2017 Faves: Fantasy Novels

Alright, I’m going to do a “best of” kind of post, though nearly everything I read could be included on a best of, as I tend to be pretty picky about what I read.  So I’ll break it down into a few categories, instead of just one big amalgam of reading.

Today it’s fantasy novels.  Here are some of my faves from 2017.  Remember, if you’re looking for awards recs, these are books I read in 2017, but I’ll include pub dates for stuff that’s from earlier.

  1. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig (Feb 2016)

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2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Aug 2015)

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3. The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (Sept 2017)

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4. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (Jan 2017)

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5. Horizon, by Fran Wilde (Sept 2017)

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Every fairy tale has a grain of truth in it.  In Vaselisa Petrovna’s case, everything true about the world has a hint of the magical about it.  Whether it is as she sits at the knee of her nurse Dunya as a small child, listening to tales of Father Frost and the foolish people who try to get the better of him, or as a teenager when she unwittingly meets the spirits of the great forest and learns to speak to them.  Though the world is a dangerous place, Vaselisa finds, it is a manageable danger.  Until something changes.

While there are many very self-conscious Cinderella reinterpretations, The Bear and the Nightingale‘s reliance–not on the Germanic lore many readers are familiar with–on Russian and Slavic tradition, its total immersion in a history, a place, a culture so entwined with the land that gave it rise, makes this more than just one tale, and very much an allegory for an entire world, which is how the folk tradition can really shine.

The competing forces of invasion from the east and south lend urgency to a tale that otherwise could have been much more leisurely, and thus have a lot less at stake.  The Khan’s horde is an everpresent threat for Peotr, who is considered a rich boyar,  but at the same time the push of Christianity and its influence on the southern city of Moscow, still little more than a jumped up trading post but striving for imperial greatness, draws a narrow line for him and his people to walk.  Add in the demands of nature, the shifting threats of seasons and snows, and it would take very little to tip this community over the edge.

In the sub-arctic climates of eastern Russia, it is little surprise that Frost would be personified, but it is Arden’s use of the small spirits–those who inhabit the house and stable, the spirits of wood and water–that really bring a feeling of place to the story, and establish the stakes.  It is the risk not to a great many people if the horde are not satisfied with the year’s tribute, but the risk to Vaselisa, her brothers, her nurse, her father, and those who have lived in the village for generations if the tenuous balance between human and nature spirit is not kept.  But in a time of uncertainty, alliances and beliefs begin to shift, and what used to be lore comes to be seen as harmful superstition.

Vaselisa’s strength will be tested, but also her ability to reconcile her desires and her duty, and her ability to work with her people, instead of isolating herself.  For lovers of folklore inspired fantasy with well-drawn characters, The Bear and the Nightingale is  sure bet.

It Takes Two: Slavic-Inspired Fantasy

Over the weekend I finished Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale and it was great and full of really interesting women and frost demons and Russian folklore, and maybe it was because I listened to the audiobook version of it but I kept thinking it had a lot in common with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which I also listened to on audiobook.

While The Bear and the Nightingale is more historical fantasy and Uprooted is second-world fantasy, they both draw on Slavic history and folklore for their worldbuilding and fantasy elements.  The Bear and the Nightingale is about a boyar’s family in the Russian countryside who live close to the great forest where dwell the frost demon and his brother the bear, along with a host of other nature spirits, and focuses on the life of Vaselisa Petrovna, a  young woman born with her great-grandmother’s gifts to communicate with these spirits, whom many people consider no more than fairy tales.  Vaselisa is called upon not only to fight the bear, who would overrun all human settlements near his forest, but also the religious fervor that is driving the old spirits from the land before the new Christian religion.

Agnieszka, in Uprooted, on the other hand, becomes the assistant to the Dragon, a powerful wizard who has vowed to protect her valley from the forest that constantly threatens it, for as long as he lives.  Agnieszka is chosen as his next assistant because she possesses some magic abilities of her own, and the two develop a relationship because he feels he must teach her to use her power.  Eventually, Agnieszka must face the malice of the forest and try to defeat it.  The secrets of the novel, of course, lie in Novik’s reinterpretation of Slavic fairy tales, including Baba Yaga, and the pseudo-fae history of the forest and the valley in which it lies.  Agnieszka must use the magical knowledge she’s obtained, combined with her village’s old tales, to understand what is really happening in the forest.

Each novel deals with the ramifications of being a powerful woman in a society that distrusts women and magic, as well as the feeling of being trapped or hemmed in–Agnieszka in the Dragon’s tower, and Vaselisa in her family’s house, wrapped about by winter and the stifling presence of her step-mother and the priest who seeks to rid the village of the old spirits.  Both novels also find a way to build strong relationships between women, and show what happens when those relationships are curtailed or threatened.

So if you like Slavic folk tales, forest settings, and strong-willed young women, both of these novels are for you.