The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

For the Immortal by Emily Hauser

This is the third book in Emily Hauser’s Golden Apple trilogy, which gives a voice to some of the women from Greek mythology. The three books are connected but also work as standalone stories so it is not essential to read them in order. Having enjoyed the first two novels, For the Most Beautiful (the story of Briseis and Krisayis during the Trojan War) and For the Winner (about Atalanta, who joined Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece), I was pleased to be offered the chance to take part in the blog tour for the third and final novel, For the Immortal.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Alexander, the heir of the King of Tiryns, is dying. His sister, Admete, has some knowledge of healing, but her skills alone are not enough to save Alexander; the only possible cure will be found far away in the Garden of the Hesperides. And so Admete persuades her father to let her accompany her friend Alcides on his upcoming journey to the land of the Amazons, where he has been given the task of obtaining the belt of the Amazon queen, Hippolyta – one of twelve labours he must complete if he is to achieve his goal of becoming immortal. Admete hopes that the Amazons will be able to help her find the cure – the golden apple – that she seeks, but she also has another reason of her own for wanting to meet this legendary tribe of female warriors.

For the Immortal is written from the perspectives of both Admete and Hippolyta, alternating between the two. They initially seem like unrelated stories, but after a while they begin to come together very effectively. The two women are very different people, with different backgrounds and ways of life, but they encounter similar obstacles and attitudes as they each try to succeed in a world very much dominated by men. At first I was slightly disappointed by the negative portrayal of the male characters who are central to the novel, but looking back I think it made sense in the context of the story.

As with the first two books in the trilogy, we also spend some time with the gods as they look down on the mortal world, observing, interfering or trying to help, depending on the outcome they are hoping for. I loved this aspect of the book; the conversations between the gods gave me a lot to think about regarding the differences between fate and personal choice, and what it truly means to be immortal.

The novel combines elements of several myths: the Labours of Hercules (you will have guessed that Alcides is another name for Hercules); the story of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; and the adventures of Theseus, who joins Hercules on his voyage. I was fascinated by Emily Hauser’s notes at the end of the book where she explains the choices she made in deciding which myths and characters to include and how to interpret them – I was particularly interested in what she had to say about Hippolyta and her two sisters. Although I only have quite a basic knowledge of Greek mythology, I’m finding that one of the most intriguing things about it is that there are so many different versions of the myths that no two authors or historians will interpret them in exactly the same way.

I really enjoyed this book; it brings the trilogy to a satisfying close and, although I’ve said that you can certainly read it without having read the first two books, I do recommend reading all three. I think my favourite was the middle one, For the Winner, but I liked them all.

You can find out more about this book by visiting the other stops on the blog tour. Here is the schedule:

Thanks to Transworld for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley and for arranging the tour.

This is also book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a long wait for Madeline Miller’s second novel (her first, The Song of Achilles, was published in 2011), and now that I’ve read it I’m pleased to say that I thought it was worth waiting for. I enjoyed The Song of Achilles, though maybe not as much as other people seemed to, but I found Circe an even more interesting read with characters and storylines which I personally found much more appealing.

I will start by admitting that before beginning this novel, I knew nothing about the witch Circe other than what I remembered from her appearance in the Odyssey, when Odysseus lands on the island where she lives alone with her lions and wolves, turning men into pigs. My knowledge of Greek mythology is sadly lacking, so I was curious to find out what else her story would involve and how it would be enough to fill a whole book.

The first thing we learn is that Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse. She grows up in the shadow of her seemingly more talented siblings, possessing neither the beauty of her sister Pasiphaë, who goes on to marry King Minos of Crete, nor the magical powers of her brothers Perses and Aeëtes (the future king of Colchis). To make matters worse, she even has the voice of a mortal rather than a goddess. It is only when she is driven by an uncontrollable jealousy to cast a spell on a rival that she discovers she does have a talent for witchcraft after all…but this same action results in her exile to the remote island of Aiaia.

Her new home is lonely but peaceful and Circe occupies herself with taming the wild animals that share her island and learning the properties of the flowers and herbs that grow there. Gradually she becomes aware of the true extent of her abilities as a witch and finds that she is not the failure she has always believed herself to be.

