The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale I was drawn to this book first by the cover – and then by the mention of Russian fairy tales and folklore. It seemed a little bit different from the usual books I read and I hoped it would prove to be an enchanting, magical read, perfect for the winter months.

The story is set in the 14th century in Lesnaya Zemlya, a village in northern Rus’.  The village is home to Pyotr Vladimirovich who, since losing his beloved wife in childbirth several years earlier, has lived alone with his five children and their elderly nurse, Dunya. The youngest child, Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known), is becoming wild and rebellious and it is partly because of the need to provide a mother figure for her that Pyotr decides to marry again. Unfortunately, though, his new wife – Anna – turns out to be a wicked stepmother who dislikes and distrusts Vasya and believes she can see demons hiding all over the house.

Vasya, who has inherited special abilities from her mother, can also see Anna’s ‘demons’, but she knows that they are not evil spirits – they are household guardians watching over the people of Lesnaya Zemlya. When Father Konstantin arrives in the village, believing he is on a mission from God to stamp out the old traditions and beliefs, the powers of the household spirits begin to fade. Harvests start to fail, winters seem colder and harder than ever before and the evil forces that lurk in the forest grow stronger. Can Vasya find a way to protect her family and restore happiness and prosperity to the village?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a story steeped in Russian myth, legend and fairy tale. Although I loved fairy tales as a child, I seem to have missed out on most of the Russian ones, but that wasn’t a problem at all – and I was surprised to discover how much I was actually familiar with. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the story of Frost which Dunya is telling the children as the novel opens:

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows.”

Frost, or Morozko to give him his Russian name, is an important presence throughout the whole novel, although he only appears to the characters on a few occasions and we are made to wait until near the end of the book before his true significance becomes clear. Other aspects of the story are slow to unfold too – such as the role of the Bear and Nightingale of the title – which is why I’m not going to say any more about the plot or the characters, even though I would love to! I would prefer to leave some of the novel’s secrets and surprises for you to discover for yourself.

What I will mention is the setting, which I loved. Most of the action takes place in and around Vasya’s village, with lots of vivid descriptions of the harsh living conditions and the bleak, relentless winter weather, but there are also a few sections set in Moscow at the court of the Grand Prince Ivan II. I have very little knowledge of 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as the region was known at that time) so I wasn’t sure how much of this was based on fact, but as this is historical fantasy I tried not to worry too much about that.  I was more interested in the portrayal of the conflict between the old ways and the new, the changing beliefs of the people and the loss of old traditions.

The Bear and the Nightingale is apparently the first in a trilogy – I hadn’t been aware of this when I first started to read, but on reaching the end of the book I was happy to discover that there will be another two and that the next one will take us away from the forests of Rus’ and into medieval Moscow. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for it as I’m looking forward to it already!

Thanks to the publisher Del Rey for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens Since reading Kate Forsyth’s Brothers Grimm-inspired The Wild Girl last year, I have been looking forward to Bitter Greens, another novel with a Grimm connection. I’m sure most of us know, or have at least heard of, the fairy tale Rapunzel. Although this fairy tale was included in the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 collection, Children’s and Household Tales, it was actually based on a much earlier story, Persinette, which was published in 1698 and written by a woman called Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth combines a re-telling of the Rapunzel story with a fascinating account of the life of Charlotte-Rose.

The novel begins in 1697, on the day that Charlotte-Rose is banished from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent. With her sharp tongue, sense of humour and spirited personality, it seems that Charlotte-Rose has been the cause of too much scandal for the Sun King’s liking and is now receiving her punishment. After the lively and opulent court of Versailles, Charlotte-Rose finds it very difficult to adapt to life in a strict and austere nunnery. The only thing that makes her days bearable is her friendship with one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina, who entertains her with a story about a little Italian girl called Margherita…

Accused of stealing a handful of bitter greens from a witch’s garden, Margherita’s parents are forced to make a bargain with the witch: she will not report them for the theft if they agree to hand over their daughter as soon as she reaches the age of seven. And so Margherita finds herself taken from her parents and locked in a high tower by Lake Garda – a tower which can only be accessed when Margherita throws her long red hair from the window to form a ladder.

