Archives for posts with tag: Historical Fantasy

During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.

On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.

After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.

As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…

This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.

Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.

It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive  and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.

The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…


As today marks the start of the new Lunar Year (a Year of the Sheep), my thoughts have turned to something oriental. So I am recommending a Fantasy novel set in a version of Song Dynasty (960-1279) China. `River of Stars’ by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay was published in 2013. The story takes place around 400 years later than Kay’s previous China-inspired novel, `Under Heaven’. `River of Stars’ is available in ebook and audio editions but I think it’s best suited to being read in traditional book form. Am I the only person to find it depressing that European book covers rarely feature the leading characters if they aren’t white?

This multi-stranded epic features two fascinating leading characters – an intelligent young woman named Lin Shan and a brilliant soldier named Ren Daiyan. They both live in Kitai, a once glorious empire that is now in decline. The Twelfth Dynasty still rule in Hanjin but Emperor Wenzong is more interested in creating an extraordinary garden than in recovering the fourteen districts lost to the `barbarian’ tribes of the steppe. Shan is the only child of a gentle scholar who has educated her as if she was a boy and arranged for her to marry a man who will tolerate her unconventional ways. When her father is threatened with banishment, Shan appeals directly to the Emperor. He is intrigued by Shan’s talents and summons the family to court. There, in very unusual circumstances, she meets Daiyan and falls in love with him.

Daiyan was once an outlaw, supporting oppressed peasants against cruel and corrupt officials, but twists of fate have led to him becoming a member of the Imperial Guard. Daiyan has always dreamed of being a great general and after an encounter with a Fox Spirit he becomes convinced that it is his destiny to recover Kitai’s lost territory. Meanwhile, war has broken out on the steppe as the Altai tribe strives for dominance. Rival factions in Hanjin, and the Emperor’s neglect of political affairs, lead to some disastrous decisions being made. Kitai is brutally invaded and the capital itself is attacked by the Altai.  Shan and Daiyan are thrown together in these dangerous times and embark on a journey that will have momentous consequences for all Kitai. Daiyan becomes a leader out of legend but will the Empire demand too great a sacrifice from him?

Guy Gavriel Kay’s name on a book is always a guarantee of quality. In my view, he’s our best current writer of  Historical Fantasy. I suspect it’s because he undertakes the kind of in-depth research that an historical novel requires before using his imagination to transform the facts into a new fictional world. `River of Stars’ is loosely based on real people and events but Kay doesn’t follow the original history and chronology in a slavish way. He feels free to invent or simplify in the interests of a good story. The people in this story don’t bear historical names, allowing Kay to interpret their characters as he chooses without anyone being able to say that he is wrong. For the reader, the advantage is that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about Song Dynasty China. Kay has lovingly recreated it for you as Twelfth Dynasty Kitai. As a bonus, the types of supernatural beings that people of this place and period would have believed in – such as ghosts and seductive Fox Spirits – also appear in the story.

My plot summary concentrates on Shan and Daiyan but `River of Stars’ is a complex novel told from many different points of view. Among these viewpoint characters are the wily prime minister of Kitai and his great rival, the ambitious deputy prime minister, an exiled poet and his diplomat brother, Shan’s homosexual husband, the ferocious war-leader of the Altai, a ritual-master who may or may not be a charlatan, and a military official who becomes Daiyan’s most loyal follower. From time to time an unnamed narrator nudges the reader into understanding how all of these people come to play a significant role in the fate of Kitai. Kay is a writer of great empathy who seems to have no difficulty getting inside the heads and hearts of his characters, whether they are heroes, villains or a bit of both. Nobody in the book is just a spear-carrier. Even when an a unfortunate soldier or sentry is doomed to die after one scene, Kay tends to give us the man’s whole back-story and innermost thoughts. Sometimes I would mutter, `Just die already’, because I was keen to get back to what was happening to Shan and Daiyan.

At a time when women were increasingly expected to stay at home being decorative and helpless, Shan is unusual in wanting a more challenging life, but she never seems like a modern feminist in historical dress. She expresses her individuality through calligraphy, music and writing song lyrics and her arranged marriage to dedicated antique-collector Qi Wai is a surprisingly successful one. Kay has written books based on a range of cultures but he seems particularly inspired by Chinese poetry and art. Clever pastiches of melancholy Chinese poems are used to great effect in this novel and the character of the principled poet Lu Chen seems to embody the soul of Kitai. Kay conveys both the cultural achievements of his Twelfth Dynasty and their terrible human cost. The Emperor’s garden is an exquisite work of art but thousands of people have been killed or injured dragging giant rocks to Hanjin in order to make it.  I shall never look at classic Chinese gardens in quite the same way again.