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands.

Although Zeus has forbidden her to leave the island, Circe is not entirely isolated and she receives a number of visitors bringing news from the outside world. I was surprised by how many different myths Madeline Miller pulls into the story – myths even I was familiar with, such as Jason and the Golden Fleece, Daedalus and Icarus, the torture of Prometheus, and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. I hadn’t expected to find all of these in a book about Circe (and I’m not sure how much involvement, if any, she has in other versions of these myths), but the way in which they were woven into the novel felt quite natural. The only problem is that with Circe trapped on her island, there’s a sense that most of the action is taking place elsewhere and our heroine is left to rely on information brought by Hermes and her other visitors.

It is not until halfway through the book that Odysseus comes to Aiaia and Circe’s story begins to overlap with the events of the Odyssey. This is another turning point in Circe’s life, as the time she spends with Odysseus leaves her with some important choices to make and carries the novel forward towards its conclusion.

I loved Circe; it’s a beautifully written novel and ideal for readers like myself who only have a basic knowledge of the Greek myths. I felt a stronger connection with Circe herself than I did with Patroclus in The Song of Achilles and for that reason this is my favourite of the two books, but I do think if you enjoy one of them you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

I mentioned recently that I wanted to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece and, having already read Emily Hauser’s first novel, For the Most Beautiful, I was sure that her second, For the Winner, would be a good choice! Hauser’s two books retell stories from Greek mythology from a female perspective – in For the Most Beautiful we see the events of the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of Krisayis and Briseis; For the Winner reimagines the story of Jason and the Argonauts with a focus on Atalanta, another lesser-known woman of the time. The books are part of a planned trilogy – the Golden Apple trilogy – but can be read in any order.

Abandoned on a mountain as a baby, Atalanta is rescued by a peasant and his wife who raise her as their own child. Growing up unaware of her true parentage, there are hints that Atalanta is destined for something special: by the time she is a teenager she has taught herself to hunt, to run with extraordinary speed and to use a bow and arrow with breathtaking skill. And then, one day, she learns the truth: the father who had left her to die on Mount Pelion was King Iasus of Pagasae.

To prove herself to her father, Atalanta decides to join the group of Greek heroes who are preparing for a voyage to the faraway land of Colchis in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. The quest will be led by the King’s nephew, Jason, whose reward for returning with the Fleece will be the kingdom of Pagasae itself – the kingdom Atalanta believes is rightfully hers. Can she win a place on board the Argo and find the Golden Fleece before Jason does?

I loved For the Winner. For the Most Beautiful was an enjoyable read too, but I thought this one was better – there were none of the little problems I remember experiencing with the other book. The biggest improvement was with the scenes depicting the Greek gods and goddesses looking down on the world from Mount Olympus, interfering and intervening in human affairs and arguing amongst themselves. With Zeus taking Atalanta’s side and Hera doing whatever she can to help Jason, I was particularly interested in the role of Iris, whose feelings and motives are less clear. The gods really added something special to the story this time and I looked forward to their appearances rather than finding them irritating as I did in the previous novel.

Although, as I’ve admitted before, my knowledge of Greek myth is quite limited, I was already familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts (and also have vague memories of watching the 1963 film version, years ago). However, the story told in this novel is very different, bringing in other characters and elements and mixing them together to create something new and original. Choosing to write from Atalanta’s perspective was a great decision because she is such a wonderful character. I loved following her adventures, but I don’t want to say too much more about her or give away too many details of her story! There were other characters I came to care about too, particularly Atalanta’s friend Myrtessa – and one of the men from the Argo who becomes the novel’s love interest. Jason, on the other hand, is portrayed as cruel, arrogant and completely unlikeable, but his rivalry with our heroine is what drives the plot forward.

I think what I appreciated most about For the Winner, though, was the way it explores the question of choice and free will – and how each of us has the power to defy fate and control our own destiny. Now I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy and am curious to see which Greek myth Emily Hauser tackles next.

Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review.

