historical fiction

REVIEW: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is the final book in the Winternight trilogy so there may be vague spoilers for the previous books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, in this review.

After Moscow survives the flames and an attack from an enemy, it leaves its people searching for answers and someone to blame. Vasya, a girl with extraordinary gifts, must flee for her life, pursued by those who blame their misfortune on her magic. When a vengeful demon returns, stronger than ever, he finds allies among men and spirits and Vasya must do the impossible and unite the worlds of men and magic.

The Winter of the Witch is such an exciting and satisfying conclusion. It’s one of those perfect books where you can see how story and character points were deliberate and how though some unexpected things happen, with hindsight they make perfect sense with the themes that are in these novels. It’s like how the first book is more focused on the magic and spirits while the second book is more focused on the religion and politics of the human world and then The Winter of the Witch is the perfect balance between these two worlds and combines these elements in a really clever and satisfying way.

The worldbuilding is still wonderful and rich and it’s great that there’s still elements of the magical world that Vasya doesn’t know about. While she’s still learning about certain characters or rules when it comes to magic, she’s more sure of herself than ever and it’s really enjoyable to see her stand up for and believe in herself and her magic. How she starts to get respect from both magical creatures and powerful men is so gratifying.

At this point Vasya has gone through a ridiculous amount of trauma and hardship and while she’s still suffering from that, she’s also using the pain to fuel her in her quest to save both worlds that she’s a part of. Her family becoming more understanding of her abilities and nature while also still caring about her and wanting to protect her as she’s their younger sibling is really nice to see too. The relationships Vasya has forged are strong in The Winter of the Witch whether that’s her family or Morozko.

The Winter of the Witch is an epic and satisfying conclusion to a wonderfully magical and atmospheric story. A lot happens in this book and it’s more continuously action-packed compare to the previous books but it’s all held together by wonderful writing and memorable characters. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the Winternight trilogy so there may be vague spoilers for the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, in this review.

Vasya has left her village and sets out to be free and discover the wide world. Soon though she encounters the Grand Prince of Moscow and his men, which includes her older brother Sasha, a monk, as they’re on the trial of the rumoured bandits that roam the countryside, burning the villages and kidnapping young girls. Being disguised as a boy, Vasya soon proves herself in battle and gets the respect of the Prince and Sasha reluctantly keeps her secret though danger lurks in Moscow as there are power struggles and it might not just be human but fantastical dangers the city faces as well.

While there is still fantastical elements in The Girl in the Tower with Vasya’s talking horse and the various creatures from folklore Vasya encounters in different peoples homes, the political machinations really takes the forefront in this book compared to the first. Vasya is still headstrong and brave but she is unused to the way people act in court and the double meanings and alliances that can form. Plus, as she’s pretending to be her sibling’s younger brother, there’s always a sense of danger as in this world women should not act as Vasya does. It’s a patriarchal society and women and girls are judged by their looks and presumed virtue and nothing more, Vasya is opinionated and smart and finds a freedom in pretending to be a boy as well as the danger.

The sibling relationships in The Girl in the Tower are really interesting. Vasya is in her late teens and her older brother and sister, Sasha and Olga, are in their twenties and haven’t seen her for at least ten years. Both younger and older siblings struggle to understand and connect with the version of their sibling that’s in front of them when they’re so different to who they remember. It’s an interesting dynamic as Sasha and Olga aren’t who Vasya remembers from her childhood but equally, Vasya perplexes them both as she refuses to be confined and do what is expected of a young woman of her age – marry a man and bear children, or join a convent. Vasya’s wildness grates against Sasha and Olga’s propriety and their understanding of the political and social standings they have in Moscow clashes with her dreams.

The connection Vasya has with Morozko, the Winter King or Frost Demon, continues to be really intriguing. It has the start of romance but at the same time there’s a lot of half truths between them, and how can an immortal demon love a mortal girl without it being the undoing of either of them?

Unlike The Bear and the Nightingale where the first half was slower and more character-driven and then things picked up in the second half, The Girl in the Tower has a lot more action throughout. Though the political plotting can drag a little bit in the middle and there’s a thread of tension through most of the book because you’re waiting to see if/when Vasya’s deception is discovered and if it is, just how bad the consequences will be. The writing in The Girl in the Tower is still excellent though and even odd moments or throwaway lines are purposeful as everything builds to a thrilling ending.

