Posts Tagged With: russia

“The Armies of Heaven” by Jane Kindred

Book three of Jane Kindred’s House of Arkhangel’sk trilogy has finally been released. Yippee!  I’ve been a huge fan of this series ever since reading the first book, and was thrilled when the publisher asked me if I’d like an advanced copy of this one.  I was also delighted to have had the opportunity to host a guest post from the author earlier this week.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy, you may want to check out The Fallen Queen and The Midnight Court .  This post contains some spoilers from the first two books.

A brief recap of the story thus far:  The series is a parallel of the story of Anastasia Romanov mixed with fairy tale elements from The Snow Queen.  When her cousin Kae is possessed by the wicked Queen Aeval and her entire family is murdered, Grand Duchess Anazakia Helisovna manages to escape from Heaven and fall into modern Russia, aided by some S&M gay demons named Belphagor and Vasily.  Anazakia begins to gather her allies and fight to regain the throne of heaven.  Along the way, she and Vasily (who’s actually bi) have a daughter named Ola together, cause Anazakia was too sheltered to know about birth control.  Oops.

In Armies of Heaven, Ola has been kidnapped by Anazakia’s childhood nurse Helga, a power-starved member of the Social Liberation Party.  Meanwhile, Helga has another card to play.  Anazakia’s sister’s child is alive, and Helga means to use him to put herself in power, ruling as regent and using him as a puppet.  Anazakia is torn between her duties to her kingdom and to the children.  Should she go after Helga and save her child, or fight Aeval and reclaim her kingdom?

The beginning of the book seemed a bit slow to me, but the pacing picked up, and I read the last two thirds of the book in one sitting, frantic to see how the story would be resolved.  There are so many things about this series that make me happy, and this book did not disappoint.  I love the way that Jane Kindred intersperses her writing with Russian phrases, especially when describing Belphagor’s relationships with his various submissive friends.  Rather than play with tired love triangles, the author creates characters who are okay with having unconventional and somewhat deviant relationships, preferring to all be one happy family rather than fight over each other.  I adored the fairy tale elements, and I may or may not have cried when (spoiler in white) the shard of glass fell out of Kae’s eye.  Yeah, I’m sappy about stuff like that.

One of the things I liked about this was seeing the secondary characters grow, develop, and come into their own.  Kae’s character stood out the most to me in this book.  He’s a man who is haunted by his actions while under Aeval’s spell, and can’t forgive himself for the atrocities that he’s committed.  Armies of Heaven focused a lot on Kae and his relationships with the other characters as he begins to allow himself to have a place in Anazakia’s life again and begins to heal.  Then there’s Kirill, a monk who was devastated to find out that Heaven was a parallel world that left no room for his concept of a God.  Or Lively, Helga’s niece who is forced by a magical spell to spy on Anazakia, but who learns to stand up for herself and her own beliefs.

One word of warning if you haven’t read this series–there is graphic violence.  Sometimes, violence is committed against children.  Some readers might not feel comfortable with it.  You have been forewarned.

I can’t say enough how much I loved this series.  As someone who loves Russian culture, history, and fairy tales, Anazakia’s story is right up my alley.  Armies of Heaven is the perfect conclusion to one of the most unique fantasy stories that I’ve read.

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Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Interview with Debra Dean, author of “The Mirrored World”

Today is the release date of The Mirrored World, a novel which tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who became a holy fool and is revered for her charity to the poor.  I had the opportunity to meet Debra Dean at a book signing while at BEA, and I am delighted to be able to host an author interview with her today.

What inspired you to write “The Mirrored World”?

I was researching my first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, and I stumbled on the story of Xenia, this 18th century woman who gave up a life of relative ease to become a holy fool. I wondered, what kind of person becomes a saint? And just as importantly, what would it be like if you cared deeply for this person and you saw her turning onto such an extreme path?

What made you choose to write about Russia?

I can find no logical explanation for it, beyond the fact that Russia has amazing stories. I’m not Russian, I don’t speak or read Russian, and prior to completing The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.

Have your personal experiences impacted your writing in any way?