This is Book 5/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m actually doing better with this challenge than it appears – I have another two books waiting to be reviewed and am in the middle of reading two more!)

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

After talking recently about my desire to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Colm Tóibín’s new novel House of Names. It retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus, described in Aeschylus’ famous trilogy, the Oresteia. Not being very familiar with this story, I had no problem following the plot of the novel, but couldn’t help wondering how different my experience would have been if I was already more well-versed in the Greek classics.

House of Names begins in dramatic style with Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In return the gods will bring about a change in the wind which will allow his army to sail to Troy. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is forced to witness the terrible scene – made even worse by the fact that she had believed she was coming to watch her daughter’s wedding, not her murder. The first section of the novel is narrated by Clytemnestra and I thought it was wonderful, vividly describing the moment of the sacrifice and perfectly capturing the agony and heartbreak of a mother at the loss of her child and the bitter fury of a wife at the treachery of her husband. Angry and grieving, Clytemnestra returns to Mycenae to await her husband’s return from Troy and her chance to take revenge:

Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

But what effect will Clytemnestra’s next actions have on her two remaining children, Orestes and Electra? We don’t have to wait long to find out as sections written from the perspective of each of those characters follow. Orestes’ is told in the third person and describes his kidnapping from the palace of Mycenae and his later escape with the help of two other boys, Leander and Mitros. Together, far from home and away from their families, Orestes and his friends must find a way to survive into adulthood. His sister Electra, meanwhile, pushed aside after Iphigenia’s death, watches Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and begins to plot a revenge of her own…

This has been a difficult review for me to write as I still can’t quite decide what I thought of House of Names! I loved the powerful opening section of this novel but, two weeks after finishing the book, that’s the only part that has really stayed with me. The Orestes and Electra sections, although I found them interesting at the time, felt strangely detached and emotionless. The writing style helped to create an eerie, otherworldly feel at times, but it came at the expense of the passion and intensity I would have preferred from a story like this.

I do think that my lack of knowledge of the Oresteia and the fate of the House of Atreus could have been an advantage rather than a disadvantage as far as this book is concerned. I’ve read several other reviews that mention being confused by Tóibín’s decision to change so many details of the story, such as the use of the character of Leander to fill the role of Pylades, but not being familiar with the original I didn’t even notice things like this. Maybe I should have an attempt at reading the Oresteia itself one day. Does anyone know of a good translation to read?

As for Colm Tóibín, I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Brooklyn is the only other one of his novels that I’ve read and the two couldn’t be more different. Which of his books do you think I should try next?

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser

For the Most Beautiful “For the most beautiful”. These are the words inscribed on a golden apple presented by Paris, Prince of Troy, to the goddess Aphrodite whom he has chosen over her rivals, Hera and Athena. In return, the goddess rewards Paris with Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world – but unfortunately, Helen is already married. Not surprisingly, her husband, Menelaus, is enraged by the theft of his wife and sends the mighty armies of Greece, led by his brother King Agamemnon, to the shores of Troy to bring her back.

The story of the Trojan War is one that has been told many times before and with which a lot of readers will already be familiar before picking up Emily Hauser’s debut novel, For the Most Beautiful. However, this book retells the story from a feminine perspective and focuses on two female characters – Krisayis and Briseis – who both have important roles to play yet have not been given much attention in other versions such as Homer’s Iliad.

Krisayis (whose name is usually spelled Chryseis) is the daughter of a Trojan priest and companion to Cassandra, a princess of Troy. As the novel begins, we learn that Krisayis is in love with Cassandra’s brother, Troilus, and that, much against her wishes, she is about to become a priestess devoted to the god Apulunas. Our other main character, Briseis, is a princess of Lyrnessus who has unexpectedly found love with her husband Mynes, despite growing up under the shadow of a prophecy which seemed to rule out the possibility of happiness. With the onset of war, the lives of both young women are thrown into turmoil; their paths cross while held captive in the Greek camp, but will they be able to change fate and save Troy?

