The Tuesday List: Winter of our Discontent

Winter is here! Sort of.  Mostly.  Snow has hit the ground and stuck in the Northeast U.S., so I’m calling it.  Here, then, are a few books that are set in winter, or remind me of winter in some way.

And don’t worry, there’s no GRRMartin in sight.

  1. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

Though the Six Duchies get seasons just like (I suppose) mid-to-northern Europe does, it always seems to be winter when Fitz is running around, killing raiders and whatnot, so this series always makes me think of winter.  It’s a good read, too, for people who like pseudo-medieval-Europe and epic fantasy.

2. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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This novel begins on a snowy night at the beginning of winter in Toronto, when one man gasps his last on stage during a production of King Lear, and then civilization slowly collapses.  I remember well the vivid imagery of a young man pushing a shopping cart full of groceries through the slushy streets, hoping against hope to make it to his disabled brother’s high-rise apartment and somehow wait out the apocalypse.

3.  All the Windwracked Stars (Edda of Burdens book 1), by Elizabeth Bear

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This is the series I think of when I think of Norse mythology adaptations.  Ragnarok, snow and ice wrapped all around, and the Valkyries fighting for the light and their world.  Only one Valkyrie survives, along with a two-headed deer, the valraven, steed of the Valkyrie.  Millenia later, the fight takes new form in a world changed to almost unrecognizabilityfor Muire, the last Valkyrie.  But have others survived?  Where are the Gods of the north?  And what is she to do now?

4. Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

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This  novel doesn’t take place during winter (as far as I can remember), or maybe it’s bright spring when the sun is shining but there’s still a coldness to the air.  Or maybe it’s the bleakness of the characters, the chilling fact that Kelpie can see ghosts and can’t help it, can’t get away from them, even as they beg her to avenge their deaths.  Or it might be the feeling of chill dampness that comes from Kelpie’s brief and mournful memories of growing up in Frog Hollow, before she found work and places to stay away from the horrible gully.  Despite the chills this novels brings, or perhaps because of them, it’s a stellar read and a great story of two girls sticking together to fight the gangs that have turned their neighborhood into a war zone.

5. Cold Magic (Spiritwalker trilogy book 1), by Kate Elliott

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Like many quality fantasy novels, Cold Magic begins in the winter with Cat, bound to marry a cold mage, one who can not only harness the power of ice, but who strips the heat from rooms kills fires with his very presence.  He is coldly arrogant, Cat hates him on sight, but must stay with him to protect her family.  What seems like the start of a cliched romance turns into anything but.

The Infinite Now, by Mindy Tarquini

In Philadalphia of 1918, the Great War is winding down, but the flu epidemic is just getting started, ravaging the Italian quarter of the city that Fiora Vicente calls home.  Newly orphaned due to the new sickness which has swept in on the wings of war, the sheltered teen is brought to live with an older gentleman, a respected member of the community, for reasons that Fiora can’t fathom, but for which she is grateful, in her spoiled way, all the same.

One of the greatest successes of this novel is Tarquini’s creating an unlikeable and yet sympathetic young protagonist, whose horror at the world is visceral and real, and who yet lives in a sort of fantasy world, a bubble that could be pricked at any moment.  Like most sections of cities populated primarily by people of the same nationality–even the same small communities–the Italian quarter of Philadelphia is insular in its own way, with everyone knowing the business of everyone else.   But Fiora is the outsider, and it is her inability to become part of the wider community that Don Sebastiano oversees that leads to her drawing the bubble of time around herself and her small territory, afraid to let the outside world in lest more sickness arrive, more people die, or word of her brothers off fighting in Italy come through.

The Infinite Now is a poignant, and yet claustrophobic, story of emmigration, community, and bereavement; for every step forward that Fiora takes, life seems determined to push her backwards.  Tarquini does a good job of building palpable tension, symbolized by the brief, yet unchangeable glimpses into the future that Fiora gets through the fortuneteller’s curtain she inherits from her mother.  The warring feelings of isolation and smothering she feels, the ways in which she slips back and forth between forming meaningful relationships and being pushed away from people because of assumptions and prejudices, are both effective and well-constructed.

