Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: The Romanov Empress

The Romanov Empress The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

This engaging historical novel about the life of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, neé Princess Dagmar of Denmark, evocatively captures the last seven decades of the Russian Romanov dynasty. Dagmar, who went by the nickname Minnie, came from relatively humble beginnings in life, a strong contrast to the life she led when she married Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich. Prior to the Russian Revolution, she had been one of the wealthiest women in the world. Minnie, or more formally Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, was born into an impoverished royal-blooded family in Denmark. One of six children, when her family was raised to rule in Denmark she saw the entire family's fortunes change in less than a decade, as she and her siblings married into or were appointed to powerful royal houses of Europe. Closest to her sister Alix, who married Bertie, Prince of Wales and son of Queen Victoria, and related to most of the great royal houses of Europe, Minnie lived a truly incredible life. During the course of her life in Russia, she saw the country descend into disaster and revolution.

Fiercely loyal and a family person, Minnie endured considerable personal loss, beginning with the untimely death of her beloved fiancé Tsarevich Nixa, to whom she was happily engaged, prior to marrying his younger brother, Grand Duke Alexander, who later became Tsar Alexander III. Minnie went on to raise five children to adulthood, including her firstborn son, the ill-fated Nicholas II. With her powerful charisma and socially adept nature, Minnie had helped smooth over some of the problems of the revisionist reign of her husband Tsar Alexander III, a conservative leader who reversed a number of liberal reforms of his predecessor-father. His death after only thirteen years as tsar placed Nicholas II at the head of the Romanov trainwreck. While he initially took his mother's advice in the early years of his reign, he eventually supplanted her with his somewhat unstable wife Alexandra as his chief advisor, spelling disaster for the Romanov line. Minnie lived to see all of her sons (her son George Alexandrovich died in a vehicle accident in 1899, and her remaining sons Tsar Nicholas II and Grand Duke Misha Alexandrovich who were cruelly murdered by the Bolsheviks), along with her grandchildren from Nicholas die before her, her own exile into penury, and a country she had loved for fifty years descend into the chaos of revolution.

The story of Maria Feodorovna is truly epic in its scope. While I had some trouble with the early parts of the book dealing with royals marrying for love versus duty (honestly, wasn't it way more duty than love for women marrying into these Royal European families?), the story of the last Romanovs is so gripping that you get swept away by Minnie's amazing and ultimately tragic life. This was a stirring and well-researched novel.

By the way, I do have to say that looking at photos of Dagmar and Nixa (left) versus Dagmar and Sasha (right), you can't help but feel that there was great reciprocity and fondness between the former star-crossed pair. Her sadness over Nixa's loss is captured poignantly in this novel. Still, a year and a half later, her family had her packed off to St. Petersburg to marry his brother Sasha. Duty called.

Dagmar and Tsarevich Nixa   Dagmar and Tsarevich Sasha

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley and Ballantine Books, as well as a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Review: Willa of the Wood

Willa of the Wood Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Disney Hyperion and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Reader, they had me at river otters.

Willa of the Wood is the engaging story of a young girl possessed of forest magic. Like so much of what Robert Beatty has given us in the past, this heroine is a source of hope and inspiration, set in an atmosphere of mystery, wonder, and strife. This is a book for children growing up in our present day, a novel in which children are encouraged to question social order and norms and come to their own conclusions about what is good and right and fair. Is hatred of others or of the different ever the right path? Willa learns to question this thought. A wonderful children's story with a sense of suspense, this was a delightful read. Plus, OTTERS!

I can heartily recommend this book.

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Review: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Novik's Uprooted was one of the most impressive (and lauded) fantasy books of 2015, giving readers an adaptation of Polish folktale Agnieszka Piece of Sky. Spinning Silver is a follow-up adaptation of multiple Slavic mythologies and a Grimm Brothers fairytale, and it tackles the difficult story/mythos of the Jewish moneylender, as well. Novik has spun a complicated tale with these narrative threads an I'm sure the fact that it is a less facile read than Uprooted is going to leave some readers disappointed. For me, however, this was a brave and wonderful story.

The premise of the story is that Miryem, daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, is forced to take over her father's business due to her father's mild-mannered ways and his tepid nature. Miryem's Jewish family lives in the mythical Lithvas, an environment of usually reserved anti-semitism (there were moments in this story in which I just gasped, let me tell you), enduring increasingly hard winters. A fairy road of sorts, attributed to the icy Staryks, frequently appears nearby their home. The Staryks are greatly feared, as they are very strong, possessive of their lands and animals, and have been known to kill mortals trespassing on their lands. A second and third principal character in the story are Wanda, a local girl pressed into service in order to pay off her father's debts with Miryem's family, and Irina, daughter of a minor Duke, living in the nearby town of Vysnia. (Vysnia is where Miryem's grandfather, a banker who is still is still sadly termed a Jewish moneylender by the locals, lives.) These three women's lives will intersect as the story reaches its climax.

