Tuesday 28 November 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

A few thoughts on Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

I haven’t read too much of recent Fantasy, but I was interested in The Bear and the Nightingale. Part of this was the number of positive reviews it was getting everywhere on twitter and in the popular sites.

But more importantly, for me as an Indian reader, was the connection to Russian folk tales, which is the starting point for Arden’s fantasy universe here. You see, most Indian kids of the 80s have read and treasured those subsidized books from Progress Publishers and Raduga Publishers - “Ukrainian Folk Tales” and “The Little Straw Bull” and “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and any number of others. We all know about Baba-Yaga and about characters like Masha and Sasha and Misha and large Russian ovens and so on. Even the very typical translated-from-Russian language from those books will strike a chord.

I’m glad to report that Arden has nailed that tone in her book. In general, her language is excellent and brings the atmosphere through.

I’m also happy to say that the very slow transition from the normal-sounding world in the beginning of her book, to the fantasy one, chapter by chapter, is even better done. You’re eased into the various supernatural elements, with no overt explanation but with enough context to understand what’s going on. By the time you’re two-thirds through the book, you’re well set in this new place that’s actually different from what those old fairy tales talked of.

And a very cool world it is. <SPOILER> There are creatures that surround us, taking care of small parts of our lives - the kitchen, the stables, the lake - and they only require our belief to sustain themselves. But there are more powerful creatures abroad - Death/Sleep, Chaos - and their balance gets disrupted from time to time. And in the middle of that disruption is our heroine, Vasilisa. Fortunately, she has the second sight and is able to converse with various domestic sprites, help and be helped by them. She’s going to need her abilities if she has to save her home. <END SPOILER>

Vasilisa - Vasya - is a powerful heroine. The idea of a woman beyond her time, not built to be caught up in the inevitable grind of household and child-bearing, and yet affectionate to her family, is not new, but it has been done really beautifully here.

Where the book suffers a little, is in not following the fairy tale template closely enough. There is a climactic battle, similar to other modern fantasy books, there are creatures on both sides of it, noble people must lose their lives, and the heroes must escape mostly unscathed. It’s a bit of a climbdown from the sharp, terse climaxes of fairy tales where a quick application of the wits, or maybe a sword, is enough to close out the tale. But the slow buildup here, perhaps, requires a fitting climax.

It turns out that this is the first in a trilogy. I will probably be reading the further parts when they come out, hoping the minor flaws in the first part mean nothing in the broader scheme of things. 

A Fit of Shivers, by Joan Aiken

A few thoughts on Joan Aiken’s A Fit of Shivers

It’s always been a pet peeve of mine that Joan Aiken isn’t better known these days. And to make it worse, her most well-known works aren’t even the ones I like the best - typically, she’d be known as the writer of Jane Austen inspired works, or at most for her alt-England series starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

My favourites are her short stories. Both the fairy tales and her horror stories, written for kids of all ages, have a sharp touch to them that someone like Enid Blyton cannot even come close to. In her fairy tales, for example, it is no biggie for kids to be orphans, or poor, or starving, or even ending up dead. In her horror stories, there is absolutely no guarantee that there’s a happy end in store.

A Fit of Shivers, as is evident from the name, is horror stories. Once again, you go in with no guarantees of safety, and the stories take you all sorts of places. One of my favourites here is about a boy who can teleport through mirrors. Not only does this not help him, but he winds up homeless, starving, and eventually drowned. Another one is about a girl whose mother is in a coma, sent to live in an aunt’s house that’s haunted. The collection features ten-odd stories, each a gem in itself.

There’s a reason I compared Aiken to Enid Blyton - it’s because of the droll British style of writing that desi readers will find very familiar. People have accents from various parts of Britain (which, me being me, can’t really place), and they live in the typical small villages and towns with greengrocer shops and the village constable. That's where the similarity ends.

Even her fantasy stories, in collections such as A Necklace of Raindrops or A Harp of Fishbones, have that same sharp edge and unforgettable scenes, so they come just as highly recommended. I've been collecting these short books over the years, Amazon of course being a huge help in recent years.

When I’ve gotten tired of heavy-duty literature or long-winded passages, it’s Joan Aiken’s short stories I come back to. Try them. Trust me. 

Fictions, by Masti

A few thoughts on Masti: Fictions

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, always meaning to read it but never quite getting around to it. But after my previous attempt at a British book that I couldn’t finish, I was looking for something similar in flavour to R K Narayan. Masti was the choice.

Yet Masti isn’t quite RKN. For one, he’s much more comfortable with historical/religious settings. He’s focused on the history of Karnataka. And he takes pains to manage the narrative distance from his characters, often by couching the main story in a wrapper.

This book is a collection of his popular short stories, translated into English and published by the ever-reliable Katha. It serves as a Masti Reader, introducing the writer and his life and philosphy along with the work itself. And I for one came away impressed.

The stories vary from the true-crime genre (but told in a very human way), to tales modelled on Puranic tales. In none of them is Masti condescending to us or to his characters. For example in the first one, the narrator decides to arrange a match between a young man who doesn’t want to marry, and a young girl. Your typical chick-lit-type writer would have spent chapters upon chapters explaining how the relationship formed, how it blossomed, what impediments inevitably came in their way and so on. But Masti is extremely focused - the story goes exactly up to the point where the young man’s resolve is broken and he begins to ask who that interesting girl is. The very next scene is set years after the marriage. You’re expected to understand that it all went off smoothly.

Much has been written about Masti’s spiritual faith in God and in order in the universe. It shows through in the stories. He treats devotion completely unironically, and several of his characters are genuinely holy men. This may be offputting to modern English readers, but to my mind it feels like a throwback to an older, simpler time. Nor is he advocating any sort of hate or exclusion in the name of religion.

I’m sure I have another of his books - a novel, Chikkaveera Rajendra, lying around. Maybe I’ll pick that up later this year. For the current volume, it gets a thumbs up.