In `River of Stars’ all the plotting and intrigue at the hapless Emperor’s court is both entertaining and appalling. There is a memorable scene in which Emperor Wenzong only finds out about a catastrophic defeat for his forces when he asks one of his gardeners why he is crying. The many fights and battle scenes are brilliantly described and Daiyan is convincing as a formidable archer and ingenious military strategist. These parts of the novel reminded me of one my all time favourite films, John Woo’s epic `Red Cliff’ (2008-2009 – make sure you see the uncut two-part version). `River of Stars’ and `Red Cliff’ both have grandeur and nobility. They honour the courage of men fighting to save their homeland without glorifying carnage. Kay shows unexpected acts of heroism when people in desperate situations discover what really matters to them, such as Qi Wai deciding that the antiques which shed light on the history of his country are worth dying for.

One of the things that I admire about Kay is that he refuses to take part in what I would call the `brutalization’ of Fantasy. As readers get harder to shock, many modern Fantasy novels are packed with ever more extreme scenes of sex and violence. Terrible things do happen in `River of Stars’, such as a court official quietly deciding that he must poison his wife or a barbarian ruler suffering death by fire-ants, but Kay never dwells on the gory details more than is necessary to make his point. To me, the most shocking thing in this story is the political betrayal of Daiyan’s ideals. Kay has said that `the legend-building process’ is one of the major themes of this novel and Daiyan becomes a victim of his own legend. `River of Stars’ has all the action you could want from Heroic Fantasy but it’s also subtle and moving. The only thing this story lacks is sheep. So, if you’re keen to celebrate the Year of the Sheep, I suggest that you also go to the new Aardman film, `Shaun the Sheep’, and laugh yourself silly. Until next time…


I have always been partial to dragons so the title of this week’s recommended book was bound to attract me. `A Natural History of Dragons’ by American author Marie Brennan was published in 2013 and is now available in paperback or as an ebook. The subtitle – `A Memoir by Lady Trent’ – indicates that this is neither a textbook nor some vast multi-stranded Fantasy epic. What it offers is the life-story of a woman who defied convention to study dragons, told in her own words and pictures (the charming illustrations are actually by Todd Lockwood). Lady Isabella Trent’s memoirs continue in `The Tropic of Serpents’ (2014) and a third volume – `Voyage of the Basilisk’ – is promised for 2015. She lives in an era not unlike the Victorian period and her homeland  has much in common with 19th century Britain.

Isabella is a gentlewoman born in the island kingdom of Scirland, which lies off the coast of the continent of Anthiope. In a preface, ‘national treasure’ Isabella announces that she has decided to write a candid memoir explaining how and why she became a famous adventurer and dragon-naturalist. She begins with her childhood fascination with the dragon-like insects known as Sparklings and the impact of a book she manages to sneak out of her father’s library – Sir Richard Edgeworth’s `A Natural History of Dragon’. Isabella longs to study the dragons that inhabit parts of her world but after an unfortunate escapade involving a Wolf-drake, her mother makes it clear that this is not a suitable ambition for a young lady. Isabella is warned that her desire to be a scholar will damage her chances of getting married. The best she can hope for is a husband who may tolerate her bookish ways.

Isabella conforms and is miserable until the day she sees her first real dragons in the royal managerie and meets Jacob Camherst, a man unusual enough to admire intelligent women. After they are married, Isabella manages to persuade Jacob that they should both join Lord Hilford’s expedition to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana. After a long journey to the remote mountain village of Drustanev, nothing seems to go right. The villagers are unwelcoming, the man who invited Lord Hilford to the area has disappeared, there are hostile smugglers in the mountains and the rock-wyrms have suddenly begun to attack people. Lord Hilford’s assistant,  Mr Wilker, disapproves of a woman being part of the expedition and Isabella fails to get on with Dagmira, the local girl who is supposed to be acting as her maid. After Isabella visits some ancient ruins of the Draconean civilization, bizarre things start to happen. Has Isabella really brought down a demon curse on the village, and can she solve the mystery of why the mountain dragons have suddenly become more dangerous?

