By Kristen B.
Sometimes, as the days get dark and cold, I prefer to read books that reflect the world around me. I’m not as drawn to these sorts of books in the summer, those are the marvelous, warm days of beach-y reads. HCLS has kicked off its Winter Reading challenge, which asks you to track what you read online. All ages can participate. Here are a couple of recent favorites with a fairy tale flavor that make the best use of their snowy settings to get you started.
Set in a Baltic look-alike world called Lithvas, this fantasy novel loosely retells Rumplestiltskin through the points of view of three strong but very different women: the daughter of a village money lender, her indentured servant, and a landowner’s daughter who becomes tsarina. Miryem has a much better head for business than her father and begins to require repayment of local loans so her own family doesn’t starve and freeze. This is how she ends up with an indentured servant, Wanda, who wants a better life for herself and her brothers. Irina, the reluctant princess, discovers that all is not as it seems at the highest levels of society, with the tsar secretly possessed by a fire demon. She discovers that she can escape into a strange winter world via old magic and jewelry made of Staryk silver. She also realizes that she’s much better at politics than her husband.
Miryem’s ability to make money seemingly from nothing brings her to the attention of the Staryk – the immortal fairy creatures who live and thrive in a world of winter. The Staryk’s highly rigid, structured culture comes as a shock and mystery to Miriam when she marries their ruler. Her growing enlightenment brings together all the many threads of this story, which weave an enchanting tale filled with mountains of snow and ice, demons and magical jewels, tsars and servants, and most of all the power of names and of family. I loved each woman separately, as they discover their own talents and try to carve a place to thrive in a world ruled by men who use them but only rarely see them.
Continuing in the Slavic traditions: The first book in a trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale repositions the traditional Russian Vasya the Brave tales for our heroine Vasilisa. The youngest daughter of a local boyar (landowner), she grows up idolizing and working alongside her older brothers after her mother dies. When her father goes to Moscow to find a young wife, Vasya’s world changes as her step-mother brings new rules to the house (mostly about wayward girl children) and a new faith, Christianity. Vasya lives very much attached to the old ways and the local spirits of the hearth and the woods. She befriends the spirit of death (or maybe winter), Morozko, and his magical horse as she battles an ancient evil bear/trickster spirit. As the two worldviews come into increasing conflict, neither the pagan traditions or the newer church are portrayed as completely good or evil. There’s a good bit of grey area for the characters to explore and reconcile as Vasya struggles to find a way to stay true to herself and save her family. The storytelling is masterful and the language beautiful, and you root for this wild, willful but somehow lost little girl to find her way home. The story continues in The Girl in the Tower and finishes spectacularly in The Winter of the Witch.
Last but by no means least: The third book in a YA series about young witch Tiffany Aching, Wintersmith is among my favorite installments of the sprawling Discworld universe. Discworld (the creation of genius satirist and prolific storyteller Terry Pratchett) really deserves its own blog post in the future. Please explore as you have time and interest, but you don’t necessarily have to read the first two Tiffany Aching books (The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky) to enjoy this one.
Tiffany Aching decides to become a witch because she is definitely not a princess and can’t be a woodcutter. Besides, witches get things done. In Wintersmith, as she becomes the firmly established apprentice to Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany accidentally draws the attention of the Wintersmith. The godling mistakes her for the never met but greatly desired spirit of summer, and he proceeds to court Tiffany with romantic notions like personalized snowflakes wearing her face. Pratchett’s turn of phrase often makes me snort with humor, then sit back and admire his way with words. Whether describing no-nonsense older witches or the joys of making good cheese, all of his master craftsmanship shines in this book. It takes Tiffany and her friends some doing, and some dancing, to make everything come right in the end of this lovely wintery caper about finding balance and maintaining boundaries (or maybe it’s maintaining balance and finding boundaries).
One last note: Tiffany’s accomplices on her adventures are the Nac Mac Feegle (see book cover above), who are bright blue, fierce, miniature, larcenous creatures with broad Scots accents (think combative Smurfs with major attitudes) that are simply the best thing ever. Given the Feegles’ dialect, the Tiffany Aching books are also terrific to read aloud or listen to.
I hope you enjoy one or all of these, or maybe have some of your own seasonal stories to enjoy. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to spend winter reading, baking, and waiting for baseball to return.