Archive: Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen – Book Review

This review was originally uploaded over on Booknest.eu on Sat, 25 Aug 2018.

I was offered an e-ARC of Finding Baba Yaga in return for an honest review and took it on a whim due to a life-long fascination with the old witch. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I have a great fondness for Slavic and Russian folklore, and when I heard about a reimagining of the Baba, I was all too happy to take a very close look. Novels written in verse are not my usual cup of tea, however — I’m much more comfortable with prose. That said, I’ve been hard at work to familiarise myself with poetry lately, and there’s no mistaking good verse when I read it.

Finding Baba Yaga is marketed as ‘A Short Novel in Verse,’ and it truly is short; it took me no more than an hour and a half to go through its nine chapters. Despite the short amount of time I spent with this novel, it will nevertheless remain with me for a long time to come, with its evocative and beautiful verses, its feisty girls and wicked witch.

What Jane Yolen has shown absolute mastery over is the ability to paint the personality of each character in Finding Baba Yaga with only a few powerful, concise lines. Our protagonist’s character traits we can readily extract from verses, which read as if they were extracted from this young woman’s mind. Natasha’s coming of age story was a joy to follow for this, and many other reasons besides. The themes this book explores are very much relevant to today, and many readers will connect with Natasha.        

Jane Yolen has managed a difficult task in staying true to the folklore image of Baba Yaga while grounding the story of this novel in 21st century America. The Baba is wise and funny, occasionally cruel and even terrifying, and she sees through the characters the book introduces us to with ease.

If you have an appreciation for fairy tales, for the character of Baba Yaga, or for beautiful and evocative verse, you should have a gander at this short novel. Now that Finding Baba Yaga has introduced me to Jane Yolen, I’m looking forward to exploring her works in the field of modern fairy tales and poetry further. Neil Gaiman said about her, “Jane Yolen is a phenomenon: a poet and a mythmaker, who understands how old stories can tell us new things. We are lucky to have her,” and I am beginning to understand why.  You will, too.

Finding Baba Yaga receives 5/5 stars on Goodreads and my hearty recommendation! This is a much shorter review than I usually write, but there’s not too much to say about the book before its release date. I would love to return to it after release, and share with you ladies and gentlemen some of my favourite quotes, analyse what the most powerful verses succeed in accomplishing. A more in-depth look is what this novel will greatly benefit from!

Aw, ain’t that review just the cutest? And short, too!

Do Yourself a Favour: Watch Jojo Rabbit

It’s not everyday I come across a movie as special as this one. Jojo Rabbit made me cry with laughter and with sadness and it conquered my heart. This is the best Waititi picture yet – and it’s got stiff competition in the face of that Mandalorian episode! Jokes aside, Jojo packs a hell of an emotional punch and shows the full horror and paradox but also the beauty of hope, resistance and sacrifice This movie won my heart twice over, once for its hilarious tone and a second time with the touching drama and, at the most important moments, solemnity.

Scarlett Johansson brings emotional gravitas and humour to the supporting role of single mother Rosie – every time she’s on screen is magical and downright gleaming. Roman Griffin Davis, playing the titular Jojo, stuns with his skills; opposing him is Thomasin McKenzie in the role of Jewish girl Elsa, whose on-screen presence speaks constantly of perseverence in the face of, and contempt for, everything the ten-year old Jojo fanatically believes in. McKenzie unquestionably shines through and the development of her relationship with Jojo is a joy to behold till the last. The rest of the cast is similarly star-studded; Sam Rockwell’s take on a Nazi Captain, in particular, though at first might’ve come off as a one-dimensional spoof, revealed a depth and complexity I was not prepared for.

I urge you to take a look at this wonderful piece of cinematic satire.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – Book Review

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Published by: Redhook (Orbit)
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Magical Realism
Pages: 374
Format: Kindle ebook.
Purchased Copy.

In Alix E. Harrow, I see a respect for stories and words and the power they hold equal to that of Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve followed me awhile, you know the depth of this compliment and if you haven’t, boy, have I a few recommendations for you. But this isn’t about Ursula, it’s about The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a novel that takes a magnifying glass and points it at the connection between stories, the worlds they originate from and those who are brave enough to explore them.