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that nothing in your life is wasted. Everything that happens to you – all of it, even the miserable stuff – can be put to use.

It’s hard to imagine a world more foreign to my life than the 18th century Russian setting of The Mirrored World, but there’s at least a little bit of me in all those characters. For instance, like Xenia and Dasha, I am a compulsive collector of feathers and pretty rocks and shells. We have feral peacocks in our neighborhood, and every time I find a feather, I feel like I’ve won a little prize.

What is the most challenging part of being a writer?

For me? Making the time, and then having the courage to show up when I do have the time.

What are some of your other interests?  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I have a lot of interests, but I’m afraid most of them get thrown under the bus in favor of whatever book I’m working on. That said, I still squirrel away a little time to practice yoga and to see friends and cook them the occasional dinner.

What are some of your favorite books?

The answer will change depending on what day you ask. Today, what comes to mind are Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson; James Salter’s Light Years; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Those are a little older. More recent books: I love Luis Urrea’s Hummingbird’s Daughter and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Oh, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I like reading slowly, so I gravitate to books that are image-rich and masterful in their use of language.

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Debra Dean is the New York Times Bestselling author of “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and the award-winning short story collection “Confessions of a Falling Woman.”

Categories: Author Interviews, Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

“White Raven: The Sword of the Northern Ancestors” by Irina Lopatina

I received a copy of “White Raven:  The Sword of the Northern Ancestors” by Irina Lopatina through TLC Book Tours.  As many of you know, I’m a bit obsessed with Russian history/culture/etc., so when Trish asked me if I’d like to participate in a blog tour of a fantasy novel written by a Siberian author, I was thrilled to accept.  I read a lot of fantasy by American and British authors, so it’s nice to branch out periodically and expand my horizons.

Vraigo is a prince in the kingdom of Areya.  The Duke is annoyed that Vraigo spends his time frolicking in the Eternal Forest with druids and cute  fuzzy magical creatures rather than fighting to defend the kingdom.  Vraigo doesn’t see it as cowardice; he just has different priorities than his family.  However, Areya is in big trouble.  Monsters begin pouring into the kingdom from a parallel world, and the only force capable of stopping them is a magical sword named Urart.  When Urart is stolen, Vraigo finds himself on a quest to return the sword.  This quest takes him to the 21st century, where he must face new challenges for which he is utterly unprepared.

Here’s a brief sample from the start of Vraigo’s adventures:

The comb-topped moving head of the cock was attached to the strong body of a toad with the long tail of a serpent that the creature continuously swept upon the ground.  The beast immediately turned to Vraigo, opening his strong beak and screaming, seeking revenge on the small human who had disturbed it.  At the last possible second, the prince managed to throw his shirt onto the creature, hiding its dead black eyes, and straightaway showed his heels going in the opposite direction.  He was running slapdash, scaring forest-living creatures with his screams of fear.

“Basilisk!”  shouted Vraigo.  “There’s a basilisk!”

The story itself is relatively predictable and bears few surprises.  If you’ve read any fantasy or adventure stories, you already know how it’s going to end and what’s going to happen.  The back cover of the book tells you the sword is going to get stolen, but that doesn’t actually happen until about halfway through the book.  The predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because  Lopatina injects her own ideas into a  rather traditional epic fantasy story.  The first half of the story is pretty much by the book, but the introduction of a fantasy character into the 21st century was a lot of fun.  I did wish that it had happened sooner, because the time travel parts were definitely the best.

One of the things that was really neat about this book were the illustrations by Igor Adasikov.  Lopatina uses Russian folklore as the inspiration behind the world of Areya, and so the kingdom is threatened by an evil koshei, and Vraigo will encounter creatures like the yaga, the rusalka, and the drevalyanka.  Since the author’s interpretations of Russian folklore varied a bit from tradition (for example, a rusalka is traditionally a mermaid, but here it was a winged creature with the face of a woman), the illustrations in the glossary help readers to better picture the creatures that she’s talking about.  There’s also an illustration at the beginning of each chapter, and the artwork complements the story rather nicely.  Normally when I’m reviewing a book I don’t mention the illustrations.  These ones stood out from the crowd, and I was quite impressed.