I’m both excited and kind of nervous about what the third and final book of this trilogy will bring. There are prophesies still to be fulfilled for Vasya and for other characters, so The Girl in the Tower has done that wonderful thing of leaving some mysteries and plot threads hanging. Hopefully everything will wrap up nicely as at the moment it looks like The Winter of the Witch has the potential to be an epic conclusion. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…

I loved this book. Honestly, I was a bit hesitant to begin with as it’s the first book in a trilogy that has so much hype but the writing and atmosphere pulled me in really quickly. The first part is a lot slower paced than I was expecting but it’s never not interesting and all of the family dynamics and the background political rumblings it sets up come into play later on. Spending the time with the characters and their relationships to begin with allowed them time to grow and really deepen. Vasya’s relationship with her older brother Alyosha (who is closest to her in age) was especially great and relatable as while he didn’t necessarily believe in the stories and magic, he believed in his sister.

The Bear and the Nightingale is set in a medieval Russia where the folktales, magic and old religions are real but most people treat them as superstitions. Vasya though, has always been able to see the creatures and spirits that protect her home and the surrounding countryside while others could not. She talks to them and they talk back and as she grows older, they teach her things while she learns to keep what she can see and sense a secret because the villagers may call her a witch.

I really liked how the old religions came into conflict with the “new” religion when Konstantin, a Christian priest, arrives and starts to push the word of God. He is a character I loved to hate. Though there was the odd moment where he was so pathetic that he became almost sympathetic, he was so frustratingly righteous and stubborn that I relished in every moment where things did not go his way. He’s almost unwanted obsession with Vasya as she becomes a young woman was uncomfortable at times and their verbal sparring battles just made me like Vaya more.

Vasya is a wonderful character. The Bear and the Nightingale follows her from her birth until she is a teenager and you see from the outset, she’s been a wild child who doesn’t often do what’s expected of a girl her age. This does make her come into conflict with her family, especially her father, who wants to protect her, and her stepmother, who can’t stand her actions most of the time. Vasya can make impulsive decisions but she’s very loyal and caring and as she respects the creatures and guardians from tales, she can tell when bad things are about to happen and do her best to prepare her family for it.

The writing in The Bear and the Nightingale is excellent and often painted a vivid picture of the cold, harsh world Vasya grows up in and all the creatures are larger than life. I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long and while I’m not usually a seasonal mood reader, I’m glad I picked it up during winter when it’s cold and dark and frosty as it really added to the reading experience.

I really enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so enthralled by a story and I’m looking forward to continuing on with the trilogy. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – North Macedonia: A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska

Translated by Christina E. Kramer.

Zlata and Srebra are 12-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. A Spare Life tells the story of their childhood, from their only friend Roza to their neighbour Bogdan, so poor that he one day must eat his pet rabbit. Treated as freaks and outcasts, even by their own family, the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?

A Spare Life begins in 1984 but the story crosses decades into the new millennium as Zlata and Srebra grow together and have to make choices about high school, university, and relationships. Lots of people in their lives, including their parents, presume they are mentally deficient because of their situation but both girls are smart and capable. It’s clear from the outset that if they weren’t conjoined twins they could’ve had their own interests, friends and lives if they weren’t attached to one another by a small bit of skin and a vein.

People naturally don’t get on all the time, no matter how close they are, and for Zlata and Srebra to never be able to have their own personal space from one another it’s clear to see the frustrations both girls have. However, A Spare Life is solely told from Zlata’s point of view and personally I would’ve liked it if there were chapters from Srebra’s point of view to see what she thought of her sister and to see if their ideas of one another aligned. Though naturally the girls go through every experience physically together, it’s clear that they’re attitudes and feelings towards things are different and they have different interests and passions too. A Spare Life covers every problem the conjoined twins could have, from the mundane – how to use the toilet – to the more adult – what to do when one of them wants to have sex.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the various conflicts different nations had during that time is like background noise to Zlata and Srebra’s childhood and adolescence. As they make plans to go to university, Srebra is the one who is most interesting in what’s happening to their home and the people around them, constantly reading newspapers and watching the news. Naturally Zlata also hears about these things but she rarely pays attention. It is interesting to see how different prejudices play out from a Macedonian point of view and how some of the conflicts I’ve read about during my Read the World Project play out in the background.

I found A Spare Life tough going at times because it’s a truly bleak story and Zlata goes through so much heartbreak that it’s depressing but then there’s so much of it you become desensitised to it all. There’s the hardship of being a conjoined twin and how that impacts every part of their lives but then there’s a lot of death surrounding the two of them. Childhood friends, family, loved ones, so many people in their lives die! Honestly it gets kind of much and sure, some people go through a lot of personal tragedy but reading about it here almost became tedious especially as the ones dying were often the ones who actually treated Zlata and Srebra well and like they were their own people.