Margherita’s story unfolds slowly, a few chapters at a time, and alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose who is looking back on her life, her love affairs and her time at court. There is also a third strand to the novel and in this we learn the history of Selena Leonelli, the witch of the fairy tale, who was once a Venetian courtesan known as ‘La Strega Bella’ and a model for the artist Titian. These three women lead lives which are in some ways very different but in others quite similar. Each has been touched by sadness and tragedy, but each woman proves herself to be strong and resilient in the end.

There’s just so much packed into this novel: the scandals and intrigues of the 17th century French court, a version of Rapunzel much darker and more compelling than the one I remember from my childhood, a vivid depiction of Renaissance Italy, magic and witchcraft, religious persecution, stories within stories, and much more. I was never bored, no matter which of the three women I was reading about. Charlotte-Rose is a wonderful character and I’m surprised that more authors of historical fiction haven’t used her as a subject for their novels. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about her and I think it’s sad that she seems to have been largely forgotten by history.

Much as I loved Charlotte-Rose, though, I always found myself looking forward to returning to Margherita in her tower. She and Selena never felt quite as real to me as Charlotte-Rose did (which is maybe not surprising as they are supposed to be fairy tale characters, after all!) but I really enjoyed revisiting the Rapunzel story, which I hadn’t read or even thought about for such a long time. There were elements of fantasy and magical realism within Margherita’s tale that worked well alongside the more realistic narrative of Charlotte-Rose and I thought the balance was perfect. I loved Bitter Greens and would highly recommend both this book and The Wild Girl.

Bitter Greens_Blog Tour Banner_FINALv2 I read Bitter Greens as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

ACW-badge-23 This week Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia of Postcards from Asia are hosting an Angela Carter Week. I have to admit that I had dismissed Angela Carter years ago as an author just not for me, based on one or two failed attempts at reading her novels as a teenager. Seeing the announcement of the Angela Carter Week and knowing that she is a beloved favourite of so many people, I decided it was time to give her another chance – with some short stories this time.

In The Bloody Chamber, Carter takes ideas and themes from fairy tales and legends – vampires and werewolves, Bluebeard and Puss in Boots, dark forests and gloomy castles – and works them into a collection of new short stories. There are ten in the book – The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger’s Bride, Puss-In-Boots, The Erl-King, The Snow Child, The Lady of The House of Love, The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice. Some are quite long (The Bloody Chamber is more than forty pages long in this edition) while others are very short (less than two pages for The Snow Child) and all of them are steeped in feminism, violence and sexuality.

The Bloody Chamber I’m glad I chose this book to try again with, because I did enjoy it. However, I had quite an uneven reaction to the stories in this collection and found that I liked some of them much more than others – though I suppose that’s normal when reading short story collections. I was interested to read in the introduction by Helen Simpson that they should not actually be described as retellings because Carter herself said that her intention was to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”.

By far the strongest, in my opinion, is the title story, The Bloody Chamber. The Gothic atmosphere and imagery in this story reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the Bluebeard legends, it’s the tale of a young woman who travels to the castle of her new husband, a Marquis who has already been married and widowed three times before. When the Marquis goes away on business he leaves his wife with a bunch of keys and strict instructions not to unlock the door of one of the rooms. Not surprisingly, she is unable to resist the temptation and discovers something shocking within the forbidden chamber.

I also loved The Courtship of Mr Lyon, a romantic and beautifully written story based on Beauty and the Beast. I preferred this one to The Tiger’s Bride, which gives a completely different perspective on the same fairy tale. Puss-in-Boots, although not one of my favourites, stands out from the others in the book as it is written in a very different style. While most of the others, particularly The Bloody Chamber, are elegant and haunting with rich, elaborate descriptions, this one is a lively, amusing story narrated by the cat himself. The Snow Child is equally memorable, though for different reasons – for such a short story, it’s one of the most disturbing in the book.

The Erl-King and The Lady of the House of Love also deserve a mention, both for their atmospheric settings and the beauty of the language used. Interestingly, I think the stories I enjoyed least were the three final ones which incorporated elements from Little Red Riding Hood and werewolf folklore. I’m not sure why that should be, unless they just suffered from being last in the book.

I can see why Angela Carter’s books are so widely studied in schools and universities because her writing is packed with symbolism and imagery. I know I would have to read this whole collection again to even begin to fully appreciate everything she was trying to say in each of the ten stories.

Have you read this book? Which was your favourite story?