Novik opens this book with a pragmatic retelling of the story of the Brothers Grimm's Rumplestiltskin/Rumpelstilzchen from the viewpoint of Miryem. From her perspective, it's just the usual tale of people trying to get out of paying their debts. Miryem is embittered about her father's ineffectual business acumen and she takes over the business when she is tired of going cold and hungry and sees her mother's health suffering because of her father's inability to recover the money he has loaned. She is bold and brave and clever, and in a way turns silver into gold by careful investment, keeping careful records, accepting trade for loan repayment. Once she is on a more solid financial footing, she becomes entrepreneurial, paying for good workmanship and coming up with good ideas for selling goods. These abilities don't go unnoticed. Villagers grow resentful that they are no longer dealing with a patsy moneylender, and the King of the Staryks grows intrigued by her business acumen after noting the family's change in fortune. Other beneficiaries of Miryem's good business sense include Wanda and her brothers, who enjoy good meals and a modest income they fail to report to their cruel and abusive drunkard of a father. Working for Miryem is literally a lifesaver for Wanda as working off her father's debt means she cant be sold off as a bride for a few goats and some bottles of liquor to some husband who will just abuse and batter her, working and birthing her to death like her own mother. She wants her own work and to delay marrying. Miryem and her family provide an environment in which she can see her own potential. Miryem generously trains her to keep the books and her mother dotes on Wanda and her brothers kindly, in thanks for the great help they provide in their work.

Irina's story begins when the King of the Staryk leaves a small leather pouch with silver for Miryem with an implicit task of turning silver to gold. She does this by traveling to Vysnia and having Isaac, a silversmith, make a ring of the fairy silver. They then sell it to the Duke, Irina's father, netting a profit. Irina, from the very beginning, is mesmerized by the silver. The King of the Staryk leaves increasingly large sums of silver for Miryem to change into gold as Isaac makes an expensive fairy silver necklace and a crown for Miryem, selling those to the Duke in turn. (The Duke wants to lure the beautiful but cruel young tsar, Mirnatius into wedding his daughter.) Eventually, Irina wears all three and finds they create a powerful glamour and an ability to cross into the land of the Staryk via a classic fairy roads mechanism of entering a mirror or mirror-like reflection. (We eventually will find out why this works for Irina.) Upon completion of these three transformations of fairy silver into profitable gold, the King of the Staryk takes Miryem as his fairy bride and I do mean he takes her, stealing her away in the world of the Staryk. And this is where the story gets complicated.

As soon as Irina marries the cruel young tsar we see that he is possessed by a ravenous and fiery demon. Miryem, meanwhile, is dealing with an ice fairy "husband" who kidnapped her, hasn't even properly married her, and is clearly repelled by her human and mortal nature. He refuses to give her either his name or her freedom. He sets her many seemingly impossible tasks and is horrified and puzzled that she can always complete them. In the cool and white Staryk world, just her touch is enough to turn Staryk silver into gold. The dynamic between these two Slavic kings is that of fire and ice, and while eventually the reader will be rewarded with the name of Mirnatius' demon (SPOILER: the Slavic black god, Chernobog), Miryem's Staryk King's name will remain a mystery to the reader unless you are an aficionado of Russian mythology. (I'll give you the name of this mythological figure below in a spoilered PS) Given that we have fire and ice, you can already predict confrontation between these two powerful men.

One of my only reservations about this novel is the aforementioned complicated narrative may seem too convoluted to some readers. However, this book gives us three marvelous, resilient female characters who are perhaps ultimately more powerful than the men in the story. I loved the exposition on the Jewish moneylender mythos and Miryem's cleverness, loyalty, and success. Wanda's resilience and strength and Irina's insight and bravery, complete the tale of three brave women succeeding against steep odds considering their world's unpleasant gender constraints on women's roles. This is a wonderful Young Adult fantasy.

P.S. (SPOILER: Readers curious about the name of the King of the Staryk can look into the story of the Slavic Frost King, Morozko, who is also a central figure in Katherine Arden's Winternight trilogy.)