The magic system here also intrigued me.  Magic is a natural quality that many people possess.  Some people are Endowed with magic, and others aren’t.  The source of all magic (including for magical creatures like druids or werewolves) is the Magic Veil, which is present during Vraigo’s time in Areya but not in the modern-day world.  This means that magical creatures still exist now, but they can’t realize the full extent of their powers.  A werewolf can be a part of a street gang and an innocent-looking kitty could really be a piksha.  I thought that this was an interesting way of reconciling the magic present in the past with today’s reality while still maintaining a coherent worldview.

One other thing to note is that the book doesn’t end, but rather seems to lead directly into a sequel.  It does end at a logical point in the story, but we’re still left hanging a bit more than I’d like.

Overall, I’d say that “White Raven” is an enjoyable albeit vaguely stereotypical fantasy story with a distinctly Russian twist.  I had a couple problems with the translation, but that’s most likely because I was reading an uncorrected proof, and I’m assuming that the finished version will have been tightened quite a bit.  (Side note:  I want a pet drevalyanka.  If it’s a cute fuzzy magical creature, that means I can’t be allergic to it, right?  Cause it’s magic.  Yep.)

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The publishers at Light Messages also wanted me to mention that they have some promotions going on during this blog tour (for 14 days after this post).  Orders placed through the Light Messages site will be $12.00 per book instead of $16.95, and folks will also receive a personalized signed post card from author Irina Lopatina.  Postcards feature landscapes from Altai, Siberia––the inspiration for White Raven’s Kingdom of Areya.  If readers submit photos of themselves with their copies (or e-copies) of the books, then Irina will send them a personalized, signed book plate for the front of their book. Go here and use the Contact link to submit the photo.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 17 Comments

“Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street.  By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

“Deathless” is an adaptation of the Russian legend of Koshei Bessmertny, the Tsar of Life, who keeps his soul outside of his body (inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a rabbit, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a tree) to preserve his immortality.  It is told from the perspective of Marya Morevna, the woman who marries Koshei and eventually brings about his demise.

The relationship between Koshei and Marya turbulent and passionate, filled with themes of dominance and submission, of trust and betrayal, but above all their relationship is vibrant and filled with life.

The story of Marya and Koshei is juxtaposed with Russian history during the early half of the 20th century.  We see the changes brought about by the Revolution and how they affect young Marya’s family.  Valente uses satirical humor in the vein of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” and so the Domoviye (house elves) collectivize and adapt with the changing philosophy of the times.

The story highlights the turmoil and grief of World War II.  I was particularly impressed by Valente’s poignant descriptions of the Siege of Leningrad, during which around 1.5 million civilians starved to death.  While I studied in Russia, I went on a trip to the Leningrad Blockade Museum, and it was one of those experiences that one can never forget.  When our group entered the museum, we were all cheerful and talkative, much as one would imagine American college students to be.  By the time we left, we were all silent, which is the only real response that one can have after learning about such a tragic period of history.  While “Deathless” deals with some harsh subjects, it is able to convey the same emotionality that I experienced when visiting the Blockade Museum without being overly depressing.  You feel deeply for the characters and for the inhabitants of St. Petersburg, but at the same time the Siege does not overshadow the folklore, but rather enhances it, and the book ends exactly as it should.

Valente is the type of author who understands the elusive nature of Firebirds, and that Russian dogs say “Guff Guff” instead of “Bark Bark.”  She knows that domoviye must be placated with offerings of shoes and honey, and that heroines must be named Masha, otherwise all is not well with the world.  She has a deep understanding of Russian history and culture and is a captivating storyteller.

This book is now officially my favorite of all time.  (Yes, it even topped Dostoevsky for me, which is saying a lot.)

“Deathless” is the kind of book that ruins all other books by creating a standard that’s impossible to live up to.  Everything else just seems pale and watery by comparison.  If you have even the slightest interest in Russia, folklore, or fairy tales, then you should read this one immediately.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

“The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean

It is a peasant belief that, as we are all equal in God’s eyes, He must surely confer on fools unseen, compensatory gifts.  And so our peasants attend fools with great reverence and scrutinize their gibbering for veiled wisdom and prophecy.  Even the more enlightened prefer them in their charity over the ordinary poor.  For this reason, the streets are thick with counterfeit fools who don chains and profit by feigning madness.  The credulous lump all these together and call them the blessed ones.  Because I have known Xenia as she was–bequeathed every wordly advantage of wit, modesty, and riches–I know she is not a pretender.