Perhaps intentionally I found A Spare Life a book of two halves. The first being their childhood to early adulthood in Macedonia and the second half being when they decide to go to London and try and have the operation that would separate the two of them. I did prefer the first half as there was often the sort of childlike naivety to big situations and while they experience on traumatic event when they’re young, it’s not until they’re adults that so much of the death and depressing things happen to them. 3/5.

READ THE WORD – Paraguay: I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos

Translated by Helen Lane.

I, the Supreme is a historical novel that’s a fictionalised account of the nineteenth-century Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia aka El Supremo. The opening pages present a sign that they had found nailed to the wall of a cathedral, purportedly written by El Supremo himself and ordering the execution of all of his servants upon his death. This sign is revealed to be a forgery, which takes the leader and his secretary Policarpo Patiño, into a larger discussion about the nature of truth and the fallibility of the written word.

I feel like I should preface this review by saying that anything I say about this book is what I think was happening and I have no concrete idea if that was the case as I was often left confused by everything that was in this novel.

I found I, the Supreme really hard to read due to how it was written. There aren’t any speech marks when characters are talking, there’s long paragraphs, and it often it read like a stream of consciousness as characters seem to go on so many tangents. Obviously, I concentrate/pay attention whenever I read a book but with I, the Supreme I felt I had to put so much more effort in to follow what was happening and still I ended up lost a lot of times. The lack of speech marks was especially difficult as characters appeared to have conversations in the same paragraph. This may be because it’s a story that started off as two characters discussing things so a character recounts what someone else said in their own dialogue. Whatever the reason, it still made it hard to read.

I, the Supreme appeared to follow the life of El Supremo but not in a linear order. It would jump around and it would take time and many pages later to realise the connections between certain events or people mentioned. There were a lot of footnotes in the book which were helpful in providing true historical context for the events the book was depicting or bending slightly. In the latter half of the book there was almost footnotes or asides in the main body of the text, giving context in a way that you couldn’t avoid – perhaps to show how important that information was to understand the fictionalised account.

There were sections that seemed far removed from the life of El Supremo or seemed to be a fantastical take on things. For instance, in multiple chapters there are sections that focus on a talking skull which I think is supposed to be El Supremo’s talking skull but I’m really not sure.

Naturally a dictator does abhorrent things and the way they were depicted had a wry or dark sense of humour to them sometimes which again made them difficult to read about. I, the Supreme also depicted El Supremo as a dangerous child who’d have temper tantrums and suddenly change their mind about people or situations to deadly results. Maybe that’s what dictators are though? Impulsive people with too much power and people who are too afraid to say no.

Unlike other historical novels I’ve read during my Read the World Project I don’t think I learnt too much about Paraguay in the 1800s because I didn’t understand a lot of I, the Supreme. I don’t mind a non-linear narrative but I think the way I, the Supreme is written with its lack of speech marks and jumping to different times, places, and characters points of views without being clear about when, where and who we’re now with made it very difficult to read. In the end I don’t think I took much of this story in at all.

READ THE WORLD – Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino by Kurban Said

It is the eve of World War I in Baku, Azerbaijan, a city on the edge of the Caspian Sea, poised precariously between east and west. Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a teenage Muslim schoolboy from a proud, aristocratic family, has fallen in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Nino Kipiani, a Christian girl with distinctly European sensibilities. To be together they must overcome blood feud and scandal, attempt a daring horseback rescue, and travel from the bustling street of oil-boom Baku, through starkly beautiful deserts and remote mountain villages, to the opulent palace of Ali’s uncle in neighbouring Persia. Ultimately the lovers are drawn back to Baku, but when war threatens their future, Ali is forced to choose between his loyalty to the beliefs of his Asian ancestors and his profound devotion to Nino.

Ali and Nino is set in between 1914-1920, and as they live in Azerbaijan and have familial connections in Georgia and Iran it’s another story where you can see a different side of the First World War and its effects on people. There’s also an Armenian character that faces hatred from some characters who can’t even explain why they hate Armenians so much – that was an interesting historical note after reading Armenian Golgotha.

