Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Heart's Blood - Juliet Marillier

Title: Heart's Blood
Author: Juliet Marillier
Publisher: Roc, 2009 (Hardcover)
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: March 20, 2017
Finished: March 22, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Whistling Tor is a place of secrets, a mysterious wooded hill housing the crumbling fortress of a chieftain whose name is spoken throughout the region in tones of revulsion and bitterness. A curse lies over Anluan's family and his people. The woods hold a perilous force whose every whisper threatens doom. And Anluan himself has been crippled by a childhood illness.

Then the young scribe Caitrin appears in Anluan's garden, admiring the rare plant known as heart's blood. Retained to sort through entangled family documents, Caitrin brings about unexpected changes in the household, casting a hopeful light against the despairing shadows.

But even as Caitrin brings solace to Anluan, and the promise of something more between them, he remains in thrall to the darkness surrounding Whistling Tor. To free Anluan's burdened soul, Caitrin must unravel the web or sorcery woven by his ancestors before it claims his life - and their love.

Review:
I'm on a Beauty and the Beast kick currently, so when I looked up a list of books inspired by the original tale and this one came up, I knew I had my next read.

In a world resembling medieval Ireland (cue the numerous Google searches on how to pronounce all the characters' names), Caitrin is a scribe who is escaping her abusive relatives after the death of her father. When she comes upon Whistling Tor and finds out the chieftain of the area is looking for the services of a scribe trained in Latin, Caitrin jumps at the chance for safety and security despite the stories in the settlement that the chieftain's family is cursed, and that supernatural beings haunt the hill. Anluan is the crippled leader of Whistling Tor, whose family curse originated with his great-grandfather Nechtan a hundred years prior. When Caitrin is hired to translate Nechtan's personal documents from Latin to Irish, she learns, both through the documents and experience, that the supernatural beings in the woods are actually an army of undead spirits: those who were once human but lingered in a purgatory-like existence after death due to some unfortunate error they committed and who are bound to whomever is the current chieftain at Whistling Tor. Anluan can command this army, collectively called the host, but it severely weakens him because he must constantly suppress the evil urges that sometimes overcome them. Detested by the folk of the settlement and angry over his handicap, Anluan is an awkward and self-loathing man that, despite his rough manners, Caitrin comes to admire due the loyalty he inspires from those in his household. After she is saved by Anluan and the host when her kinsman, Cillian, tries to bring her back home, Caitrin is determined to find some way to end the curse and set the host free. Throw in an invasion by the Normans and you've got an intriguing plot that is quite involving (at leastuntil the reader figures everything out).

What makes this retelling so superb is partly the writing style; the author does tend to be verbose, but I appreciated it since it added to the atmosphere. She is so skilled at not only crafting an engaging story that uniquely stands on its own despite borrowing elements from the Beauty and the Beast tale (enchanted castle, special flower, magic mirrors, Beauty's literacy and love of books), but by creating such realistic characters and a genuinely creepy environment that will send shivers down your back. Caitrin and Anluan are deeply flawed, realistic characters: Caitrin detests the frightened person she became under her abusive family, and Anluan believes he is less of a man and a leader not only because of his affected body, but because his control over the host does not allow him to leave the hill, leading to strained relationships with the folk in the settlement below. Caitrin is optimistically hopeful, which leads both her and Anluan to believe that with courage and determination they can improve their lot in life. I have to give the author credit for including the magic in the mirrors, it was a great way to experience a different point of view, plus it was just deliciously creepy and unsettling.

Recommendation:
An excellent read with a wonderful story, well-crafted romance, and lovely characters (I loved all the secondary characters as much as I loved the mains).

Thoughts on the cover:
It's kind of meh, but I can't quite figure out why.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel - Melissa Fleming

Title: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel
Author: Melissa Fleming
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Adult/Young Adult; Nonfiction
Started: March 8, 2017
Finished: March 8, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

The stunning story of a young woman, an international crisis, and the triumph of the human spirit.