I found For the Most Beautiful a very enjoyable read. I think it was probably aimed at a younger audience but there was enough depth to keep an adult reader happy too. Having only read two or three other novels about Troy (including Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire) I found that while I knew the basic outline of the story, a lot of it was new to me and the approach the author took made it feel fresh and original. It was interesting to see how Emily Hauser interpreted the characters of not just Krisayis and Briseis but also Achilles, Patroclus, Paris, Hector, Cassandra and others.

The stories of our two heroines unfold in alternating chapters and I thought these sections of the book were well written and emotionally engaging (both Briseis and Krisayis suffer the death of a loved one and then face further ordeals and difficult decisions after their capture by the Greeks). However, these chapters are interspersed with short scenes in which we witness the gods on their mountain observing and manipulating the lives of the mortals below – and this is the one aspect of the book which really didn’t work for me. The writing style in these sections is quite different – the language feels much more modern and the tense changes from past to present – and the gods come across as bored, shallow and petulant. I think I can see what the author was trying to do here and I’m sure other readers will enjoy the light-hearted, comedy feel of these scenes, but it just made me impatient to get back to Briseis and Krisayis!

After finishing this book, I was pleased to discover that it’s the start of a new Golden Apple trilogy. Greek mythology is not a subject that particularly interests me, but I was still captivated by For the Most Beautiful and am looking forward to reading another two books by Emily Hauser.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart

The Last Enchantment The Last Enchantment is the final part of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which began with The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills. I have been reading it this week for Lory’s Witch Week, a celebration of fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, myths and legends, but I’m sure I would have picked it up soon anyway as I loved the first two books and was looking forward to reading the conclusion of Merlin’s story.

The Last Enchantment picks up the story where The Hollow Hills ended, with Arthur beginning his reign as High King of Britain after pulling the sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from its stone. Almost immediately, Arthur must begin a series of battles against the Saxons before he can achieve peace and security throughout his kingdom. But Arthur is not the main focus of the novel; like the previous two books, this one is narrated by Merlin…and Merlin is facing a battle of his own. Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgause, has given birth to a son, and Merlin has foreseen that this child, Mordred, could pose a threat to the King.

In the first half of the novel, Merlin tells us of his journey north in search of Mordred, as well as several other events, such as the building of Camelot and Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, which will be familiar even to readers who, like me, only have a basic knowledge of the Arthurian legends. In the second half of the book, there is a growing sense of sadness and poignancy as Merlin ages, his magical powers begin to fade and Arthur, while still valuing his friendship, no longer relies on him as he used to. Merlin takes on an apprentice, Nimuë, whom he hopes will eventually take his place as the King’s enchanter, but he soon discovers that his new assistant has some surprises in store for him.

Maybe because I found this such a sad story, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, but I do think all three are wonderful books. I was slightly disappointed with the portrayal of the female characters (I think I mentioned that in my review of the previous novel too). Arthur’s sisters, Morgan and Morgause, are both evil witches, while Guinevere is pushed into the background and never really comes to life at all. Then there’s Nimuë, whose storyline I really disliked and found quite painful to read at times. Merlin’s relationship with Arthur, though, is one of the highlights of the book and I found myself looking forward to all of their scenes together.

Before reading this trilogy my knowledge of Arthurian myth was limited to T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and one or two television adaptations which I can now barely remember watching; I think this was an advantage, because it meant I was kept in suspense, only vaguely aware of the outline of the story and the role each character would play. I was surprised that there was no Lancelot (his part in the story is taken by Arthur’s friend, Bedwyr, instead), I had no idea that Arthur was thought to have had more than one wife called Guinevere and I knew nothing of the involvement of Nimuë in the later stages of Merlin’s story. Mary Stewart discusses all of these things and more in her author’s note at the end of the book, explaining how she chose to interpret various sources and to decide what to include in her version of the legend.

I was sorry to reach the end of Merlin’s story, but I can definitely see myself wanting to re-read all three of these books in the future – and, of course, I would also like to read Mary Stewart’s other two Arthurian novels, The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred) and The Prince and the Pilgrim. I think it’s fascinating that there are so many different variations of these legends and now that I’ve read this version, I’m interested in reading interpretations by other authors. If you can recommend any good ones, please let me know!