Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Review: 'The Winter of the Witch' Winternight #3 by Katherine Arden

I read The Bear and the Nightingale in early 2017 and I have been obsessing over the Winternight trilogy ever since. These have been the books I have literally devoured over night. That was the case with The Bear and the Nightingale and definitely the case with The Girl in the Tower. I tried to take my time with The Winter of the Witch because I knew it was the last one, and yet it was also gone within 2 days. What I’m trying to say is that this trilogy has been with me for a while and I’m sad to see it end. What am I going to look forward to now? Thanks to Penguin Random House, Del Rey and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 1/10/2019
Publisher: Penguin Random House, Del Rey, Ebury Press

One girl can make a difference... 
Moscow is in flames, leaving its people searching for answers – and someone to blame. Vasilisa, a girl with extraordinary gifts, must flee for her life, pursued by those who blame their misfortune on her magic. 
Then a vengeful demon returns, stronger than ever. Determined to engulf the world in chaos, he finds allies among men and spirits. Mankind and magical creatures alike find their fates resting on Vasya's shoulders. 
But she may not be able to save them all.
 I don’t know if I made my love for the Winternight trilogy clear enough. This trilogy is a part of the fairy tale/Russian folklore revival that has swept through the bookstores lately and it is a definite standout for me. Although I’ve adored Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente and the Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, none of them hit home the way Winternight did. Throughout her three books, Katherine Arden took a genuine passion for storytelling and Russian folklore and turned it into something that is both original and an homage. The whole story rests on the shoulders of Vasya, Arden’s brilliant main character, as she takes on the expectations of both the fantastical and the human world. Throughout all three books, Vasya continues to come into her own while encountering both magic and religion, cruelty and love, and freedom and imprisonment. I love the fantastical and I always have, so as I found myself waiting for the next installment that is what I expected myself to miss. But instead of hungering for more on the domovoi or magical horses, my mind kept returning to Vasya and her journey. I think it impressive that despite all the spectacle of the Winternight trilogy, Arden’s main character remains as central as she does, not once overwhelmed by her own narrative. 

 I’m just going to keep talking about Vasya as I review The Winter of the Witch, I think. The novel picks up almost exactly where The Girl in the Tower left off, with Moscow saved but burning. The end of The Girl in the Tower was both a victory and a loss for Vasya, and it is in this confusion that we find her. The first few chapters of this novel are intense, as Vasya faces an angry mob out for her blood. When I say intense, I mean intense. Arden does not sugarcoat the violence of mobs nor the damage of their fired up fear. Neither does she forget about it once the book passes. Much of The Winter of the Witch is dedicated to Vasya trying to overcome her trauma by taking one step after the other, facing her own fears and remembering why she does what she does. In the end, she has to find an answer to the question of who is good and who is bad. The answer Arden, through Vasya, gives us surprised me initially until I realized how true it is. In The Winter of the Witch Vasya comes into her own, with all the good and evil that entails. It is a whirlwind of a book that not only brings together all the different story threads Arden so carefully arranged in the last two books, but that also brings us to a crucial point in Russian history, the Battle of Kulikovo. Vasya’s path is on a collision course with fate and throughout she remains as resilient and loveable as a witch can be. 

 So what is there left for me to say about Katherine Arden and her writing in The Winter of the Witch. I really think I might have said all of this before but here we go. I adored the way she writes about the Russian landscape and how her love for folklore comes through in how she describes it. I was impressed that she didn’t shy away from the ugly, but also didn’t let it outshine the beautiful. I raved about the way Arden continues to mix history and fantasy together in her narrative in my review of the first book. I’m sure I managed to work it into my review for the second book as well but here we are, the third and final book and I’m still not over it. It’s hard to strike a good balance in Historical Fiction between the historical and the fiction, let alone if you actively mix in fantasy and folk lore. It has never felt disingenuous though in the Winternight trilogy. Neither the history nor the fantasy is crammed into the narrative by force. The strict gender laws of 14th century Russia are present and accounted for, but so is the magic that flows through its country side. The only criticism I have for this book is that as Vasya travels through Rus, the timeline of the novel gets a bit confused here or there. Partly this is on purpose, I believe, and partly I can’t talk about it because spoilers. So this is all you’re going to get from me when it comes to negative things. 