Adrift in a frigid sea, no land in sight - just debris from the ship's wreckage and floating corpses all around - nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel floats with a small inflatable water ring around her waist and clutches two small children, barely toddlers, to her body. The children has been thrust into Doaa's arms by their drowning relatives, all refugees who boarded a dangerously overcrowded ship bound for Sweden and a new life. For days, Doaa floats, prays, and sings to the babies in her arms. She must stay alive for these children. She must not lose hope.

Doaa Al Zamel was once an average Syrian girl growing up in a crowded house in a bustling city near the Jordanian border. But in 2011, her life was upended. Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, Syrians began to stand up against their own oppressive regime. When the army was sent to take control of of Doaa's hometown. strict curfews, power outages. water shortages, air raids, and violence disrupted everyday life. After Doaa's father's barbershop was destroyed and rumours of women being abducted spread through the community, her family decided to leave Syria for Egypt, where they hoped to stay in peace until they could return home. Only months after their arrival, the Egyptian government was overthrown and the environment turned hostile for refugees.

In the midst of this chaos, Doaa falls in love with a young opposition fighter who proposes marriage and convinces her to flee to the promise of safety and a better future in Europe. Terrified and unable to swim, Doaa and her young fiancee hand their life savings to smugglers and board a dilapidated fishing vessel with five hundred other refugees, including a hundred children. After four horrifying days at sea, another ship, filled with angry men shouting insults, rams into Doaa's boat, sinking it and leaving the passengers to drown.

That is where Doaa's struggle for survival really begins.

This emotionally charged, eye-opening true story represents the millions of unheard voices of refugees who risk everything in a desperate search for the promise of a safe future. Melissa Fleming sheds light on the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time and paints a vivid, unforgettable portrait of the triumph of the human spirit.

Review:
There's been some hype surrounding this book, calling it "required reading." In my experience, if people throw that phrase around, there's usually a good reason, so I picked this up. It wasn't until after I'd started reading that I realized I'd encountered this story before; the author had given a TED Talk on the Syrian refugee crisis that I'd watched, and Doaa's story of surviving the aftermath of the sinking had been the focus.

The book opens with Doaa's childhood in Daraa, Syria, outlining Doaa's family dynamics and the events of her early years. It moves on to document the events of the Arab Spring-inspired protests in Daraa that Doaa participates in after the arrest and torture of a group of young boys in February 2011, and the stark decline of living conditions and the increase in violence in the months to follow. When Doaa's father Shokri fears for the safety of his daughters, the family seeks asylum in Egypt in late 2012. Though the family is initially welcomed in Egypt and they are soon able to have some semblance of the life they left behind, the Egyptian government under Morsi was overthrown in July 2013, which lead to hostile treatment of Syrian refugees almost overnight. Amidst all this, a man named Bassem, a fellow Syrian refugee in Egypt, falls in love with Doaa. She eventually accepts his proposal, and the two become engaged. After tensions lead to Doaa's younger siblings to be threatened at school, the young couple know they cannot remain in Egypt, so they make plans to leave for Europe in the only way available to them: illegal smuggling. After several failed attempts, Doaa and Bassem find themselves aboard a fishing vessel with five hundred other refugees in September 2014 headed for Italy, which later is intentionally struck by another boat and sinks. After days adrift at sea, Doaa is one of the only survivors to be rescued.

The author is wonderful at telling Doaa's story with a lovely narrative quality about it; I had to remind myself that I wasn't reading a work of fiction, that this was actually someone's real life. Doaa's story is quite sad, even more so because it is real for millions of people. It is for this reason that I echo the idea that Doaa's story should indeed be required reading, especially for anyone that is directly involved with refugees in fields such as politics, education, public policy, and social services.

Recommendation:
Though it is an incredibly sad account, this is one that everyone should truly read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they did the split view of Doaa's face parallel to the title font.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Warden's Daughter - Jerry Spinelli

Title: The Warden's Daughter
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: March 6, 2017
Finished: March 7, 2017

Summary: 
From the inside cover:

"For twelve years the warden had been enough. But now I was sick and tired of being motherless. I wanted one. And if I couldn't have my first-string mother, I'd bring one in off the bench."

