Review of Season Two of “His Dark Materials”

Season Two of His Dark Materials, based on The Subtle Knife—the second book in His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman, has ended. And, I want to thank both the BBC and HBO for thinking ahead and to start production of Season Two as soon as it was announced. It’s because of this decision to move ahead with the production they were able to release this season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, it was announced during San Diego Comic Con 2020 that there was an “interlude” episode they couldn’t film because of the shutdown—it’s supposed to follow Lord Asriel’s travels leading up to his reappearance in the Season Finale—but, they hope to film and to release it ahead of Season Three. Yes, we’re getting the 3rd and final season!

            For those of you who haven’t read the books should know The Subtle Knife is the shortest and the most fast-paced book in the trilogy. The book focuses on introducing Will Parry to readers, introducing Lyra Silvertongue to new worlds—including ours, following up on the aftermath of Lord Asriel creating a bridge to a new world and his plans to end The Authority, Lee Scoresby and the Witches search for Lyra, the Magisterium losing control within their world, and learning about why Lyra’s task is so urgent as well as what Will being The Bearer entails. The TV mini-series takes the time to work on character development and plot development. In addition to everything mentioned, the audience learns more about the characters and the ongoings in all of the worlds and how they are related to each other. 

            The main change and the majority of Season Two focuses on Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother. In the books, readers are aware the mother is searching for her child, and she learns of Lyra’s role in the upcoming Great War. However, readers are ignorant to her actions throughout The Subtle Knife until the very end of the book. In the mini-series, the audience learns of Mrs. Coulter’s motives and her reasons for committing all of the heinous acts she does throughout the season. This doesn’t make Mrs. Coulter a “good” person, but observing her actions and her decisions make her more emphatic; which, is why Lyra tries to avoid her at all costs.  

            While most of the episodes are straight-from-the-books, the time spent expanding on the characters and the world-building is admired. For example, because Will was introduced in Season One, his character was able to develop further into what readers already know he’ll become in by the end-of-the-season. Dr. Mary Malone’s scenes were insightful as well because not only is she able to make the connection between Dust and Dark Matter—while explaining them in a way the audience can understand: physics—but also the audience is able to understand her struggles with separating knowledge and thought before she can make the breakthrough in her research, which sets her on her quest to play the role of “The Serpent.” 

            The screen time with Lyra and Will are what drive the season, but it’s the screen time with Lee Scoresby and Dr. Stanislaus Grumman—a.k.a. Jopari, a.k.a. Colonel John Parry—who enhances it. The former are the adolescent protagonists who are destined to change the worlds using their skills and their tools. The latter are wayward travelers who realize what their destinies are and decide to act on them and protect the “Chosen Ones.” The more time the audience spends time with both pairs, the more they learn about their strengths, their flaws, and their resilience. 

            Overall, I enjoyed Season Two slightly more than I enjoyed Season One. One reason for this is because I spent more time comparing Season One to the movie, The Golden Compass, while distinguishing the mini-series separately. This time around, I was able to enjoy the mini-series without making more comparisons. Another reason is because the readers within the audience witnessed the dedication to the books throughout Season Two. That being said, some of the same issues are there—unnecessary changes which led to plot holes and/or too much character development—but it was a great season to watch. The performances by Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda have made these beloved characters their own, and I can’t wait to see how the mini-series ends when Season Three—based on The Amber Spyglass—is released, whenever that may be.           

            If you wish to read the reviews for each episode, then you can click on the episode titles to access them.

S2, E1: The City of Magpies

S2, E2: The Cave

S2, E3: The Theft

S2, E4: Tower of Angels

S2, E5: The Scholar

S2, E6: Malice

S2, E7: Æsahættr

My Rating: 9 out of 10

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “Æsahættr”

            The season finale for Season Two opens with the witches talking about the attack from the Specters. Will and Lyra are with the witches as they all agree that they should leave Cittàgazze right after they find Will’s father. Meanwhile, Ruta Skadi overhears a group of creatures talking about the army Lord Asriel is building up and what that means for them. It turns out, a similar war occurred millennia ago, but the Authority was victorious. They say that without the Æsahættr, Asriel will lose the war. 