 All in all I simply can’t end this review with saying just how much I adored The Winter of the Witch. Much of the above words are dedicated to the trilogy as a whole, but The Winter of the Witch is full of highs and lows, moments of exploration and adventure, but also moments of loss and bitterness. We truly get the full range of human emotions here and that is what has made all three books so masterful. I’m going to miss waiting for the next Winternight book to come out. 

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

 If you’re a fan of either Fantasy novels, Historical Fiction or just good writing, please check out The Winter of the Witch. But not until after you’ve read the other two books of the Winternight trilogy. Truly, do yourself a favour, love yourself in 2019 and get started on these books. Also, someone tell me what Katherine Arden is writing next because I can only wait so long.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Review: 'The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire' by Frank Tallis

Nothing gets me quite as excited as books or films that dig into the human psyche. Whether it is psychological thrillers, suspense movies or genuine historical accounts, I want to know why we’re all mad. So of course Frank Tallis’ The Incurable Romantic caught my eye straightaway. What more could I possible ask for than for a veteran psychologist to walk me through the madness of love? Thanks to Perseus Books, Basic Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 18/9/2018
Publisher: Perseus Books; Basic Books

A psychologist explores the intersection of love and madness through the riveting stories of the patients he has treated
In The Incurable Romantic, Frank Tallis recounts the extraordinary stories of patients who are, quite literally, madly in love: a woman becomes utterly convinced that her dentist is secretly infatuated with her and drives him to leave the country; a man destroys his massive fortune through trysts with over three thousand prostitutes--because his ego requires that they fall in love with him; a beautiful woman's pathological jealousy destroys the men who love her. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the history of psychiatry and the role of neuroscience in addressing disordered love. Elegantly written and infused with deep sympathy, The Incurable Romantic shows how all of us can become a bit crazy in love.
I am fascinated by the human mind because it is such a mystery. Why do we do the things we do? How do we explain our actions to ourselves? What is right and what is wrong? Throughout the past centuries there have been many different explanations for why some people act outside the boundaries of what we consider normal. Many of those explanations were rooted in misogyny or racism and we’re only slowly ridding ourselves of those prejudices, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to figuring ourselves out. And then add to all that confusion the intoxication of love. It’s the tropiest of tropes, we’ll do anything for love, but according to Frank Tallis that is truer than we might expect. We humans will go to extremely lengths to get and justify our loves and desires, even if it goes against all logic. For Tallis ‘love sickness’ is not something to call angsty teenagers, but rather a diagnosis that should be taken seriously. You can imagine just how quickly The Incurable Romantic hooked me! 

 In each chapter, Frank Tallis introduces us to one of his patients and each is more fascinating than the last. There is an old woman who has a surprising reason for missing he recently deceased husband., a man who knows just how wrong his attraction to young girls is but can’t seem to stop it, and a woman who is so madly in love nothing will convince her that her feelings aren’t reciprocated. What emerged from the novel for me was the realization that none of us really know how to handle love. There is a biological instinct that supports it. After all, if parents love each other they are more likely to create a stable home for offspring. On the other hand, dying of a broken heart is a very real thing so why would any of us even risk it? Tallis is very honest as he describes the cases, showing us his own doubts and worries about patients, his own fears he may not be doing enough and his own short comings as a partner. This adds to the humanity of his patients and makes it just that little bit easier for the reader to admit that they also don’t have a clue what they’re doing. 

 Frank Tallis doesn’t deep dive into the theoretical side of it all too much, this isn’t a technical book, there is no guide on how to diagnose yourself here. The Incurable Romantic feels like you’ve caught up with an old professor for coffee who is now finally ready to tell you all about his cases. There is something cozy and gentle to The Incurable Romantic that prevents it from being judgmental. At times there is a curious lack of detail when it comes to the different cases, especially in regards to time as the book seemingly spans all the decades of Tallis’ long career. I still don’t know when he saw these people, and at times it makes the cases seem almost unreal. Has anyone in The Incurable Romantic heard of the internet? This curious lack of time adds to the haziness of the book that might frustrate readers looking for more understanding. In the end, I appreciated The Incurable Romantic for the insight that it gave me, both into others and myself. 

I give this book...

3 Universes!

The Incurable Romantic is a great read for anyone who wants to do a shallow deep dive into the human mind. This book is a gentle stroll through the field of psychology and although some of its cases might disturb the reader, Tallis soothes over it with his companionable writing style. The Incurable Romantic makes for a great coffee table book that is just different enough to spark interesting conversations.