Cammie lives with her father, the warden, in an apartment above the entrance to the county jail - so most of the mother figures she's got her eye on are inmates. There's a flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo, who dreams of hot fudge sundaes. And a sullen reformed arsonist named Eloda, who works as their housekeeper. Not ideal candidates maybe, but Cammie's nickname isn't Cannonball for nothing. She's a girl who decides what she wants and launches herself at it.

And this summer, Cannonball's fuse is lit and she is set to blow. Her best friend is discovering lipstick and Elvis. The guys she plays baseball with think she plays too rough. A child killer is brought to her prison, and demonstrators are gathering outside her windows. It's the kind if summer when a girl could really use a mom.

In this captivating novel by Jerry Spinelli, Cammie learns that you don't always get what you want. But what you need may be right around the corner.

Summary:
The premise sounded really promising, and after reading an excerpt online, I decided to give this a shot. I've read a few of the author's previous books years ago and was quite impressed, but I have to say this newest one was a bit of a let-down.

Cammie lives in an apartment above the Pennsylvania county prison with her father, the warden. Cammie's mother died in an accident when she was a baby, pushing her out of the way of a moving truck. Years later in 1959 when Cammie is turning thirteen and about to enter junior high school, she realizes she wants a mother-figure, to have that love she's been denied for so long. She hones in on the only female figures available in her environment: inmates. Eloda, a prison trustee (trusted inmate) who acts as their housekeeper, and Boo Boo, an obese black woman who adores Cammie.

The main issue with this book is that Cammie just isn't likeable in my opinion. She's twelve years old, and though I get that she's full of anger and love-starved (the whole theme of Cammie being in a prison of her own just like the inmates), kids know by that age that it doesn't give them the right to be a brat to everyone. The child was literally hell on wheels, which I'd expect from a younger kid, but not at nearly thirteen. If Cammie had been more developed as a character and had a chance to evoke more sympathy from readers, then perhaps I'd feel differently. The adults weren't much better to be honest. Not only does the warden give his daughter the keys to the prison yard so she can go socializing with the female inmates inside the fence (I find it hard to believe any professional in his position would do that), but both the warden and Eloda know that Cammie is angry and wanting attention and love from a female figure and acting out as a result...and in turn they deny her that outright love, watch from the sidelines as she engages in self-destructive behaviour, and then conveniently refuse to discipline her until she "gets it out of her system". I know people didn't believe in therapy in the 50s, but my god, Cammie would need a crap-ton of therapy after those brilliant parenting methods.

There's also the underlying issue of race in the novel, the issue being that it isn't addressed at all. It takes place mainly in the summer of 1959, so a key time period, and in addition to the black kids that Cammie plays with and the other black women in the prison, there's the issue of Boo Boo. She's the stereotype of the big, jolly black woman who has a soft spot for the little white girl. This wouldn't be as glaring of an issue if the characters were explored a bit more so they would be more than just a caricature, but in the absence of proper development, it just leaves me shaking my head. You do eventually get some development regarding Cammie's father and Eloda, but that doesn't happen until the very end of the novel (it's a miracle I even made it that far).

Recommendation:
Pales in comparison to Stargirl, Milkweed, or Manic Magee; so perhaps skip this novel and pick up one of the former instead.

Thoughts on the cover:
I do like the cover, the image of Cammie inside the cage freeing the birds is quite clever.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wintersong - S. Jae-Jones

Title: Wintersong
Author: S. Jae-Jones
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: March 1, 2017
Finished: March 3, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous, Goblin King. They've enraptured her mind and spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family's inn, Liesl can't help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds - and the mysterious man who rules it - she soon faces an impossible decision. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won't soon forget.

Review:
When I first saw this described, I immediately thought, "Labyrinth retelling!" (which was more than enough to make me want this with such fervour); when in reality it's a bit of a mix of Jim Henson's Labyrinth, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, and the Hades and Persephone myth, complete with music and German language references thrown in for good measure....and it made me love it even more (if that's even possible).