            Lyra and Will talk about their few—or, lack of—friends from their worlds and early childhoods. Both Lyra and Will admit being around each other has led to some changes in themselves for the better. Will is beginning to understand everything his mother told him about his father while growing up without him. 

            Mrs. Coulter and her daemon continue to wander through the city of Cittàgazze, which is now deserted—the children have returned to the mountains to be reunited with their parents (which doesn’t happen in the books)—and she finds more clues to her daughter’s whereabouts. She comes across one of the witches, and Mrs. Coulter tortures the witch to learn of Lyra’s location and her role in the upcoming events—which is why the Magisterium is targeting her. Mrs. Coulter believes she has a reason to protect her daughter.  

            Dr. Mary Malone escorts the children back to their parents before continuing onward with her quest. Dr. Malone continues to consult her books—both reference and spiritual—as she determines where she should go next. Blue flower petals keep appearing wherever she goes. 

            Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala discuss what Ruta has learned about Asriel’s war. While they agree Lyra is the child of the prophecy, they realize the Authority could win the war again, so they go their separate ways hoping to meet up again during the Great War. Meanwhile, Serafina gets called to help another ally. This leaves Lyra and Will alone with one witch. Then, Will leaves. 

            Lee Scoresby and Doctor Stanislaus Grumman—a.k.a. Jopari, a.k.a. Colonel John Parry—survive the attack on the balloon, but they can no longer fly in it. The Magisterium soldiers are gaining ground, and the two travelers hurry to find the children. Lee and Jopari flee from the Magisterium until they have no choice but to hold them off for as long as they can. Lee Scoresby stays behind to fight while Jopari continues to end his search for the Bearer. This heartbreaking end is straight from the books, Lee and Hester have their last moments together knowing it’ll be worth it—for Lyra. 

            Will answers the calling which leads him straight to his father. Dr. Grumman cannot believe his teenaged son is the Bearer. Will cannot believe his father has a daemon. This reunion while different—and brief—in the books, is more meaningful and more heartfelt in this episode. They catch up on everything: Will’s mother, John’s travels, Will’s travels, the Subtle Knife, the Great War, etc. Then, the last soldier from the Magisterium appears and takes aim. 

            The episode ends with Seraphina Pekkala giving Lee Scoresby his last rites and Will burying his father. Lord Asriel makes his manifesto to the Angels for wanting to go to war; and, they stand with Asriel. Mrs. Coulter reunites with Lyra and takes her away from her allies. Unfortunately, Mrs. Coulter has Lyra and Pantalaimon drugged and locked inside a trunk. During Lyra’s unconsciousness, she hears the voice of a friend. 

            In all, this is one of the best episodes of Season Two. The season finale almost matched the last few chapters in The Subtle Knife to a tee. Yes, there are more questions viewers will want answered, but overall all of the plots and the subplots were wrapped up to where they had to be, and the presentation made it clear the Æsahættr episode ended the way it had to. I’m looking forward to Season Three.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “The Scholar”

This episode opens with Carlo Boreal giving Mrs. Coulter a description of our world, which is extremely accurate—“Their government is more corrupt than ours; their world is built on consumerism, not faith.” Boreal continues to explain how our world operates to Mrs. Coulter, and that includes her getting a makeover so she can blend into our world while searching and waiting for Lyra.

Meanwhile, Will and Lyra make plans on getting back the Alethiometer without handing over the Subtle Knife to the man who stole it. Will practices cutting and closing windows into our world. During their plans, Will and Lyra learn what happened to the older boy who stole the Knife from the Last Bearer; and, he happens to be Angelica’s older brother. The two children and the two adults prepare themselves to get what they want from the other party.

All the while, Cardinal MacPhail is starting to understand what he must do in order to maintain control in his world, as well as the Council of the Magisterium. The “anomaly” is no longer the Magisterium’s main threat to their power: the witches, Lord Asriel, and now Mrs. Coulter are working “against” the Magisterium, and they don’t know what to do.