January Scaller is a unique girl, though in what way may not become readily apparent. True, she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” as her guardian, Mr. Locke puts it, a child grown up under the wing of this most affluent personage. “A perfectly unique specimen, odd-colored perhaps but not colored” is the description this man, almost a father to her, gives January early on. It is the turn of the 20th century, and this is America – if you needed a reminder of the disquiet, the sheer horrible racist reality of that time, the following sentence, from the view of a seven-year old, encapsulates it well: “I didn’t really know what made a person colored or not, but the way he [Mr. Locke] said it made me glad I wasn’t.” See, in only a few paragraphs, Harrow has given us a conflicting view of the man January considers a father figure.

Not that January doesn’t have a father; it is merely that he, Julian Scaller, spends most of his time tracking treasures and rare objects for his employer, the very same Mr. Locke. Cornelius Locke is something of a collector, you see, and his home would make even the Smithsonian seem an enthusiast’s collection by comparison. January’s father is his most successful agent, owed to Julian’s ability to follow stories to their source – the stories of people and of places, the origins behind their myths

It is a talent his daughter seems to have inherited, for it isn’t the dotting of a millionaire that makes her “a perfectly unique specimen” but the hunger she feels for stories and adventures, for the world outside the confines of Locke House. Like many of you who now read this review – like me – January escapes the tedium of her everyday reality through novels – penny dreadfuls and adventure stories, the horror and excitement of the grotesque. And when, on her seventeenth birthday, life throws at her the very worst it has to offer, it’s into a book that she escapes.

“…(see how that word slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges).

The Villains (see the shape of the V, how it places opposites on its two ends, mirroring one another and yet different?) of The Ten Thousand Doors of January range from the universal gothic of the time period to the deeply personal, the kind of villain to kill for – if you’ll pardon the pun.

Its the language, the melodious nature of it that is enchanting to the reader. The masterful control over character voice is equally impressive – a sizable portion of the book adopts the tenets of an epistolary novel, making use of a voice very different from January’s own:

The following monograph concerns the permutations of a repeated motif in world mythologies: passages, portals, and entryways. Such a study might at first seem to suffer from those two cardinal sins of academia—frivolity and triviality—but it is the author’s intention to demonstrate the significance of doorways as phenomenological realities.
At least, that is the book I intended to write, when I was young and arrogant. Instead, I’ve written something strange, deeply personal, highly subjective. I am a scientist studying his own soul, a snake swallowing its own tail.

Harrow’s use of these chapters to tell several stories serves to pace January’s own tale and to create additional tension early on,

I return then to Alix Harrow’s respect of words, captured best in the following: “Words and their meanings have weight in the world of matter, shaping and reshaping realities through a most ancient alchemy.”This is at the heart of our culture, did you know? Our society and we as members of it, invent and reinvent ourselves through the process of the word, written or spoken. Our civilization rests on the written word, where many have perished before, their words once spoken but no longer heard. And this novel gets it, understands the importance of words and their ability to change minds and hearts and the paths we make for ourselves.

There’s also the emotional connection – something deeply individual for all readers – but the novel and its characters, their suffering and loss and love and joy as they realised themselves in full, all this found resonance in me. About mid-way through, I even teared up, and there’s nothing like a few tears to illustrate how deeply you connect to a text on an emotional level.

I’m under the impression that this novel is a standalone – and I would like to praise the author for her choice; The Ten Thousand Doors of January accomplishes in one book what many series don’t manage in three – a complete story from beginning to end, which leaves the door…not sealed, not entirely, but firmly closed.

I give The Ten Thousand Doors of January a score of 5/5 stars; if I were using a ten-point system, I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10 because the ending plays it a little bit too safe and the epilogue, while a wonderful way to say goodbye to the characters, wasn’t necessary. Almost as if Harrow wanted one last moment with these characters – something I can hardly blame her for.

My recommendation goes out to all those among you who are in love with the magic of words and stories, those of you who feel a certain disquiet when they think of having to spend a lifetime going through the motions; The Ten Thousand Doors is for adventurers and travellers and seekers. Take a look – I wager you won’t regret it.

Prosper's Demon by K. J. Parker – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Genre: Fantasy, Historical, Dark
Pages: 112 (according to Goodreads)
Format: Novella, e-book
Review Copy:  Provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Release Date: January 28th, 2020

At long last, I’ve gotten my hands on a work by K. J. Parker, an author very well regarded in the wider fantasy community. Judging by the quality of Prosper’s Demon, I have to wonder – what the hell took me so long?

