterious period of time in Medieval Europe — late in the age of Vikings but early in the times of Christian colonization. Author Andrus Kivirähk describes the conflicts of peace — when people are forced to navigate societies in which different languages, beliefs and ways of living intermingle and cross-pollinate. The book's narrator, Leemet, is a member of a society that has learned the tongue of serpents, and with this, gained the power to communicate and control other animal species. But that society's way of life is threatened from within as its people change their ways. Their assimilation to an agrarian lifestyle means that they are renouncing the ways of their forest home and forgetting the ancient language. Will Leemet be able to pass his knowledge of Snakish down to the next generation?
While it does resemble Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear in some respects, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is not a story with any qualms about historical accuracy. It stands out for its wry use of anachronistic language and the ease with which it can be imagined by modern readers. In fact, many of the characters seem like stereotypes from a modern neighborhood — the hippies living on the edge of town, modish young people obsessed with the latest fads and ultraconservative religious fanatics. While the appellation “barbarian” hovers throughout the text, it never alights to describe a particular culture or character. Instead, there is an unrelenting, Darwinian conviction that change is inevitable, unrelenting and often times totally irrational. In the end, is Leemet more of a Grendel or a Beowulf?
A war is raging over magic’s presence in the world. Exorcists and priests are pursuing witches and demons, purging them from the world until there is only one place left where the connection to magic remains strong — Ireland. In Mark Tompkins’s debut novel The Last Days of Magic, human and fairy politics collide as the war over magic comes to Ireland’s shores, and it's not always obvious who can be trusted — on either side.
Tompkins’s worldbuilding is detailed and well-researched, blending mythology, mysticism and historical fact together to craft a historical fantasy retelling of the 1390s. His cast includes people straight out of history, from Richard II to Saints Patrick and Brigid, and out of mythology, such as the Morrigna and the Sidhe. And Tompkins threads these together with facts and speculations from Vatican history, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and witch trials.
You might think that having all of these elements in play would lead to a convoluted or overworked plot, but Tompkins balances the historical and the fantastical to create characters that are flawed and intriguing and a plot filled with political intrigue. It leaves the reader wondering where historical fact actually ends and the myths begin. Fans of Morgan Llywelyn or Juliet Marillier might want to check this book out.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
In The Immortal Nicholas by Glenn Beck, a simple farmer named Agios supplements his meager earnings by harvesting precious frankincense. Following a series of tragic events, he gives up on life and wanders aimlessly, numbing his sorrow with alcohol. When he meets Caspar who is searching for frankincense, Agios’ life is changed forever as he starts on a journey to meet the newborn baby that Caspar and his friends, Melchior and Balthazar, are seeking in the town of Bethlehem. Soon Agios learns that this child, Jesus, is destined to be the King of Kings, and he feels compelled to protect Jesus and his parents as they try to avoid capture by the evil King Herod.
Beck’s premise for this book is to try and give Santa Claus a Christ-centered reason for being. Agios represents Santa but he is more of a misguided soul doomed to wander eternally through the world than the jolly man most of us know. Until Agios fulfills his mission, he remains immortal and goes through many personal tragedies. While he does eventually change his name to Nicholas and begin handing out gifts to deserving people, the core of the story is about Agios and his struggle to find meaning in life.
The historical portrayal of Biblical era life seems accurate and even compelling, but the story is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale for children. Beck is aiming at adults here, and trying to bring the message of Christ into Christmas without the typical commercialization of the holiday season. Whether or not you are a fan of Beck, The Immortal Nicholas is an interesting alternative to traditional holiday stories.
Lines between dream and the reality of an isolated existence become hazy in acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s newest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A Novel.
In high school, Tsukuru was included in a tight-knit group of friends. Although they were inseparable, spending their free time volunteering and studying together, Tsukuru felt deficient in their presence. Ao, Aka, Kuro and Shiro are each shown with a distinctly vibrant essence. In comparison, Tsukuru felt colorless, yet satisfied to be a part of such a special assemblage. This circle remained unbroken until Tsukuru was ejected from the group during his second year of college. At first, he thinks his friends must be missing his messages but after countless awkward brushoffs from their families, the banishment is clear.
Not having the faintest clue as to why, Tsukuru thrusts himself into an existential depression which wears down both body and spirit. Plagued by fear of actually being a nonentity, he is reduced to an inert husk. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, we are taken on an enigmatic journey as an older Tsukuru sets out to discover the truth behind his exile. He soon encounters ghosts from the past, new acquaintances and lovers in an oscillating series of hallucination, memory and restless fantasy. Only Murakami, a master of magical realism, could conjure such pensive yet uneasy visions.
Set in New Orleans circa 1920s-50s, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski is an original family drama that mixes matters of the heart with elements of magical realism. Dancy, a waitress at the local diner, and William, a young lawyer, fall in love. Tragedy is destined to strike, but not before an extraordinary new life is created.
Meet Bonaventure Arrow and you will discover that he is as exceptional as his name. Although his vocal cords are healthy, he is born without a cry. Denied conventional speech, Bonaventure discovers that he possesses a supernatural sense of hearing. From the sound of dust falling from a moth’s wing to his mother’s cigarette smoke floating to the ceiling, he can hear what no one else can. However, this unworldly gift comes with great responsibility. When he hears a small sadness held inside a small box in a chapel wall and the painful secret hidden in his mother’s closet, he knows he can bring comfort and hopefully closure to his family, who are still plagued by the secrets of the past.
Inspired by the work of Flannery O’Conner and Ann Patchett, Leganski has created an earnest Southern hometown and populated it with mysterious characters. There’s the disfigured man only known as “The Wanderer,” Trinidad Prefontaine, a Creole woman who has her own mystic ability, and Brother Harley John Eacomb, a sham preacher who has a feverous following. Faith, love, and providence are all tested in this tale of charm, love and forgiveness.
Kate Riordan, the teenage heroine of Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell, has lived in the depressed, left-behind Appalachian river town of Swan River all her life. Swan River is just not the kind of town that people leave - and there's nothing particularly sinister about that, it's only that Swan River's falling-down shacks, meager businesses, and dark wooded roads inspire little ambition. Kate fears this. She has an older sister, Maggie, whose intelligence and talent might have propelled her out of Swan River for good, but instead Maggie works at the coffee shop and drinks wine coolers in the Tastee Freez parking lot with her girlfriends. And there is something else that Kate fears. Sometimes, in Swan River, a teenage girl will suddenly go wild for a night. Full of furious supernatural power, she may destroy lives and property. Even Maggie had a wild night once, during which she flew out a window and torched the library. Kate’s salvation, if she can avoid falling victim to Swan River’s twin perils of rage and inertia, is her education. Thanks to her mother's job as secretary to the headmaster, Kate attends an exclusive private boarding school called the Academy – although the Academy is not without its own perils.
Prose as sharp and pungent as a red autumn leaf describes Kate's vertiginous passage through her senior year at the Academy. And while Wild Girls touches on a number of themes that have become popular recently - boarding school, magical realism, mean girls - it never feels formulaic. Wild Girls is a great read for teenage girls and grownup girls alike.