Book Review: The Witch Who Came In From The Cold

witch who came in from the coldThe Witch Who Came In From The Cold (The Complete First Season)
by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick
Magical Realism / Historical Fiction
616 pages
Published 2016

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold was originally published as a serial novel, so it’s divided up into distinct episodes, written by different authors. It’s still very coherent as an entire novel, though. This is Season One; there’s a Season Two that I absolutely have to get my hands on. Because this was great.

So it’s Prague, 1970, height of the Cold War. There’s lots of KGB vs CIA secret squirrel stuff going on, but our main CIA spy discovers there’s a second struggle happening behind the scenes, between Ice and Fire, two sects of magic-wielding sorcerers. This makes things incredibly complicated, because Ice and Fire are philosophical groups; Ice likes the world the way it is, Fire wants to change it, even if that change comes at the cost of destroying the world. Because these differences are philosophical, they cross national loyalty lines. So a CIA agent and a KGB agent might find themselves on the same side of a magical problem, and risk their careers and lives to work with each other to solve it.

It’s a fascinating skewing of a the spy genre, and I really enjoyed it. Most of the problems center around Hosts – mortals who have (usually unknowingly) bonded with an elemental spirit, and so have incredible, earth-shattering powers. Fire wants to use these Hosts to change the world, even if it means bring about the Apocalypse. Ice wants to prevent this, and so struggles to keep Hosts out of the hands of Fire. And when a Host is also a key player in the struggle between Russia and the US, things get VERY complicated.

I really want to learn more about the Hosts and their powers; I’m hoping Season Two gets into that more. The magic is mostly charms and ley lines, with chants and Elemental spirits mixed in. I’m also hoping Season Two gets more into the conflict between Ice and Fire, and maybe explains how it started? I’d love to learn that.

All in all, it was a great book, and I need to track down the second.

From the cover of The Witch Who Came In From The Cold:

PRAGUE, 1970

Great powers eye each other across the Iron Curtain. Secret warriors wage secret wars – some with guns, some with words, and some with magic.

CIA officer Gabe Pritchard has a mission: to transport a critical defector back to the US. But Gabe also has a secret. On a job in Egypt he stumbled into what he thought was a Soviet cell meeting – but Soviet cells don’t have altars or sacrificial knives. Now Gabe has splitting headaches, like there’s something burrowing inside his skull, and finding help means joining a different, and much colder, war.

Tanya Morozova works for the other shop in town – at least, when her KGB bosses are watching. But the young intelligence officer has a second secrete life as an agent of the Ice, an ancient order of sorcerers fighting for control of elemental Hosts who have the power to change the world – or destroy it. As Tanya’s enemies catch a critical Host in their web, she’s running out of options. Gabe Pritchard may be her only chance – or the  bait of one last deadly trap.

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

winter of the witchThe Winter of the Witch
by Katherine Arden
372 pages
Published January 2019

The Winter of the Witch is the conclusion to the Winternight trilogy that began with The Bear and The Nightingale (enjoyable, but a little overhyped) and continued in The Girl in the Tower (fantastic). And ooooohhh what a conclusion it is! Vasya truly comes into her own in this book, dealing with the Russian fae with a confidence and conviction she didn’t quite have before. The war between the twin brother spirits – the Bear and the Winter King – comes to a head, with Vasya in the middle. While that war is heating up, so is the war between the Tatars and the Russians, with its climax in a version of the real-world Battle of Kulikovo.

The whole of Vasya’s family history is finally revealed, which has surprises of its own. Previously unknown family members appear, and Vasya is no longer as alone in her powers as she thought she was.

It can be very hard to review books in a series – especially concluding books – without spoiling things, so I’ll just say this was an epic conclusion to the trilogy and was just as enchanting as the other books. I cried at more than one point in this book, because Vasya’s heartbreak is so poignant. Gorgeous book. Beautiful use of Russian mythology. This entire trilogy is just brilliant.

From the cover of The Winter of the Witch:

Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and The Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.

Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers – and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

girlinthetowerThe Girl in the Tower
Katherine Arden
384 pages
December 2017

The Girl in the Tower is the second in the Winternight Trilogy, after the acclaimed debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s always hard to talk about sequels without giving too much away about the preceding books, so forgive me if I’m vague. One advantage to waiting so long to read The Bear and the Nightingale was that I got to jump straight into the sequel! Now I have to wait several months for the third.

The Girl in the Tower revisits our heroine, Vasya, from the first book. Now she has left home to begin her adventures – though her travels are curtailed pretty quickly, and she’s roped into going to Moscow with her brother and the Grand Prince, while disguised as a boy. While in Moscow she learns a little bit more about her family history, and I’m hoping the rest will be revealed in the third book this summer. (The Winter of the Witch is scheduled to release in August 2018.)

In this second book, Vasya has done some growing, and has learned to make use of the spirits she sees – she knows the hearth spirits can always find their families, and uses that trait to track a kidnapped girl when no one else can. So long as no one realizes what she’s doing, she’s fine. But Rus is in the crossover period between the old ways and the new, and if she’s found talking to spirits, she’ll be branded a witch all over again. She keeps her masquerade going through the first two-thirds of the book, but it’s obvious it’s going to fail eventually. The way in which it does is sudden and unexpected, and the repercussions are harsh.

And then there’s Morozko, the Frost Demon, the god of death. I love Morozko. He’s by necessity enigmatic – and in a rough position. I want he and Vasya to fall in love and have a happy ending – the attraction between them is impossible to miss – but immortal beings, in this world, can’t love. If they love they lose their immortality. And, possibly, their lives entirely. I hope the author has a solution in mind for these two, because I currently don’t see one.

I actually liked this one more than the first book, which is unusual. I liked the first one, but I wasn’t blown away. This one pulled me in and didn’t let me go. Amazing sequel, and I hope the third one lives up to this standard!

From the cover of The Girl in the Tower:

Katherine Arden’s enchanting first novel introduced readers to an irresistible heroine. Vasilisa has grown up at the edge of a Russian wilderness, where snowdrifts reach the eaves of her family’s wooden house and there is truth in the fairy tales told around the fire. Vasilisa’s gift for seeing what others do not won her the attention of Morozko—Frost, the winter demon from the stories—and together they saved her people from destruction. But Frost’s aid comes at a cost, and her people have condemned her as a witch.

Now Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, the only options left for her are marriage or the convent. She cannot bring herself to accept either fate and instead chooses adventure, dressing herself as a boy and setting off astride her magnificent stallion Solovey.

But after Vasilisa prevails in a skirmish with bandits, everything changes. The Grand Prince of Moscow anoints her a hero for her exploits, and she is reunited with her beloved sister and brother, who are now part of the Grand Prince’s inner circle. She dares not reveal to the court that she is a girl, for if her deception were discovered it would have terrible consequences for herself and her family. Before she can untangle herself from Moscow’s intrigues—and as Frost provides counsel that may or may not be trustworthy—she will also confront an even graver threat lying in wait for all of Moscow itself.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

thebearThe Bear and the Nightingale
Katherine Arden
Fairy-tale Retelling
330 pages
Published 2017

So I finally got around to reading this one – people have been raving about it all year long. And honestly – I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s good, sure. But it’s not Girls Made of Snow and Glass, or The Crown’s Game, or Uprooted. It’s not The Golem and the Jinni. I enjoyed it, but I think the hype is a little undeserved. I am, however, always a sucker for Russian-themed fairytales. (Probably why I liked The Crown’s Game and The Crown’s Fate so much.) And I am looking forward to the sequel, The Girl in the Tower, which just came out. (I have a hold requested on it from my library.) The third book in the Winternight Trilogy appears to be The Winter of the Witch, and is scheduled to be published in August.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in Rus – a Russia-like country, but with magic, of course. Vasilisa/Vasya is a granddaughter of a witch, and has some abilities herself. Mostly just the ability to see things that other can’t, and to talk to them. Through the course of the book, she avoids an arranged marriage, saves a priest, fights a priest, and tries like hell to save her village from the demons of winter. I loved her tenacity, and her love for the old spirits. The description of The Winter King and his home was absolutely enchanting. Overall a good book, but a bit overhyped.