Written in the first person, this novella tells of the trials and tribulations of an unnamed exorcist in a world very like our own during the early Renaissance. Our protagonist is not a nice guy. He is devious, cunning and unscrupulous, a man who shows no qualms when it comes to inflicting pain to his fellow human beings. A vile man, written excellently and with an undercurrent of gallows humour that colours everything in the world around him – this worked very well for me.

The world this exorcist inhabits is one filled with cruelty, pain and Them, an awful lot of Them, demons who possess humans and seem capable of inducing in them extreme states – these creatures can only be seen by a chosen few born with the ability to recognize them, and this ability is as much a gift as a curse…as the protagonist will prove to you, reader.

You have to learn to think like Them, they told me when I was just starting out in the business; only, don’t get too good at it. They say that to all the students, and none of us really understand what it means at the time. In and out of each other’s heads, like neighbors in a small, friendly village, which is exactly what we aren’t. Or to put it another way, it doesn’t do to get too familiar.

The reason Prosper’s Demon won me over, though, has to do with it not being your average exorcist/demon game of cat and mouse. Rather, it’s the structure of the story, the fact that a lot of it is built around conversations between the protagonist and the eponymous Prosper, a Leonardo da Vinci-esque genius of unparalleled scientific intellect. A lot is done right in those dialogues, obfuscating the truth, confusing the reader and making the outcome of the story questionable at all times.

Some of it, too, has to do with bronzeworking and the casting of statues – and I was struck by how well researched these sections were, by the veracity of complex processes as they were described.

If, like me, you’ve never before read the work of K. J. Parker, Prosper’s Demon is an excellent place to start, short but none the poorer in ideas for it. My score? 5/5!

Oh, and the cover? Gorgeous, sets up just the right tone for this strange tale.

Hades: The Welcome To Hell Update (State of the Game)

Hades continues to develop in a great direction with the last update of 2019, Welcome to Hell. With only five days away from the next big patch, I thought I’d take a look at the State of the Game of my favourite Early Access title as it is right before the Demeter update!

The verdict? Solid additions all around! Though, between you and me, I spoke about a few elements added outside of the “Welcome to Hell” update. That said, Hades continues to be my favourite roguelite, and everything it does, it does extremely well.

30 Years Before: Eye of the World Came Out

Moiraine Damodred by  Dan Dos Santos

I don’t remember the exact age I first read the Eye of the World, though I must have been pre-teen. I remember my dad having bought the first three – they just came out in Bulgarian for the very first time. I was going to the villa with my grandparents, and I had these three thick tomes with me; I had…maybe a week of downtime, likely over Spring vacation and Easter.

I devoured Eye of the World, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn in three, maybe four days. It was love at first chapter, magical and binding, and to hell with it if these books did not become part of my DNA for the week I spent reading and rereading them. This is one of the foundational series of the fantasy genre and it deepend my love for worldbuilding, complex characters, geopolitics and veiled representations of Odin and Arthurian legends.

Thirty years, they’ve been out in the world. More than all the time I’ve spent on this Earth. Thirty years, and the Wheel of Time will soon be available for a whole new generation through a medium even some of the most hardcore fans of this fantasy epic didn’t believe it would ever be seen in.

Don’t screw this up, Amazon.

Me? I go back to these novels, sometimes — in audio format, in the original language they were written in. Every time the trip is familiar, and every time it is new…but it is always something to remember.

“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are only the thread of the Pattern.”

I’m still crushing on Moiraine Damodred, y’all.

Six Excellent Sci-Fi Novels I read in 2019

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

First of all, look at that cover art. Look at it. It’s breathtaking. It creates within you certain expectations, of majesty and power and Empire, of two cultures clashing with one another, of two individuals removed from all others for entirely different reasons. It sets up a confrontation, too, a central notion of otherness; it is, in a word, one of the finest sci-fi covers I have ever seen.

The book itself?

A Memory Called Empire is a celebration of masterful worldbuilding and cerebral storytelling, the story of exciting political intrigue and murder, of civilization and the other. All these vastly differing aspects are threaded seamlessly into one, a narrative that enfolds steadily at first, turning ever more unpredictable and complex as the story progresses.

The reader will find the culture and society of the Teixcalaanli Empire both familiar and alien; while individuals are driven by passions that will be familiar to any of us, the culture is ruled by an obsession with the past and the recreating of it. One of the tools in the recreation of the Teixcalaanli’s past is poetry, which plays a unique role in the Empire, from politics to its every other social aspect. Whether criticizing authority or in defense of it, poets have influence enough over the citizens of the Empire to force them onto the streets; the role of poets reminded me of what Percy Bysshe Shelley described as “…legislators of the world” in his essay, “A Defence of Poetry.”