I have such mixed feelings about Ali and Nino and a lot of the mixed feelings are probably because the book is successfully doing what it set out to do. So much of it is about the culture clash between Ali and Nino. They may love each other, but they both have different ideas about how a home should be run or how marriages work that they often struggle to understand one another. It’s a love story that questions if love really does conquer all when you’ve got people who have religious and cultural ideals that often seem to be in conflict. It’s the first third or so that made me the most uncomfortable but as Ali and Nino both started to mature, I could understand both their view points and their conflicts a lot better.

The religious aspect of how other male characters consider Nino and how women and wives should be treated is something that made me feel uncomfortable when reading. Ali doesn’t necessarily share the same views, but he’s young and was raised with those ideals so there’s often times you can see them there at a subconscious level. One memorable quote is a friend of Ali’s saying that “We have a proverb in our country – A woman has no more sense than an egg has hairs.” It makes my skin crawl even though based on the time period/culture it’s set in there’s a good chance that that was a common thought. When they’re in Persia, Nino chafes against the rules of the society. She can’t leave her home without wearing a veil, she can’t talk to any male guests who visit their home even if they’re her friends too, she can’t go walking around town side by side with her husband – all these customs she’s unused to and it makes her miserable.

Nino is quite a modern young woman thanks to her upbringing – or rather instead of modern, the term should be probably Western. Because that’s where a lot of Ali and Nino’s conflicts lie. Azerbaijan is a country that straddles on the border of Asia and Europe, the East and the West, and Ali and Nino are representations of that divide. As Ali says, “For me it would be just as impossible to live in Europe as it was for you to live in Asia. Let’s stay in Baku, where Asia and Europe meet.” The city of Baku seems like the perfect mix of cultures, religion, and ideals, and the description of the city paints a vivid picture. The novel is solely from Ali’s point of view and his love of his home, the city and the surrounding desert, shines through.

Azerbaijan is one of the many countries I knew nothing about before my Read the World Project – to be honest, Azerbaijan was one of those countries I only really knew of because it competed in Eurovision – and I really enjoyed seeing it through Ali’s eyes. The fact that it is such a blend of cultures due to where its situated makes it so unique and I’d be interested to learn more about what the country is like today as Ali and Nino is set 100 years ago and ends just as Azerbaijan’s independence is threatened by Russia’s expansion.

Ali and Nino is a love story but it’s so much more than that. It can be dark at times with honour killings but there’s also a lot of light to it too. The conflict over cultural ideals and the sense of belonging each character has is thought-provoking and makes their relationship all the more interesting. They both hurt each other, intentionally or not, but there’s something about their relationship that makes you hope for the best and they’ll find a middle ground on the things that threaten to push them a part. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Panama: The Golden Horse: A Novel About Triumph and Tragedy Building the Panama Railroad by Juan David Morgan

Translated by John Cullen.

Many people know the story of the Panama Canal, but few know that of the Panama Railroad: the first transcontinental railroad of the Americas that was built during the California Gold Rush. From 1851-55, a handful of adventurers and inventive engineers drove the enterprise to tame the unexplored jungle wilderness that would soon become the first inter-oceanic railroad, link the US to Central America and change Panama forever. Thousands of people died during the construction of the railroad, succumbing to tropical diseases and natural disasters. Despite the danger, the lust of gold fever and the challenge of conquering the wilderness drove the protagonists through the perils of torturous journeys, cutthroat competition, ruthless outlaws, savage jungles, the most ferocious extremes of the tropical frontier, and violent cultural clashes, but not without the thrill of romantic adventures, the wonder of human inventiveness, and rugged determination to succeed.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Golden Horse. The subject matter wasn’t something I was that interested in (like many books for my Read the World Project, the priority is finding a book/writer from a country rather than choosing one I think I’d enjoy) and as it’s set in the 1800s, I thought the language used might make it a bit of slog to read. Happily, that wasn’t the case and The Golden Horse was very readable and the characters and the various hardships they faced were compelling too.

This is a fictionalised true story so there are real people as main characters as well as imagined ones that fill in the gaps and it was fun to google various characters to see if they fell in the real or made-up category. Either way, these people did something extraordinary in creating a working railway line across jungles, rivers and swamps. The fact that thousands of people – most of them poor and people of colour – died to make it happen and that The Golden Horse doesn’t shy away from that and the terrible conditions these people worked in makes the story better. It gives a voice to those who perished while still allowing you to marvel at a feat in engineering. Black people were shipped in from the Caribbean, the Chinese were lied to and thought they were being sent to work in America, then there was the Irish and the native Panamanians who came to work on the railway too. All these people allowed for the rich white American shipping magnets to finance and construct the railroad.