I received a review copy of “The Mirrored World” while at Book Expo America, and I had the opportunity to meet with the author.  This book is a perfect fit for me, as I am a bit obsessed with Russia.  The book is scheduled to be released this August.

“The Mirrored World” is a novel by Debra Dean, who also wrote “The Madonnas of Leningrad.”  It tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who lived in the 18th century and was famous for her charity to the poor.

The story is told from the point of view of Dasha, Xenia’s cousin.  The girls grow up in the same household and are introduced to Petersburg society at the same time.  Xenia falls in love with Col. Andrei Petrov and marries him, but then a tragedy strikes and she begins her descent into madness.

The “holy fool” is a theme that is often found in Russian literature, because they are believed to be God’s chosen children.  Even the tsar can’t speak against them, and it is believed that their words contain wisdom.  It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Xenia go from a respectable woman of society to a holy fool who lives among the beggars, but at the same time we see that her transformation brings her a sense of peace and happiness that Dasha envies.

Dasha makes a perfect narrator because she is able to grow up in society but then drift on its outskirts.  She is able to observe, but is still independent enough that she can have an impartial view of what’s going on, both politically and in her relationship with Xenia.  I particularly enjoyed Dasha’s choice of husband (Spoiler:  He’s a eunuch).

Debra Dean’s writing contains a great deal of historical detail.  I was impressed by her knowledge of Russian history and culture.  One such detail that stood out to me (and which I researched later out of curiosity) was that tea wasn’t widespread in Russia until the 1730s when Catherine the Great began regularly importing it.  This story takes place before that, and so tea is treated as something special for rare occasions.

I also enjoyed the way that Debra Dean highlighted the excesses and corruption found at the Petersburg court.  Events such as the forced marriage of a jester show a lack of concern for the feelings of the common people, and we even get hints of Catherine becoming a slutty monarch as she takes the throne (note:  this is also historically accurate).

While parts of the story are sad, I didn’t find it depressing.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Russian history and culture, or for fans of historical fiction in general.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

Les Saisons Russes

During January I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Les Saisons Russes by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Yes, you read that properly… I have a lot 19th century sensibilities, or, as my boyfriend puts it, I’m a 60-year-old in a 23-year-old’s body.  Almost nobody my own age likes ballet.  But I digress… when a friend and I heard that the Mariinsky would be in town, it was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.  I had seen the Kirov perform Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theater while I was in Russia, and was eager to see more Russian ballet.

The performance was divided into three acts, each of which was beautiful and unique.

Chopinana

This segment didn’t feature a linear plot, but instead was used to showcase traditional choreography.  We sat on the highest balcony, which is one of my favorite places to sit because one can see the formations and choreography from above.  Luckily, the seats that I prefer happen to be the ones that broke grad students can afford.  The dancers were phenomenal.  One of the things that I noticed was that in American ballets, each dancer tends to be treated as an individual, Russian ballets highlight one or two dancers at a time while the rest move as one.  Of the two, the Russian techniques take a lot more skill and coordination.

The Firebird

This one was easily the best part of the performance.  Set to music by Stravinsky, “The Firebird” is an adaptation of a Russian legend.  The tsarevich is walking through a forest while hunting the Firebird, and when he finds her, the prince and Firebird’s dancing conveys their power struggle.  The tale of the Firebird is blended with the tale of the tsarevich’s struggle against Kashchei the Immortal, an evil wizard whose soul is contained in an egg buried under the tree.  In the original legend, it’s a bit, and the soul is stored in a needle in an egg in a duck in a bunny in a chest under the tree, but that’s way too complicated for a performance.  Solan Kulaev did a fantastic job as Kashchei, and the costuming made him look like a skeletal version of Voldemort in flowing wizard’s robes.  Kashchei’s ghouls were so creepy!  Overall, “The Firebird” carried the impression of being distinctly Russian, as evidenced by the appearance of the Kremlin in the background of the closing scene.