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Gretel and the Dark One night in 1899, Benjamin discovers a young woman lying on the ground near Vienna’s mental hospital, naked and bruised, and takes her to the home of his employer, the famous psychoanalyst, Dr Josef Breuer. The girl, whom Dr Breuer names Lilie, insists that she is not human, that she’s just a machine. Her mission, she says, is to destroy a monster. The doctor enlists Benjamin’s help in trying to uncover the truth about his young patient, but both men find themselves increasingly drawn to the mysterious Lilie.

Many years later, in Germany, we meet a spoilt and badly behaved little girl called Krysta. She has recently moved house with her father, another doctor, to be nearer his job working with ‘animal people’ at what Krysta believes is a zoo. Krysta’s father is busy with his work, leaving his daughter to entertain herself by remembering the fairy tales she was told by her old nurse, Greet, and making friends with Daniel, a lonely little boy she discovers eating worms in the grounds of the ‘zoo’. When an unexpected tragedy throws Krysta’s life into turmoil, she learns that Greet’s stories can provide an escape from the horrors that are going on around her.

Well, this is proving to be a very difficult book to write about without giving too much away! Gretel and the Dark is one of those books where it is not immediately obvious what is happening. For a long time I was confused. What was the link between the two storylines? Was Lilie a real person or was she a machine, as she claimed? How did she seem to have so much knowledge of the future? And who was Gretel supposed to be?

I think I spent about 300 of the book’s 350 pages trying to figure out the connection between Krysta and Lilie and coming up with theories, most of which were completely wrong. I only started to guess the truth shortly before it was revealed and when everything began to come together in the final chapters of the book, I discovered that the story I had actually been reading was not quite the one I’d thought I was reading!

Despite the allusions to fairy tales and the fact that some of the main characters are children, this is actually a very, very dark novel. Again, I can’t really discuss any of the issues the book raises because it would be best to know as little as possible before starting to read – though I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the place where Krysta’s father works is not really a zoo at all, but something much more sinister. And the fairy tales Krysta recalls throughout the book are not the light, whimsical kind, but the dark and gruesome ones. Hansel and Gretel is one of her favourites and she enjoys using her imagination to push various enemies into the witch’s oven! Later in the book, when something particularly horrible happens to Krysta, another of the tales Greet told her takes on new meaning.

I liked Eliza Granville’s writing but I didn’t find this an easy book to read because some parts of the story were so disturbing and unpleasant. Although it was not a book I could describe as ‘enjoyable’ it was certainly very clever and unusual…and I can almost guarantee you’ll still be thinking about it long after reaching the final page.

Thanks to Penguin Ireland for the review copy.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

The Wild Girl Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty…I’ve known all of these stories since my childhood, but I’ve never really thought about where they came from. Yes, they all appeared in my big book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales but how exactly did the Brothers Grimm come up with all these wonderful stories? What was their inspiration? Kate Forsyth’s new novel, The Wild Girl, shows us how Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm spent years collecting and writing down old tales told to them by their friends and neighbours. One of these friends was Dortchen Wild, a young woman who grows up next door to the Grimm family in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel. The Wild Girl is Dortchen’s story.

Dortchen is one of six daughters of an apothecary and his wife, described on the back cover as “the pretty one (Gretchen), the musical one (Hanne), the clever one (Rose), the helpful one (Lisette), the young one (Mia) and the wild one (Dortchen)”. As there are six sisters to get to know – and a brother, Rudolf – giving each of them one or two strong characteristics made it easy to remember which was which, even if it meant that not all of them felt as well-rounded as Dortchen. The Grimms are also a large family but in a worse position than the Wilds financially, as Frau Grimm is a widow and with the Napoleonic Wars raging throughout Europe, her sons are struggling to find work. Dortchen has been in love with Wilhelm Grimm from the age of twelve, but knows that her father will never allow them to marry – partly because of Wilhelm’s poverty but also because he just doesn’t seem to want Dortchen to have any happiness in her life.