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from NetGalley and Macmillan/Del Rey in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: The Girl in the Green Silk Gown

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown The Girl in the Green Silk Gown by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rose Marshall, a ghost in the Seanan McGuire's InCryptid world (2017 Hugo Best Series finalist) was first introduced to readers as a character in the serialized Sparrow Hill Road stories, featured on Jennifer Brozek's semiprozine The Edge of Propinquity, back in 2010. In 2014 McGuire adapted the Rose Marshall short stories into the book Sparrow Hill Road and the book was recently re-released (paperback ONLY*) with a snazzy new cover and some additional material (primarily the Pretty Little Dead Girl filk songs). While I loved Sparrow Hill Road there has been a bit of criticism that its episodic nature didn't feel quite like a novel. (I didn't care, mind you. On reading it again, I was so interested in how Rose's stories interface with the InCryptid world.) But now... welcome to your fully cohesive and exciting Rose Marshall novel: The Girl in the Green Silk Gown!

As readers of any edition of Sparrow Hill Road will recall, Rose Marshall died when she was driven off the road by Bobby Cross, an evil actor who made a bargain with the Crossroads for eternal youth. (All he has to do is fuel his car with the souls of people he's caused to die! Forever.) Rose has been trying to avoid Bobby for about the past six decades and has already recently escaped one of his plots. Sadly, you could say he's hung up on Rose, in a murderous stalker kind of way. If you thought Rose was done with Bobby after Apple, Queen of the Routewitches put Rose under her protection, you'd be dead wrong. /cough/ This time Bobby has outdone himself; he manages to undo the Persephone protection Rose received from Apple and from there the whole situation rapidly goes to hell in a handbasket. The extent of Bobby's plot is wide and deep. So very deep. It will take Rose all the way into the mythological underworld to undo what Bobby has done to her. With the help of Apple, Emma (her beán sidhe friend), Gary (her car-spirit boyfriend) a snarky dullahan named Pippa, and, in the first of many surprises, Professor Laura Moorhead, Rose aims to put things right. It might take divine intervention to fix things, though.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown broadens Rose's story but also gives us more details about the world of routewitches, and puzzling simultaneously alive and dead beings. Melding her own ghost folklore and Greek mythology, Seanan McGuire has written a fun novel, set mostly in the InCryptid world. The rest of the time? Well, be sure to pick some asphodels while you visit.

*If you can't swing the new edition in paperback you can still find the lyrics to these songs on Seanan's website, here.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from DAW via the First to Read program.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: The Calculating Stars

The Calculating Stars The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my favorite Mary Robinette Kowal novel and the bar is set pretty darn high considering her prior work.

In this rousing alternate history of the space program, we follow Elma Wexler York, the protagonist of her 2014 Hugo award-winning novelette, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, back in the early days of the post-Meteor Era space program. The opening chapters of the book deal with an event hinted at in one of her prior short stories, We Interrupt this Broadcast, in which an asteroid punches through the earth's atmosphere, surviving to become a meteorite that will obliterate Washington DC. The Calculating Stars opens with this cataclysmic event, in which most of the Eastern US is devastated and the resultant magnitude of water vapor sets off a series of climate issues that promise to make the planet uninhabitable within a century. There is plenty of snazzy science (fiction) in this book but Kowal manages to capture the labor and tedium of the day to day work of scientists and engineers who move innovation forward out of necessity. Just as in the real-life stories in Hidden Figures she also depicts the frustrating sexism and racism endured by highly educated women working for NASA (or in this case (NACA) in the 1950's and 60's. Some of the scenes will make your blood boil. (Female astronaut trainees forced to wear bikinis for pool training rather than the bulky flight suits the male trainees wear was probably the most flagrant example.)

I loved the original Elma novelette but this prequel novel has made me enjoy the character more fully. A Ph.D. physicist and mathematician, Elma was also a WASP pilot during World War II. Here we grow to see her as a multidimensional and vulnerable person, dealing with the anxiety of the loss of her parents and grandmother in the meteorite event, and more media and public attention than she ever desired as she works to forward the space program that will help get the human race off a planet on the brink of disaster. She is a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend as well as a scientist and pilot. More than anything, Elma wants to be an astronaut and has since childhood. She is undeterred by the obstacles of a NACA and military that clearly don't want women on board, and a commanding officer who despises her. Her grit and tenacity were wonderful to read.

Embodying the concept of "Nevertheless, she persisted" in all the best ways, this book is a wonderful fictional encouragement to aspiring young adults seeking their dreams while making it clear that they have to be prepared in order to build them. The Calculating Stars releases today, July 3. Its sequel, The Fated Sky, releases in August and I can't wait to read it!

I received a paperback Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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