Scheherazade

If “Chopinana” was traditional and “Firebird” was distinctly Russian, then “Scheherezade” serves as an interpretive number.  It is set in a harem in the Middle East.  While the Sultan goes hunting, his favorite wife and the other female slaves bring in the male slaves and have an orgy, complete with feasting and copious amounts of wine.  However, the Sultan is warned of his wife’s infidelity, and so returns home early, killing the revelers, including his wife’s lover.  I found it kind of odd that the program specifically mentioned that the wife’s lover was supposed to be black, considering that the guy who danced his part was paler than I am (which takes skill).  It just seemed like an unnecessary detail within the context of the story.  The Sultan refuses to kill the wife, punishing her by forcing her to live with the consequences of her actions.  However, when she sees that her lover is dead, she kills herself.  One of the things that I found interesting about this piece was that none of the dancers wore pointe shoes.

Overall, it was a fantastic afternoon at the ballet, and the best performance that I’ve ever attended.

Categories: Other | Tags: , , , , | 18 Comments

“The Fallen Queen” by Jane Kindred

I received an electronic copy of “The Fallen Queen” by Jane Kindred from the publisher through NetGalley.

The novel tells the story of Grand Duchess Anazakia Helisovna, an angel whose life story parallels that of Anastasia Romanov.  Anazakia never really understood the politics of Heaven until her entire family was murdered and overthrown at the hands of Aeval, a really bitchy queen.  Anazakia alone escaped with the aid of the demons Belphagor and Vasily, who fall with her from Heaven to Russia, where she cross-dresses to keep herself hidden.  At first, the demons and Anazakia mutually distrust each other, but as the story progresses they come to an understanding, and Anazakia starts to realize just how sheltered her life was as a Grand Duchess.

This is one of the most fun books that I’ve read in a long time.  It does have its flaws, such as the fact that Aeval isn’t very complex as a villain, but I was able to overlook that because I was so caught up in the story.  I couldn’t put the book down, and I can’t wait for the next one to be released!

The author has really done her homework as far as Russia goes.  When I read the book, I felt like I was back in St. Petersburg.  She gets everything right, from the landmarks to the culture to the tapochki.

I also enjoyed the way that the characters fall outside of traditional gender roles.  Belphagor and Vasily are an adorable gay couple, and Anazakia makes an interesting addition to their love triangle.  The characters are unapologetically themselves, which is quite refreshing in fantasy.  It bothered me that in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire that Dany could have frickin’ dragons, but poor Renly had to stay in the closet.  Part of the fun of fantasy is being able to escape traditional social structures and play with reality.  The author clearly had a lot of fun doing that, and it was a delight to read!

“The Fallen Queen” is a great escapist read, and the Russian setting makes it even more awesome.  I would highly recommend it.  Kindred’s writing reminded me of what would happen if one were to cross Jacqueline Carey with Mikhail Bulgakov.

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This book counts toward the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Baffled Books.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“A History of Modern Russia” by Robert Service

Since I’ve focused primarily on fiction thus far, I thought it might be nice to review one of my favorite nonfiction books.  Service does a fantastic job providing a recap of 20th century Russian/Soviet history that is both highly readable and well-researched.

One of the biggest problems with history books about the Soviet era is that almost all of them are heavily biased, either demonizing or glorifying the Soviet Union.  Service does neither, but instead takes a cynical view about everything.  He is able to provide a rather objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of various figures, while realizing that we’re all adults and don’t need to know that the evil commies are coming to get us.

As the book is only around 500 pages, there are of course a lot of things that are glossed over.  At the same time, Service did a good job at highlighting major events.  The book covers late imperial Russia through around 1994, but there isn’t much coverage of anything after the fall of the Soviet Union.  I would personally liked to see more of that, and how one ties the Russia of today to it’s historical roots.  However, that wasn’t the point of the book.  I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning more about Russian history.

Categories: Dead Russians, History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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