It’s somewhat unsurprising that not much has changed in 170 years as companies and shareholders would look for the cheapest option rather than the safest or more fruitful one in the long term. It was frustrating at time as more often than not the perspectives were that of those working on the railroads like the engineers who were on the ground and knew of the conditions and what would or wouldn’t work. Then the big bosses would send someone who promised to do part of the job cheaper who thought they knew best and didn’t listen to the wisdom of those who had been in Panama far longer. It’s always satisfying when those kind of people are proved wrong.

The Golden Horse is told in in a mixture of prose and diary entries. The diary entries are from John Llyod Stephens, a travel writer who became one of the representatives of the shipping company in Panama, and Elizabeth Benton Freeman, a woman who is first travelling to San Francisco to meet her military husband there but soon becomes connected to the railroad employees and captains of the ships she travels on. The proses is from a variety of different characters perspectives and you get to see pretty much every possible point of view on a subject or incident. I liked how characters mentioned in the beginning of the story came back throughout the novel. The Golden Horse spans over a decade as while the construction of the railroad is the focus, there’s investigations in the viability of such a venture year’s beforehand and it’s interesting to see how characters who you think were just mentioned in passing, or were just used as an example of some sort of event, ended up playing a bigger role than you could’ve imagined. It really is a cleverly plotted book.

The Golden Horse was another book of a snapshot of history that I knew nothing about. The characters and the various relationships are all compelling and I even liked the inclusion of a romance that I thought was doomed at the beginning but ended up being something quite sweet and lovely. Overall, The Golden Horse was an enjoyable and interesting read and one that I read far quicker than I thought I would. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Madagascar: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo

Translated by Allison M. Charette.

Fara and her father’s slave, Tsito, have been close since her father bought the boy after his forest village was destroyed. Now in Sahasoa, amongst the cattle and rice fields, everything is new for Tsito, and Fara at last has a companion. But as Tsito looks forward to the bright promise of freedom and Fara, backward to a dark, long-denied family history, a rift opens between them just as British Christian missionaries and French industrialists arrive and violence erupts across the country. Love and innocence fall away, and Tsito and Fara’s world becomes enveloped by tyranny, superstition, and fear.

Beyond the Rice Fields is the first novel published in Madagascar to be translated into English. I’ve had a lot of firsts in my Read the World Project but learning how so few works are translated into English (or any other language than the one it was written in) from various countries never ceases to surprise me.

You know the phrase “Never assume – it makes an ass out of u and me”? I definitely felt like that as I read Beyond the Rice Fields. My assumptions came over the race of Fara and Tsito. As it was a story of a slave owners’ daughter and her relationship with a slave, before reading Beyond the Rice Fields I presumed that Fara was white while Tsito was Black and it’d present a lot of extra problematic elements and power imbalances in a relationship like that. This wasn’t the case though as while naturally there was a power imbalance as Tsito was a slave, Fara and her family were also Black. There’s also the fact that they were both children when Tsito was brought into Fara’s home. Fara was seven and Tsito was nine, meaning that while Tsito certainly had jobs around the home to do they grew up together and he was treated more like family by Fara and her mother and grandmother, than just a slave. It’s a different look at the dynamic between slave and master compared to what I’d seen before, and seeing Tsito’s affection grow not just for Fara but for the other women in the family was sweet.

Beyond the Rice Fields is told from the perspectives of both Fara and Tsito and each perspective has a distinctive voice. It’s interesting how the chapters from Tsito’s point of view feature a lot more discussions on politics than Fara’s early on, though perhaps that’s to be expected as he’s a slave and has to be aware and consider the rules of society a lot of more as he tries to learn different skills in order to earn his freedom. With Fara, her chapters and perspective are a lot more focussed on emotions, she makes mistakes that Tsito never would as he’s had to be a lot more aware of the world than she has.

I think Beyond the Rice Fields spans almost twenty years as Fara and Tsito grow up together, grow a part and start to come back together. Naturally a lot of characters are mentioned throughout this time, some drop in and out of the story and as some have similar sounding names it can be hard to remember who is who especially as the novel doesn’t offer any context clues. It’s also difficult at times to judge how much time has passed and how old the characters are supposed to be. Sometimes a chapter begins with something along the lines of “that continued for ten yeas” which can be jarring as you suddenly need to age up the characters in your mind.