Liesl (Elisabeth) is the eldest daughter of an innkeeper family in 18th (possibly 19th) century Germany. Though Liesl has a talent for composing passionate, moving music, she is often overlooked compared to her beautiful sister Kathe and her little brother Josef, who is a musical prodigy. When Liesl was a child, she used to play and share music with the Goblin King (Der Erlkonig) in the Goblin Grove near her home, even promising him that she would marry him one day. When she abandons flights of fancy for responsibility, the Goblin King becomes tired of waiting for her, and kidnaps Kathe as a ruse to bring Elisabeth to the Underground. While in the company of Der Erlkonig, Elisabeth learns more about him and his realm, which leads her to face some difficult decisions regarding her future.

The book is divided into four parts, but they can be summed up in two phases: the world above, and the Underground. The first phase is concerned with establishing Liesl's role within her family and village and how she feels about herself, whereas the second phase deals with Elisabeth in the Underground and how her relationship with Der Erlkonig evolves along with her sense of self-worth.

The writing here is simply gorgeous. There's so much lovely imagery reminiscent of Rossetti's Goblin Market (the English teacher in me was geeking out over this), particularly where Kathe is offered luscious peaches and, though Liesl tries to stop her, she is distracted by an encounter with Der Erlkonig himself, and she discovers Kathe with swollen lips and fruit juice dripping from her mouth. Those types of descriptions are just the start of the sexual imagery in the novel, the sensuality is overflowing here; not to the point of vulgarity or impropriety (the language is appropriate in the context of the story), but it's still fairly mature, so prudish or otherwise sensitive readers be forewarned.

There are some pacing issues, such as when readers are waiting for Liesl to actively decide to stop living in what she clearly knows is the Goblin King's fever dream world where Kathe doesn't exist. It drags on, granted for the purpose of establishing that Liesl is flawed and has thought about what life would be like if her sister wasn't in it. I didn't find the overall pacing horrible, mainly because I love character-driven stories so development in that area doesn't bore me, but readers who are into plot-driven stories might have issues here.

I really enjoyed Liesl/Elisabeth as a character, I could really identify with her struggle of putting on a metaphorical mask to downplay or erase parts of yourself because you're in an environment where you wouldn't be fully accepted or supported otherwise. She's incredibly well-developed and has her share of personality flaws, she's truly a very human character. I'm not a huge fan of the idea that the impetus behind her self-actualization was having sex with the Goblin King, not because I'm a prude, but because this is a YA novel, and I'm not keen on teenage girls thinking that they just need to get laid to "find themselves" (I'm a teacher, some girls actually believe this; heck, some boys too). The author did touch on a key idea regarding relationships that I have to give her credit for including though: that physical intimacy is one thing, but to have a truly fulfilling relationship you need to open up and experience emotional intimacy with your partner as well.

The Goblin King/Der Erlkonig was another incredibly well-developed and complex character. He is described as having an appearance similar to David Bowie's Jareth in Labyrinth, but his demeanour is much more complicated. Elisabeth describes him as presenting almost as different people (the idea of different masks for different situations): he can be cruel and menacing one moment and encouraging and sympathetic the next. I'm enjoying this trend of new-age Gothic romance stories where the heroine experiences her coming-of-age/sexual awakening at the hands of a mysterious/supernatural/imposing figure, but that the being is given a back-story to the point where it's no longer about the heroine having to work against the figure or rejecting him in order to grow, but that she needs to actively work with him to accomplish this. Wintersong is no exception, and it's expressed beautifully here.

Recommendation:
Wintersong had me so involved and entrenched in its world, I didn't want to leave. If you're a fan of Cruel BeautyThe Star-Touched Queen, or The Wrath and the Dawn, you need to check this out. I've discovered that there is a sequel in the works (yay!), so I'll be waiting ever so impatiently for it.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is the only aspect of the novel I find rather unimpressive. The internet thinks this cover is freaking stupendous and astounding though, so it might just be me.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Heartless - Marissa Meyer

Title: Heartless
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 450 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Classic
Started: February 23, 2017
Finished: March 1, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favourite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants nothing more than to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.

At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King's marriage proposal, she meets the mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.

Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic and madness, fate has other plans.

Review:
I couldn't possibly turn down an origin story for the Queen of Hearts, and this author is one of my favourites, so I knew she wouldn't disappoint.

