Book Review: Who is to Blame by Jane Marlow

Who Is to Blame by Jane Marlow

This book follows the paths of two families–one noble and one serf over two and a half decades in mid 1800s Russia. Elizaveta is an intelligent and hardworking peasant girl who wants nothing more than to marry her true love (and fellow serf), Feodor. Unfortunately, societal and religious factors conspire to keep them apart. Ten we have Count Maximov, who owns the land Elizaveta’s and Feodor’s families work. We see Maximov trying to balance his family life with the modernization of Russia and the changes in the interactions between nobility and serfs.

This is a deeply-researched work of historical fiction. Russian history is a very interesting topic to me (and I would guess, many here in the west). It is always wonderful to find a historical fiction set in Russia, especially one as richly realize as this one. This is a book along the lines of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, a complex and believable work of fiction that lets the reader feel as though they are looking in on the lives of real people.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

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The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Fair warning: this is the second book in the Winternight trilogy. There’s definitely going to be spoilers ahead for the first book in the series, The Bear and the Nightingale. If you want, you can read my review of that book here.

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Vasya has been driven from her village after the deaths of her father and stepmother. The options are slim for a young woman in medieval Russia — convent or marriage. Vasya, ever seeking to be her own master, decides to create a third option: to wander the vast expanses of Rus’ disguised as a boy, and explore the wide world now open to her. But the road and the places upon it are dangerous. Unnatural and vicious bandits are plundering remote towns in northern Rus’, and political intrigue and betrayal surround the residents of Moscow. Pulled into the events of the larger world, Vasya finds herself walking on a knife’s edge to help her family and her country, and to safeguard her precious freedom.

I simply adore this series. The Bear and the Nightingale was one of those delightful little surprises you come across occasionally. Expecting a typical historical fantasy, I found myself enveloped in a fairy tale story richly woven through with historical detail and living, breathing characters. The Girl in the Tower stays true to form. Arden’s careful attention to detail, and phenomenal gift for bringing fully-fleshed characters to her tales are undiminished in the second book.

Vasya has become a bit older and harder than last we saw her, but still retains her close ties with the many spirits who inhabit her world. Her choices and their consequences are rarely easy, and we get to see her grow and change as the plot moves along. Her relationship with Morozko, the winter demon is well done. No sappy love story here, but a subtler, bittersweet rapport that feels much more real.

If you enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale, then you’ll most likely love the continuation to the story. Fans of fantasy, fairy tales, and magic should definitely check out this phenomenal and original series.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

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Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution is a meticulously researched account of the months surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution. The book focuses on the experiences of foreign nationals in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) who were caught up in the violence of the revolution. Rappaport carries the reader from the first conflict of February 1917, through to the final revolutionary spasm in October of 1917.

Rappaport has delved into the diaries and correspondence of ambassadors, nurses, reporters, bankers, anarchists, and expats. Her long fascination with the topic shines through in the breadth of detail she brings to bear. Rappaport also provides a detailed history of the Revolution itself, so even those who have never studied the October Revolution will be able to follow the book. Coming out for the centennial anniversary of the event, and considering the state of current affairs, the release of this book is exquisitely well-timed.

The book is intended more for the serious history reader/scholar. My major complaint with the book is that Rappaport has provided almost too much information. The book would have made a wonderful narrative (in the vein of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts) if she had chosen to focus on the experiences of a few key players. As it stands, we are able to learn a little bit about quite a number of foreign expats, to the point where it is hard to remember who everyone is. The lack of background for the same people also makes it difficult to connect with them as real people, rather than just words in a diary.

In all though, Russian scholars and lovers of history will likely find this book informative and intriguing. And, with everything else that is going on in the world right now, the more casual reader might be interested in picking up this book for a valuable perspective on revolution.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Caught in the Revolution will be available for purchase on February 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This was a charming, engaging story inspired by fairy tales of the Russian wilderness.

Vasya is the daughter of a Russian lord, and the granddaughter of a suspected witch. Growing up in the vast forests in the north, fireside tales of friendly spirits and dangerous imps dominate her childhood. Vasya knows to leave offerings for the guardian spirits of her home and stables, to placate the water demons and to pay obeisance to the guardians of the forest. When her father marries a high born woman from Moscow, the folk traditions of Vasya’s youth are branded as heresy and witchcraft, and the orthodox church forbids any practice of the old ways.

But something evil is stirring in the deep woods, something ancient and hungering. As the strength of the old ways wanes, it seems that Vasya may be the only one who can stop what is coming.

Fairy tale retellings are in vogue nowadays, but it is rare that an author takes the material and makes it their own. The usual fare simply regurgitates the story while incorporating an excess of teen angst. Arden manages to take the tropes of the fairy tale and make them into a story with familiar elements, but which is her own. It reminds me of the Sevenwaters books by Juliet Marillier, a compelling series based on English myth and fairy tale.

I suspect this book may be shelved in the young adult category, but it will appeal to older readers nonetheless. Fans of fantasy and magic will find a lot to like in this story. In all, this is a very strong debut novel and I look forward to Katherine Arden’s future work.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Bear and the Nightingale will be available for purchase on January 10th, 2017.

Book Review: The Girl Who Fought Napoleon by Linda Lefferty

The Girl Who Fought Napoleon: A Novel of the Russian Empire by Linda Lafferty

This wonderful historical novel follows the tale of Nadezhda Dorova,  born in the Ukraine in 1783, literally as part of the Russian Calvary. Nadezhda’s father is a Russian Cavalry officer, and his Ukrainian wife delivers his child while the calvary is on the march. Nadezhda grows up to the sound and smell of horses, the clash of steel sabers and the simple camaraderie of military life. 

Nadezhda is not beautiful; her features changed by a bout of smallpox when she was a child, but she is striking. Nadezhda seeks nothing more or less than freedom to be her own person. Her mother, attempting to tame her eldest daughter’s wild ways, seeks to secure an advantageous marriage with  merchant in Ukraine. Nadezhda fights back the only way she feels she can: she dresses up as a Cossack Warrior, steals her favorite horse and a saber, and goes out to join the Russian army.

Once in the army, everything doesn’t necessarily go smoothly. Nadezhda’s disguise is not foolproof, and even as active a woman as she was, the physical exertion of being a lancer in Russia’s Army is intense. But Nadezhda works hard, her rise through the Russian ranks determined not by any natural or unusual skill, but by grim determination. 

What makes this story even more compelling is that this is not fiction; this is a novelized life of a real woman who fought in Russia’s Army in the early part of the nineteenth century against the armies of Napoleon. The author has done a fabulous job of taking the memoirs of Nadezhda Durova and making them into an accessible novel. The plot weaves between Nadezhda’s story and that of Tsar Alexander I with richly realized detail and much personal sympathy. Most of the book is taken straight from Nadezhda’s memoirs (have I mentioned how much I love a book with sources?). Even the unexpected twist towards the end of the book is historically accurate.

In all, the Lafferty has written a historical epic accessible to even the non history reader. Nadezhda’s life as a female Russian army soldier, won through hard work and grit is a story for the ages. History buffs and those seeking a book with a strong female character will greatly enjoy The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.

 An advance ebook was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Girl Who Fought Napoleon will be available for purchase on September 20th, 2016.