 

This is also a novel of a particular time, a window into a small portrait of European-American experience that can be hard to imagine, from this 100-year vantage, and The Infinite Now, apart from its pseudo-time travel elements, also live up to its name in terms of the ways it evokes an infinitely huge, and yet infinitely small world, where people who emigrate become irrevocably separated from their home communities through the vastness of oceans, and yet never seem to leave the tiny worlds they make for themselves in their new countries.

If there is any complaint to be made about the novel, it would be the ways in which it too neatly wraps up the story’s conclusion.  It takes an issue–non hetero sexual orientation, which was often a serious taboo in traditional and insular communities–and treats it, first of all, as no big deal, and then seems to forget it entirely in its attempts to bring the novel to a close as the story of an old woman looking back on her life long ago.  For those into period novels with a dash of fantasy, this novel will do nicely, but those for whom LGBT identity representation is important, this might be a small red flag.

Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

            Frog Music captures San Francisco in all
the pandemonium of its youth, when the American West still represented freedom
and opportunity.  It is a place
where people can reinvent themselves, and Blanche Beunon has used that quality
to become the most famous and desired burlesque dancer in the city.  Though she and her lover Arthur live
what he calls a Bohemian lifestyle, Blanche has some very simple rules she has
lived by to get to the top, and resists anything that could change her
comfortable existence.

            And
then she runs into—quite literally—a woman named Jenny Bonnet, and everything
changes.  The novel begins with a
murder, from which Blanche is trying both to recover and which she is trying to
understand.  The novel flashes back
and forth between and her meeting with Jenny and the time leading up to the
murder, as the reader pieces together what has happened, and Blanche tries to
decide what to do next. 

            Frog Music takes its title both from the
use of “frog” as a slang term for a French person, and from Jenny’s vocation as
a frog catcher.  The music of the
era features prominently in the novel, is indeed skillfully pieced in to help
the reader understand characters better and to better place the story in its
setting.  Donoghue does an
admirable job replicating dialects and expressions of the time.  A very large part of characterization
is built through the ways that they express themselves and how they interact
with each other—the way they speak depending upon whom they are speaking to—and
I never experienced a point where I felt anyone did anything out of character.

            Frog Music takes on many issues relevant
both in 1870’s San Francisco, but also more universal themes that resonate even
today.  Blanche and Jenny both
experience gender-motivated crimes and have to navigate a world that strictly
enforces gender roles and expression. 
Throughout her journey between meeting Jenny and the murder, Blanche
questions both her own humanity and that of the people around her in an attempt
to understand how so much good and so much evil can exist side by side.  The novel features many instances of
prejudice and bigotry, and for the most part allows characters to react in a
way they would be expected to for their time, while coincidentally attempting
to subvert the stereotypes the characters rely upon.

            Blanche
Beunont is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in a long
while.  Despite being 24 years old
and considering herself very worldly and self-aware, she is called upon to
reevaluate everything she knows about herself and the people in her life.  The reader sees the story from her
point of view and it is her thoughts we are allowed to see throughout the
novel.  Donoghue allows Blanche to
really be honest, even when the truth is ugly, at least in her thoughts.  She makes calculated moves, has
regrets, and very little about her world is sugar-coated for the reader.  

            Readers
who are interested in late 19th century U.S. and world history.will
enjoy Frog Music and its vivid sense
of place and time, as well as the awareness Donoghue displays of world events
world consciousness.  Its heavy use
of period music and entertainment will be of interest, as will many of its
social themes including women’s rights, mental health and criminal justice in
the 19th century, immigration, and ideas of family and
motherhood.  Readers who enjoyed
television series like Deadwood or Mad Men but are looking for a more nuanced
social critique will enjoy the ways that Donoghue builds a compelling story
while still exploring social issues.