From the cover of The Bear and the Nightingale:

Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village. 
But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

clockworkThe Clockwork Dynasty
Daniel H. Wilson
309 pages
Published 2017

Well. This one was unique! Pretty good, too. The story bounces between the present and the past, telling the story of a – race, I suppose – that has always lived alongside humans, but hidden. Typical urban fantasy, right? Except this – race – is robots. Automatons, they call themselves. Created by a race they call the progenitor race, or First Humans, they have waited alongside mankind for their creators to return. Their energy reserves are running low, however, and some have resorted to cannibalizing each other’s parts to stay alive. Enter our human protagonist, in possession of an ancient artifact passed down from her grandfather, who obtained it in World War II. Fascinated by it since she was a little girl, she’s made a career out of studying old clockwork toys, and has started to get a little too close to the truth.

The chapters of the book set in the present center on June Stefanov, the human woman who stumbles upon the truth. The chapters set in the past show history from the vantage point of Peter, her automaton companion. The bouncing back and forth happens a touch too quickly in some places, though it does do a good job of showing us what we need to know rather than telling us, which I always like. The details of how the automatons worked were fascinating, though obviously a bit magical. The automatons themselves don’t really understand much of it. The author has written other novels about robots, and in fact has a Ph.D. in robotics, so it’s pretty cohesive.

The plot rockets right along – I read the book in one sitting – and the action is pretty awesome. I wish there had been a bit more characterization of June. Other than being good at clockwork stuff, and a very curious person, we really don’t know much about her, and never find out. The book is more Peter’s story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was definitely a different spin on “hidden race existing beside humans.” Oh – and the villain’s armor was badass!

From the cover of The Clockwork Dynasty:

Present Day: When a young anthropologist specializing in ancient technology uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world that lurks just under the surface of our own. With her career and her life at stake, June Stefanov will ally with a remarkable traveler who exposes her to a reality she never imagined as they embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breathtaking secrets of the past…

Russia, 1710: In the depths of the Kremlin, the tsar’s loyal mechanician brings to life two astonishingly humanlike mechanical beings. Peter and Elena are a brother and sister fallen out of time, in possession of uncanny power, and destined to serve great empires. Struggling to blend into pre-Victorian society, they are pulled into a legendary war that has raged for centuries. 

Book Review: The Crown’s Fate

crown's fateThe Crown’s Fate
Evelyn Skye
Historical Fantasy
417 pages
Published 2017

The Crown’s Fate is a sequel to the amazing debut novel, The Crown’s Game. The first book left me crying and a little traumatized, it was so elegant and heart-breaking. The second has proven to be a worthy successor, and healed most of the hurts caused by the first.

The two books tell the story of two enchanters in Tsarist Russia competing to become Imperial Enchanter. The competition, unfortunately, must end in the death of one of them, so Russia’s magic can be solely controlled by the Imperial Enchanter, and therefore be stronger for defending the realm. It only complicates things that one of the competitors is the heir to the throne’s best friend. And what happens when the two competitors fall in love?

Along the way, we see creative enchantments, volcano nymphs, elegant masquerade balls, battles for succession, and a quick glimpse of Baba Yaga’s house. (Oh, how I want to learn more about that!)

These two books are really amazing, but make sure you have the second on hand before you finish the first! I read the first when it was published, last year, and had to wait a year before being able to read the second! (I’m actually surprised I didn’t post a review of it.) I don’t know if Vika and Nikolai’s story will be continued past these two books, but there is room in the world Skye has created for more stories, even if it doesn’t focus on the two enchanters. Especially now that magic beyond the control of the Imperial Enchanter is stirring in the land once again…

I’m not going to include the plot description from the book cover this time, because it contains MASSIVE spoilers for the first book. I will instead post the plot description for the FIRST book.

From the cover of The Crown’s Game:

Perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone and Red Queen, The Crown’s Game is a thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy set in Imperial Russia about two teenagers who must compete for the right to become the Imperial Enchanter—or die in the process—from debut author Evelyn Skye.

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know.  The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear . . . the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.