As I read The Wild Girl I was desperately hoping for Dortchen and Wilhelm to get the happy ending they deserved, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is just a romance novel, because it’s not. Another thing that I loved was the historical setting – I’ve never read about the Napoleonic Wars from a German perspective before and Kate Forsyth has helped me to understand what it was like for the people of Hessen-Cassel as they were invaded first by the French then by the Russians. The violence of the war and the horrors experienced by the soldiers are described in vivid detail – sometimes a bit too vivid for me! There are also lots of lovely descriptions of cobbled streets lit by lanterns, medieval market squares and dark forests, as well as of Dortchen’s work in her father’s apothecary shop, gathering plants and herbs and preparing medicines.

This is quite a dark book and what makes it particularly disturbing is the depiction of Dortchen’s suffering at the hands of her abusive father, Herr Wild. As the novel progresses and he becomes more and more violent and cruel, it’s sad to see how Dortchen, who begins the book as “the wild one”, has her spirit crushed and her confidence destroyed. The darkness of the novel means that we can look forward to the fairy tales as a way to escape, even if only briefly, from the harsh realities of the world being described. The fairy tales are cleverly woven into the novel at relevant points so that they feel like an important part of Dortchen’s story rather than being randomly included just for the sake of it. I found that some of the tales told by Dortchen and other characters could easily be identified as the stories we all know and love; others were new to me but had several elements that felt familiar. While the brothers’ original aim was to try to preserve the old stories that had been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, they were eventually forced to edit their tales to make them more suitable for children and easier to market to the public.

Finally, I think the publishers, Allison & Busby, deserve a word of praise for the way this book has been presented. The hardback edition was a pleasure to read with that pretty blue cover!

The Wild Girl tour banner This post is part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. I’m the last stop on the tour, but if you’d like to read more about The Wild Girl you can find a list of previous reviews and interviews here.

A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde

Last week I posted my thoughts on Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu for Irish Short Story Week. I then wanted to read another short work by an Irish author and remembered that A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde was one of the free ebooks that came with my Sony Reader. Perfect!

A House of Pomegranates contains four short fairy tales by Wilde. I originally intended just to read one of them but ended up reading the whole book! Each story has a moral lesson for the reader but first and foremost they are enjoyable fairy tales – although quite dark in tone, as many fairy tales are.

Wilde apparently said that the stories in A House of Pomegranates are “meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.” Having read the book I would agree with this assessment of it. Although I’m sure there are a lot of children who would enjoy the stories (I know I would probably have loved them if I’d read them when I was younger), I think they might be too long and too heavy on description for some, and in many ways will be appreciated more by adults.

In The Young King, we are warned against the love of beauty and luxury. On the eve of his coronation, the young king, who loves all the beautiful things in life, has three dreams in which he learns exactly where his magnificent new robe, sceptre and crown have come from – and suddenly, they don’t appear so beautiful after all.

The Birthday of the Infanta is a poignant story about the King of Spain’s daughter, who is celebrating her twelfth birthday. Among the entertainments that have been arranged for her is a performance by a dwarf, who later becomes convinced that the Infanta is in love with him. It quickly becomes obvious that the Infanta has a very sad and lonely life, but my sympathy was for the dwarf, who can be seen to represent anyone who is the victim of cruelty and prejudice. Even the flowers in the palace garden ridicule him.

The Flowers were quite indignant at his daring to intrude into their beautiful home, and when they saw him capering up and down the walks, and waving his arms above his head in such a ridiculous manner, they could not restrain their feelings any longer.

‘He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are,’ cried the Tulips.

‘He should drink poppy-juice, and go to sleep for a thousand years,’ said the great scarlet Lilies, and they grew quite hot and angry.

The Fisherman and his Soul is the longest of the four stories and to be honest, I didn’t think it needed to be quite so long. It felt very repetitive, which was a shame because it was otherwise an excellent story about a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and sacrifices his soul for her. It can almost be seen as a re-working of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, but instead of the mermaid longing to become human as in Andersen’s story, this is the reverse.

My favourite story in the book was The Star-Child, about a child who is found by a woodcutter after a shooting star falls from the sky. The child grows up to be selfish and conceited, but finally gets a chance to redeem himself.

A House of Pomegranates is certainly worth reading if you’re looking for something a bit different or if you like Oscar Wilde’s writing (although the wit and humour which shines through in his other works isn’t really present here). I would be interested in comparing this book with Wilde’s other, more popular, book of short stories, The Happy Prince & Other Tales, but I’ll have to wait until I’m in the mood for some more fairy tales!

Have you read either of Oscar Wilde’s two books of fairy tales?