The blurb made `A Natural History of Dragons’ sound like a light-hearted Steampunk Romance along the lines of Gail Carriger’s amusing `Parasol Protectorate’ series, but it turned out to be a more thoughtful book than I was expecting. Brennan hasn’t just added dragons to the Victorian era, she has used her background in anthropology to create a distinctive world. Each country has its own complex politics, social structures and religious beliefs (Vystrana is loosely Eastern European) but in all of their distant pasts was a civilization which worshipped dragons. This novel raises the question of whether magic is an essential part of Fantasy fiction.  There are no wizards or witches of the traditional kind in this story and the dragons are not depicted as wise supernatural beings. Rather, they are intelligent animals whose fierceness makes them difficult to study and almost impossible to keep in captivity. The diverse ways that humans mythologize such awe-inspiring creatures are explored in this series. The customs and superstitions of the peoples encountered by Isabella (the second volume is set in an Africa-like continent) do include some kinds of magic but the staunchly rational Scirlanders don’t believe in it. The reader has to make up her or his own mind about how real this magic is.

The plot of `A Natural History of Dragons’ borrows elements from the Thriller, Murder Mystery, Adventure and Romance genres. Isabella warns prospective readers that her memoirs are `not for the faint of heart’.  This isn’t a novel of non-stop action but Isabella certainly meets more than her fair share of perils. There is also a shocking plot-twist near the end of the story. If `A Natural History of Dragons’ was a conventional Romance, this might be the point at which Isabella and Jacob would finally come together. Brennan chooses to focus on her main characters’ marriage rather than their courtship. Isabella and Jacob are not passionate star-crossed lovers. No-one objects to this suitable match between two like-minded people but Isabella finds it hard to become the sort of wife that society expects her to be. Nor is it easy for Jacob to overcome his upbringing and give his wife the freedom she needs to flourish. Since Isabella’s moral and intellectual progress is the core of this novel, it’s essential for Brennan to make us care about her heroine.

Isabella is entertaining company but at first glance she doesn’t seem a very original character. The idea of an oppressed woman finding liberation through studying dragons has already been used by Robin Hobb in her `Rain Wild Chronicles’ and there is no shortage of intrepid Victorian heroines in popular fiction. The irrepressible Alexia Tarabotti from `The Parasol Protectorate’ and Elizabeth Peters’ dauntless Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody, are just two famous examples.However, as the book went on, I began to feel that Brennan was offering something a bit different. I’m guessing that she named her heroine after the courageous 19th century traveller and naturalist, Isabella Bird, but the novel often seems to poke fun at Bird’s appetite for extreme discomfort and her insistance on finding the locals `romantic’ (if you want to see what I mean, try reading Bird’s `A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’).

In her memoirs, Lady Trent is looking back on a young woman who was frequently daunted by the situations her scientific curiosity got her into. She is also honest enough to admit that she found the boredom and discomfort of life in a primitive mountain village hard to endure and that she was slow to understand the point of view of Dagmira and the other inhabitants of Drustanev. Brave as she is, there is no pretence that Isabella can conquer anything armed merely with a parasol and strength of will. It is Isabella’s vulnerability, and her willingness to admit past mistakes, which makes her such an engaging heroine. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Isabella and her dragons in future volumes. Until two weeks time….



This week I’m recommending the first part of a Fantasy trilogy inspired by the diverse cultures and turbulent history of the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. Some years ago I visited Turkmenistan and as I stood in the ruins of an ancient city destroyed by the Mongols and saw the remains of a pyramid built of human skulls, I thought, `Someone should write a Fantasy novel about this.’ Now they have. `Range of Ghosts’ by American author Elizabeth Bear was published in 2012. The story is continued in `Shattered Pillars’ (2013)  and completed in `Steles of the Sky’ (2014). These three novels (the titles all refer to mountain ranges) are collectively known as `The Eternal Sky’.  ‘Range of Ghosts’ is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook but after reading it on my Kindle, I ordered the whole trilogy in hardback because I knew that these were books I would always want on my shelves.

The story opens in the aftermath of a terrible battle between rival claimants to become Khagan of the empire conquered by the Qersnyk nomads. A young warrior called Temur has been wounded in the throat and left for dead. As he struggles to survive on the snowy steppe, Temur learns that most of his kinsman have died and that his treacherous uncle, Qori Buqa, has been victorious. Temur’s luck changes when he finds a friendly warhorse whom he names Bansh (dumpling). Riding Bansh he joins up with other refugees including the Tsareg clan. Temur soon becomes the lover of Edene, the clan leader’s grand-daughter, but Qori Buqa has supernatural help to track down and eliminate his nephew. The Tsareg survive an attack by an army of  blood-ghosts but the pregnant Edene is carried off. Temur vows to get her back but becomes dangerously ill as he and Bansh cross the haunted mountains known as the Range of Ghosts.