One of the most interesting yet also sometimes frustrating thing in Beyond the Rice Fields was the clash between religion and tradition. Beyond the Rice Fields is set in the 1800’s and as Christian missionaries attempt to convert the people; the backlash is extreme. The rituals that people have to go through to prove their innocence to any sins they’re accused of seem to be in such a way that they are doomed to fail. People are pretty much poisoned and if they can expel the poison that means they’re innocent? Those scenes are graphic and frustrating as it’s pure chance whether someone’s body can withstand the things it’s put through but the results are seen as concrete proof of someone’s innocence or guilt.

Beyond the Rice Fields is an interesting and compelling read. I enjoyed the dual perspectives as they both offered a lot of different ideas and experiences. The ever growing romance between Fara and Tsito was believable too and they were a relationship that I couldn’t help but root for even when a lot of things were working against them.

READ THE WORLD – Niger: The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Thomas A. Hale and Nouhou Malio

Edited and translated by Thomas A. Hale and recounted by Nouhou Malio.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed is an oral epic about the Songhay Empire and its most famous leader. Songhay, approximately halfway between the present-day cities of Timbuktu in Mali and Niamey in Niger, became a political force beginning in 1463, under the leadership of Sonni Ali Ber. By the time of his death in 1492, the foundation had been laid for the development under Askia Mohammed of a complex system of administration, a well-equipped army and navy, and a network of large government-owned farms.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed is a very quick read thanks to how it’s written. As it’s a transcribed song or story, the language is pretty simple and to the point. It’s the story that would be told by older generations to younger ones to inform them of their history and so uses simple language and big events are often recounted like they’re listed in bullet points.

The story itself is broad as it covers decades of history. It’s not just about Askia Mohammed, though he is the main focus, but of the Songhay Empire as a whole which lasted for almost 130 years. It covers different kings, and battles, revenges and the conflicts over succession – a lot of the usual stuff in an Empire. The Epic of Askia Mohammed did remind me a bit of Chaka as that was a fictionalised account of a real king. While the format was different, they both face similar conflicts as rulers and they both have the vibe of being almost a folktale.

The copy of The Epic of Askia Mohammed I had has a lot of historical context and is full of annotations so any names, places, or words that might’ve been unusual are explained which is always helpful and allows for a deeper meaning of the story.

REVIEW: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

Narrated by Kate Reading.

Everyone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.

First off, I’ve got to say how much I enjoyed the narrator for this book and while I’m sure I’d still have liked A Natural History of Dragons if I’d read a physical copy, the audiobook was brilliant and if/when I carry on with the series, I’ll definitely be doing so via the audiobooks. It brought Isabella’s story to life in a way I wasn’t expecting. The narrator had a wonderful old posh British lady kind of voice and it just worked. It was easy to imagine an elderly woman writing her memoir and throwing in the odd aside about what she’s learnt since and how her attitude towards certain things might’ve changed in the intervening years.

A Natural History of Dragons is a historical fantasy memoir of a fictional character who lives in a world that’s inhabited by dragons. I would say there is not that many dragons in a book titled A Natural History of Dragons but I didn’t mind that. Instead, it’s more character focused as a good portion of the novel is about Isabella’s childhood, how she became obsessed with natural history and dragons and how that hindered/helped her find a suitable man to marry. I liked how A Natural History of Dragons spent time building Isabella as a character and the world around her which often feels like a nineteenth century world. There’s a lot about the upper society and how Isabella doesn’t fit in with her interests and not being very lady-like but still knowing that she needs to marry in order to be a respectable daughter. I liked the struggles Isabella goes through personally just as much as her “professional” ones when she gets involved more with dragons. It’s interesting to see her straddle this line between respectability and following her passions and how love could possibly combine the too.

The main dragon stuff comes in the latter half of the book as Isabella gets to join an expedition to Vystrana. I really liked how while dragons were known and excepted creatures in this world, the people don’t know too much about them. Isabella and her fellow naturalists are what I presume were like the people who first started any animal in our world, especially potentially deadly ones like sharks. It’s clear in the beginning they don’t know a lot and some of their theories are wildly inaccurate while others are the basis of bigger discoveries. I liked how there’s references to things later in Isabella’s life throughout the book but especially when she comments on their research process or ideas and how they might’ve changed over time. I also appreciated the trial and error of their expedition and how Isabella gets into various scrapes due to her impulsiveness.

I really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons. It’s a book I’ve seen around over the years but the fact it’s a fictionalised memoir did put me off a bit. I’m glad to say I’m wrong and that interesting narrative choice really works, especially via the audiobook. 5/5.