Lady Catherine Pinkerton of Rock Turtle Cove is part of the gentry in the kingdom of Hearts in Wonderland. Although her parents disapprove of her hobby, she is a talented baker; her efforts at which have even captured the attention of the King of Hearts. Though the King is a kind man, he is simple and childish, inspiring the opposite of passion in Catherine. Cath's parents of course want their daughter to be a queen, but she and her maid, Mary Ann, have a dream of opening their own bakery. But queens don't run bakeries, and gentry girls with no money of their own can't open a business. Cath mourns her lack of choices about her future, but that changes when she meets Jest, the court joker for the King. Jest is charming and mysterious, and Catherine is completely smitten with him. As the King makes his intentions towards Cath quite clear, she must make a choice as to which path she will take; but the sudden appearance of the Jabberwock, as well as the reason behind Jest's presence in Hearts, will test both her resolve and courage.

Readers of Alice in Wonderland all know the end result regarding the Queen of Hearts, and considering that spoils things a bit in terms of knowing how things end, the author did a good job of explaining how she became that way. Catherine's plight is believable considering the time period that Hearts embodies, and though she isn't oppressed like some heroines, you still sympathize with her for her lack of choices. The romance between Cath and Jest is quite charming and isn't necessarily insta-love, but it does have that star-crossed lovers vibe to it for obvious reasons. The Wonderland references are nicely incorporated here as you would expect: the Chesire cat occasionally appears at Cath's house, and the Mad Hatter and March Hare characters appear in Hatta and Haigha. The more original elements ring true as well: Peter the pumpkin seller and his wife are modelled after the "Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater" rhyme, and Jest's companion Raven resembles the bird from Poe's iconic poem. The twist at the end involving Hatta was one I suspected but didn't actually think would come to pass, so kudos to the author for including that aspect.

Recommendation:
If you're a fan of the author's well known work, The Lunar Chronicles, or enjoy origin stories of classic villains such as Wicked, then you'll definitely want to read this.

Thoughts on the cover:
Appropriate and expected given the story, but not overly impressive unfortunately.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Newsprints - Ru Xu

Title: Newsprints
Author: Ru Xu
Publisher: Graphix (Scholastic), 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 202 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel, Steampunk, Science Fiction
Started: February 28, 2017
Finished: February 28, 2017

Summary:
From the back cover:

Blue is an orphan who disguises herself as a newsboy. There's a war going on, and girls are expected to help the struggling economy by selling cookies. But Blue loves living and working at the Bugle, the only paper in town that tells the truth. And what's printed in the newspapers now matters more than ever.

But Blue struggles with her secret, and worries that if her friends and adopted family at the Bugle find out that she's a girl, she'll lose everything and everyone she cares about. And when she meets and befriends Crow, a boy who is also not what he seems, together they seek the freedom to be their true selves...and to save each other from the effects of war.

Review:
I'm always on the lookout for kid-friendly, middle grade graphic novels, so this one peaked my interest when I saw the write-up.

Blue is an orphan living in Nautilene, a port city reminiscent of 1920s New York. Their country of Gosling has been at war with neighbouring Grimmaea for a decade, and the casualties have been many, including Blue's parents. Disguising herself as a newsboy, Blue lives at the Bugle, under the care and charity of the mayor and his wife. One day after hiding from a gang of other newsboys from a rival newspaper, Blue takes refuge in Jack's laboratory and later becomes assistant to the inventor. What Blue doesn't know is that Jack is one of the queen's advisor's in charge of weapon design, who fled from the capital of Altalus months prior. He's the key to winning the war, and the authorities want him to return. Jack meanwhile, is trying to locate a dangerous machine that he suspects is in Nautilene. While all this is going on, Blue meets Crow, a boy aptly named because he is always surrounded by crows and other birds. As Blue learns more about Crow, she discovers they both yearn to feel free to be themselves and make choices that allow them to be thus. Who is Crow, and what is the mysterious machine that Jack seeks?