Temur is found and nursed back to health by two female wizards from the Rasan Empire, Tsering-la and Once Princess Samarkar, who have been sent to investigate the fate of the deserted city of Qeshqer. In the mountains, they encounter Hrahima who is a Cho-tse, a tiger who walks upright and speaks like a human. She brings a warning from Temur’s grandfather that the leader of the assassin cult known as the Nameless is stirring up wars and using evil magics not seen since the time of the legendary Carrion-King. When they all travel to Rasa, Samarkar finds the royal family in a state of crisis after a murder. She helps one of her sisters-in-law to escape from the Black Palace and throws in her lot with Temur and Hrahima. They are joined on their quest to reach the hidden citadel of the Nameless and rescue Edene, by  a warrior monk who has taken a vow of silence. A long and dangerous journey begins…

`Range of Ghosts’, and the `Eternal Sky’ Trilogy in general, has what I would call a `wandering around the map’ plot until the whole cast is finally in the same place for the big battle. Some of this wandering seemed a bit under-motivated but I never minded because the characters visit such colourful and fascinating places along Bear’s Celadon Highway.  In her world, each cultural area has a unique sky and set of heavenly bodies – `Different sky, different gods.’ This is a novel in which thrilling action scenes (magical attacks, assassination attempts, court intrigues and daring escapes) alternate with long descriptive passages. When is an `information dump’ not an information dump? When it is so full of captivating detail (such as Rasan people sticking their tongues out as a mark of respect or the 64 sacred colours of the wonderful steppe horses) that you want to learn even more about the places and customs being described.

The majority of Fantasy novels used to be set in versions of medieval Europe.  Now writers plunder cultures from all over the world for story ideas. This only works if the writer does plenty of research and is truly inspired by what they discover. That certainly seems to be the case with Bear who has used the `Secret History of the Mongols’ and legends and beliefs from places such as Tibet, North-West China, and the salt-deserts, `Heavenly Mountains’ and Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan to create a dazzling alternative version of Central Asia. Some things in the novel that you’d think she’d made up have a basis in fact, such as the notion that removing the head of an ancient conquerer from his tomb could cause a major war. Well, the head of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) was removed from his tomb in Samarkand in 1941. Hitler invaded the Soviet empire the next day. I’ve been into Tamerlane’s tomb myself  but I promise I trod very quietly so as not to disturb his blood-thirsty ghost.

`Range of Ghosts’ has a larger cast of characters than I’ve been able to mention in my brief summary, all of them with interesting story arcs of their own. The plot includes Fantasy favourites such as the `return of the necromancer’, the `wandering heir to the throne’ and the `making of a wizard’ but they are all given a new gloss by the Central Asian setting. The ruthless  leader of the Nameless, al-Sepehr (so not very nameless then) may be a standard Fantasy villain but he is a particularly scary one. The ancient magic of Erem which al-Sepehr uses to communicate with his agents and control a djinn is impressively evil. Even reading the script in which its spells are written causes people to go blind. The sorcerer known as the Carrion King and his opponent the great Mother Dragon are haunting presences in the novel. Young Temur has never wanted to be Khagan but he sees his only alternatives as being carrion or being a king and both seem monstrous. Whether Temur can find a third way, is a question that hangs over the trilogy. As Qersnyk/Mongol warriors go, Temur is rather a gentle soul who manages to find room in his heart for three very different females – brave Edene, the wizard Samarkar, and his miraculous mare Bansh.

Strong female characters used to be a rarity in Heroic Fantasy but this book is full of them. Qersnyk women are shown as equals of the men. They are free to ride, hunt, fight, rule clans and take the sexual initiative. So when Edene is kidnapped and imprisoned in the citadel of the Nameless she doesn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. After she is tricked into stealing a magical ring, Edene spends much of the trilogy fighting its corrupting influence. Samarkar is a clever and stong-willed princess who, after enduring a loveless royal marriage, decides to become a `Wizard of Tsarepheth’ even though this means sacrificing the power to create with her body for the chance of power to create with her mind. Compassionate Tsering-la failed to gain any magical powers after surviving the dangerous `neutering’ operation but she gradually discovers an important role for herself. Samarkar endures the ordeals and grows in status as a wizard throughout the story. She also becomes part of a love-triangle which doesn’t develop in the way that Western readers might expect. Tigress Hrahima is a formidable fighter but due to a tragedy in her past she is grappling with the moral problem of why bad things happen to good tigers. If the company of these four splendid heroines isn’t enough for you, as the trilogy continues you will also get to know a wicked empress who has a change of heart, two veiled Uthman women with secret agendas who must contend with many restrictions placed on their freedom, and the woman-king of the Lizard people. I hope you’ll enjoy following all of them along the Celadon Highway. Until two weeks time…