The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden*****

TheGirlintheTowerOh hey now…do you hear bells?

There are plenty of reasons to read this luminous, intimate, magical novel, the second in the Winternight Trilogy. You can read it for its badass female warrior, an anomaly in ancient Russia; you can read it for its impressive use of figurative language and unmatchable word-smithery; or you can read it because you love excellent fiction. The main thing is that you have to read it. I was overjoyed to be invited to read it in advance by Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; thanks also go to Net Galley for the digital copy. The book is available to the public tomorrow, December 5, 2017.

Vasya is no ordinary young woman. She sees and hears things few others do. Take, for example, the domovoi that guard the home; the priests discourage belief in such creatures, but they’re right there. She can see them. Then there’s the matter of her extraordinary horse, Solovey, who is nobody’s property and nobody’s pet, but who makes a magnificent friend and ally. And then of course there is the Frost Demon, a mentor and intimate acquaintance with whom she has a complicated relationship. But these are only parts of her story. The whole of it is pure spun magic that no review can adequately describe.

In ancient Russia, there are three kinds of women: some are wives; some are nuns; and some are dead. Vasya is determined to be none of these. Everyone that cares about her tries to explain how the world works so that she can make her peace with it. Her father is dead now, and so her brother, who is a priest, and her elder sister Olga both implore her to be reasonable. And even the Frost Demon wants her to face the facts. He tells her:

“Having the world as you wish—that is not for the young,” he added. “They want too much.”

Nevertheless, Vasya sets out into the winter woodlands with Solovey; she’s dressed as a man for the sake of safety. She learns that bandits have kidnapped the girls of a village that lies in her path, and everywhere she sees the depredations, the burned homes and ruined fortresses that have been laid waste by the Mongol invaders that have preceded her. She vows to rescue the girls and to seek vengeance, and as one might expect, she brings down a world of ruin and pain upon herself in the process.

A character like Vasya comes along perhaps once in a generation. Together with the first story in this trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, it has the makings of a classic. My one small wish is not to see it become a romance rather than what it is now—brilliant historical fiction and deeply moving fantasy. At the same time, wherever Arden takes the third volume of her trilogy, I know she can be counted on to do it better than anyone else.

Can this book stand on its own if the first title isn’t available? Arden ensures that the reader has the basic information necessary to jump into the story, and yet I urge readers to get both books if at all possible. To disregard the first in the series is to cheat oneself.

This reviewer seldom keeps review copies on the shelves here at home. There are too many books and never enough space. This title (and the one before it) is an exception to this rule; I will love this series until I die.

You have to read this book.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg Khlevniuk*****

stalinAlthough this book is published by Yale, Klehvniuk is a research fellow at the Russian national archives, and has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Stalin, the ruler that held much of Eastern Europe in an iron grasp from 1929-1953, when he died. That must be a really dark place, but he’s done a brilliant job. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Yale University Press for allowing me a free peek. This book is available for purchase right now.

The author tells us that revisionists have undertaken to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation lately, and to attribute his various unspeakable crimes against humanity to those below him. What a thought! Many previously secret archives were opened in the early 1990s, and our researcher has been busy indeed.

He begins with a brief but well done recounting of Stalin’s childhood, which he says was grim, but not grimmer than that of most of his peers, and surely not sufficiently grim to account for the monster he would become later in life. Then he discusses the Russian Revolution, and the relationship and struggle among its leadership, most notably Lenin (of whom he has a less favorable view than my own), Trotsky, and Stalin. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed over a number of things, primarily the role of the peasantry in the new society and its government. Lenin pushed Stalin to a higher level of leadership for a brief while because he was not happy with Trotsky, who in any case was in charge of the military, a critical task all by itself at the time. However, when Lenin’s health began to fail and he realized he would have to select a successor, he turned to Trotsky. By then, unfortunately, Stalin had built himself a clique within the leadership. A struggle for control ensued. Stalin came out on top, and Trotsky was banished. In 1940, Stalin paid a henchman to go to Mexico City and kill him with an ice pick.

After Lenin’s death, government was largely by committee, and although ruthless decisions sometimes had to be made at a time when there were still Mensheviks (Social Democrats) who would turn the revolutionary achievement into a bourgeois state, no one person had the ultimate power over the lives of his comrades. Over the next few years, however, the German Revolution failed and scarce resources had to be allocated. Stalin consolidated his hold on authority and the precious resources that could not be distributed sufficiently to keep everyone under the Soviet umbrella warm and fed went first (and increasingly lavishly) to the corrupt bureaucratic caste that controlled the Soviet Union, foremost Stalin himself. After that came resources for the workers in Russian cities; and after that came everyone else. The peasantry, which had been in a state close to slavery under the Tsar, were still shut off from the benefits of the Revolution, and Stalin undertook to force them to produce food for the city while punishing and often executing those that tried to stockpile a small amount on which to sustain their own families.

Klehvniuk gives a good deal of space, and rightly so, to the Great Terror of 1937-1938, when Stalin began suspecting all sorts of people, those close to him, far away, sometimes in large groups, of conspiring against him. He had them rounded up and executed. There even came a point in his career when he was having family members rounded up and shot. Toward the end of his life it was hard to find a qualified physician to treat him, because Stalin had been having so many doctors arrested and shot.

Klehvniuk provides us with a surprisingly readable narrative. He tells the chronological story of Stalin’s rule, with the horrifying numbers of people, most of them innocent, that were slain for political and nonpolitical “crimes” during the quarter century of his rule, and he alternates it with a narrative of Stalin on his deathbed. (Because everyone was so afraid of the guy, when they found him on the floor, alive but in a humiliating position, they had to step out and take a meeting so that no one individual would bear that responsibility. Until then, he stayed on the floor right where he was.)

An intriguing question that will probably never be answered has to do with the very congested state of his arteries upon autopsy. How much of his behavior can be associated with physical causes, possibly including dementia? He was one mean old man when he died. It’s a haunting consideration.

This reviewer was already familiar with a lot of the basic facts of Russian history, and moreso with the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, and Trotsky. Nevertheless I think that the interested lay reader, if not overly attached to remembering the names of all of the secondary players that came and went, ought to be able to make it through this work and find it as absorbing as I did. It’s dark material, and I read other things in between sessions in order to keep my own mood from sliding. That said, I don’t think you will find a more knowledgeable writer or a more approachable biography anywhere than this one.

Whether for your own academic purposes or simply out of interest and the joy in reading a strong biography, you really aren’t likely to find a better written biography of Stalin nor a more well informed author. It went on sale May 19, so you can get a copy now. Highly recommended!