This is a really clever title that incorporates some pretty deep themes in what appears to be a fairly straightforward story. Blue has to disguise her true gender because of the fear she'll be outcast by her surrogate family in times of war. Jack feels conflicted about his involvement in developing weapons of war, especially the human repercussions of it. Crow has desires of his own that he is pressured not to seek (hard to explain without delving into spoilers). It's surprisingly deep for a kid's graphic novel. I also love the nursery rhymes woven through the story. Blue's real name is Lavender Blue, Jack is frequently seen with a commander named Jill, the streets have names like Black Sheep Boulevard, it adds a certain amount of charm. The author's art style is aesthetically pleasing as well, you can see  some manga influences but not enough to be obviously so, and her colour palette is soft and earthy as well.



Recommendation:
A great title to add to a classroom library, especially for boys and other reluctant readers due to the sci-fi elements and how likeable and plucky Blue is as a character. It appears as if there will be subsequent volumes, and if so, I'll surely pick them up.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love Blue against the sunrise with the slew of crows flying around her, it's an awesome image.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Adult, Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: February 9 2017
Finished: February 22, 2017

Summary:
From the inside cover:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn't mind - she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse's fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honour the spirits of the house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa's mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa's new stepmother forbids her family from honouring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa's stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even he people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed - this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse's most frightening tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical debut novel from a gifted and gorgeous voice. It spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent.

Review:
I'm a sucker for Russian-inspired literature, so there was no question as to whether I would read this. The hype surrounding it made me both slightly piqued and skeptical, but I can assure you the hype is completely deserved.

Pyotr Vladimirovich is a rural lord in a world that resembles medieval Russia. Caught between old and new, Pyotr's family and the other residents in the village all attend church, but still perform the old pagan rites to appease the gods and protect their livelihood. Pyotr's wife Marina is known to have a bit of the supernatural about her, and as she lays dying, makes her husband promise to protect newborn Vasilisa since the child is destined to be important. Vasya grows up wild and free-spirited, unbound by convention or religion, with an impressive set of abilities. While everyone else in her village merely believe in the household spirits, Vasya can actually see and communicate with them. Years later Pyotr reluctantly remarries Anna Ivanova, a woman who can see the spirits and demons like Vasilisa, but who screams at the sight of them, so people think her mad. The only place Anna is free from the visions is in church, so she throws herself into religion, forbidding service to the household spirits. Years later when Konstantin Nikonovich arrives as the new priest for the area, he creates and spreads such fear in the populace that the household spirits can no longer protect the area from the clutches of Medved, the brother of Death, who after takes the form of a bear. Fires rage. The dead walk. And Vasya must summon her courage to help save her family and herself.

This novel is simply stunning. The writing is lyrical and reads like a traditional fairy tale in terms of structure, but it's unique enough to truly stand out amongst traditional tales and even modern retellings. The world-building here is astonishing. The author does and amazing job of conveying this  Russian winter wonder in the midst of a change between the old and new; and how Vasilisa, as a symbol of this old life, is a threat to those trying to control others using the new. The characters are wonderfully imagined: Vasya is spunky and smart despite only being fourteen or fifteen, her siblings are nicely developed and likeable despite some of them not appearing often, and Anna Ivanova is delightfully flawed to the point where you feel sorry for her even though she does act as an antagonist. Konstantin was a particularly interesting addition, and I loved how twisted his obsession with Vasya is, and though the whole "devout religious figure in lust with the fiery female" isn't a new cliche by any stretch of the imagination, it is both sickening yet compelling in this context.

The exploration into the frost demon and the bear doesn't happen until closer to the end of the book, and I wished there had been more time devoted to these supernatural aspects, not because the explanation was lacking, but purely because I wanted to see more of them. I loved the addition of the vazila and the talking horses because, c'mon, talking horses. The Russian names and naming conventions (oh god, the diminutives!) take some getting used to if you're not familiar with it, younger readers might not realize the various names are all attributed to the same character. The book delves into so much Russian folklore and culture, anyone familiar with it will surely appreciate the author's attention to detail.

Recommendation:
This book demands to be read, by everyone who savours the written word, who soaks up folklore and myth, who simply adores a good story. I just discovered that there are sequel books forthcoming, and I will be waiting impatiently for them.

Thoughts on the cover:
Mysterious and beautiful, yet slightly eerie, which is a good fit for the mood of the book as a whole.