This is but a part of my full review of the novel. A Memory Called Empire is my favourite sci-fi novel of 2019, and second only to The Word for World is Forest in terms of blowing my sci-fi mind with the sheer scope of its ideas.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson, why you gotta be so good?!

Spensa returns in this character-driven adventure, forced into a situation wholly outside her experience. As a result, Starsight is an exploration of the other, and a way to reconcile with it. It is a story of fear, of facing that fear and growing stronger for the staring down of it. It is a tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. And it is beautiful.

You can read my full review of it here.

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

The 2010s took Ursula K. Le Guin from us at the venerable age of 88; as I find my way through her works, I realise more and more that hers was an extraordinary loss, one that will leave a void in the SFF community. Her humanity, humility, wry humour and wisdom, her ideas – they humble you. They make you a whole lot more human, they change and transform you. It’s a scary thing – you can sit down, thinking you know yourself, then open up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin and suddenly, you’re not so sure. Something, a process, a shift has taken you away from yourself and you are new, you are different, and that is scary. Scary as all hell. But also special.

Here is a work of speculative fiction worthy of the “Masterworks” label. The Word for World is Forest  has plenty of meat on the bone despite the short number of pages its text occupies. It’s thematically rich, a novel of memorable ideas and characters both. Le Guin problematises the ethic of exploitation in her signature style, poignant and deeply thoughtful.

“…it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of “man”. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.” (from Le Guin’s Introduction).

This realisation is the initial push that gave birth to The Word for World is Forest. The theme of exploitation is joined by the equally relevant subject of colonialism: our very own human race, now travelling along the stars, has promulgated across different planets; central for The Word is the so-called world of “New Tahiti,” dominated by oceans and lush green forests, where a little over two thousand men are working to deforest the world one island at a time, in order to sate the unquenchable thirst of an Earth that has exhausted all its natural resources of wood.

My full review for it is here.

Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe

What is this madness, and what right does it have to be so damnably good?

This is the first half of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, one of the most complex sci-fi novels ever written – at least that seems to be the prevailing opinion. It’s complex and not a quick read, and it takes an emotional toll. But there’s something about this world, this Urth awaiting the birth of its New Sun, that is nothing short of transcedental. It treads the line between sci-fi and postmodernism, playing around with time and voice and philosophy, and it’s unnervingly complex.

Well-worth the read, though, for everything the torturer Severian goes through. And possibly the re-read. I’m slowly making my way through the remaining two novels – you can expect my review/essay/manifesto on the series later this year.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King writes a time-travelling thriller about an English college teacher’s attempt to . Is it as sci-fi as anything else on the list? Likely as not. But is it as good as anything else on the list? Yes, yes it is. You want to read more about it? Here you go!

Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Despite the extremely divisive nature of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, we live in a golden age of Star Wars for fans of the franchise. Not since Zahn’s original trilogy and the Knights of the Old Republic games has there been such a sheer amount of excellent expanded universe content; comics, novels, even audio dramas (though, I hear, the Dooku audiodrama of last year wasn’t quite as good as most would’ve liked). Leading the

Thrawn: Treason is but the latest of Zahn’s New Canon novels and it does an excellent work of playing to the blue-skinned tactical genius’ strengths. Though it was really cool to see him match wits with Darth Vader in 2018’s Thrawn: Allegiances, that novel had a number of issues – Treason corrects the course in a satisfying way and digs deeper into the divided loyalties Thrawn has to the Empire and to his own Chiss Ascendancy. It’s really good, good enough to be on this list.

You can read my full review here.

Honorable Mentions:

Master and Apprentice by Claudia Grey – another Star Wars book, quite excellent; as it’s centered on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s relationship, it’s a lot more fantasy than sci-fi because…Jedi. It’s really good, though, you’re welcome to read my review of it if you enjoy that.

I also listened to nine Horus Heresy novels! Some were entertaining, some weren’t, none of them are really all that great. Except for Fulgrim, which is absolute nonsense but in the best way possible. Or the worst way. Can’t quite tell.

For the Emperor…?

Evil Revenge Of The Sith GIF by Star Wars - Find & Share on GIPHY