Mrs. Coulter is the focus of this episode. Viewers learn more about her life before she was a married woman. I’m not sure whether or not this is in the books—I haven’t read The Secret Commonwealth, yet—but, discovering more about Mrs. Coulter’s character, her knowledge and what the social norms—misogyny—of her society (the Magisterium) did to her, brings an understanding to how and why she was attracted to Lord Asriel in the first place. She visits Dr. Mary Malone, where she learns more about her daughter’s character and the life she could have had if she lived in our world instead of hers. This is an essential realization because the audience discovers the numerous restrictions the Magisterium has placed within their world on all its denizens, and what Lord Asriel’s war is all about. 

Dr. Malone is given her task by the Dark Matter—“You must play the Serpent. Protect the Girl and the Boy,”—meaning, the (female) scholar is about to embark on her journey across other worlds, and learn more about Dark Matter. Dr. Malone makes the preparations and she is able to locate another window, and travel into the next world. But, which world does she end up in?

Lyra and Will wait until nighttime to return to Will’s world and steal back the Alethiometer. They have Boreal’s house memorized and they are ready; except, they didn’t expect Lyra’s mother to be there as well. Mother and daughter confront each other, and the two males fight over the Knife. This is different from what happened in the book, but it makes for an interesting scene. Lyra is in the position where she wants to be different from her parents, but cannot avoid behaving like them. Will understands where Lyra is coming from and he tells her she doesn’t have to be like the adults in her life. Meanwhile, what else does Mrs. Coulter know? 

In all, I enjoyed this episode a lot more than I thought I would. A lot of the story for this episode was taken from the book, while the fillers were expansions into character development. The end of the episode had me thinking about an unanswered question about the ending of The Subtle Knife. After all these years, I believe I might get my question answered. Otherwise, all of the characters have their tasks—and their tools—and are ready to do see it done.

My Rating: 9 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “Tower of the Angels”

            This episode opens with how the Subtle Knife was created and the history of the world where it was created, and how both fell to corruption. The narration is similar to the opening scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring film, and I believe this was done intentionally in order to keep the audience’s attention, or to note the deliberate parallels between Pullman and Tolkien. 

Lyra and Will return to the world where the Knife is said to be found. Unfortunately, someone else has found the Knife and its bearer. They all fight over the knife (which includes a throwback to Season One). The Subtle Knife has chosen Will to be its new bearer, and Will wears its mark. The Last Bearer has to teach Will about the Knife and how to use it before the Specters claim him. It takes some time, but Will learns how to cut into other worlds. Now, both Lyra and Will are ready to come up with a plan to get the Alethiometer back.

            At last, Lee Scoresby locates Doctor Stanislaus Grumman and they discuss their plans involving Lord Asriel. Lee states that he’s interested in Lyra’s well-being and her role in whatever is about to occur during the upcoming war. Dr. Grumman tells Lee of his past and how his knowledge of the other worlds has cost him his family. Next, he explains to Lee how and why Asriel’s cause is a reasonable one. Then, the lost traveler tells the aeronaut about the Knife, why Asriel needs it, and why they need to find its Bearer. 

            Dr. Malone’s research continues to gain a lot of attention by “questionable” investors. She fights off those who would do harm with the knowledge she’s uncovered so far, but she knows until she makes her breakthrough, Dr. Malone won’t be able to fight off investors forever. At last, Dr. Malone does make a breakthrough with her Dark Matter research and it’s more than she expected. 

            The witches gather the last of their forces to search for Lyra, and to fight the Magisterium. At the same time, Mrs. Coulter has found Lyra, too. Both parties crossover into the next (our) world. Who will find Lyra first?

            In all, this episode was very well done. A lot of the content from the books made it into this episode. I’m concerned about some of the filler material, but we’ll see how they’ll playout in the future episodes and the plot development. 

My Rating: 9 out of 10.

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials”: “The Cave”

This episode opens up with Lyra crossing over into another world—our world—to learn more about Dust and about the similarities between her Oxford and Will’s Oxford. Unfortunately, Lyra has to learn how to adapt to this “new” world as she experiences technology—the scene with the car is straight from the books—and people without daemons, poor Pantalaimon.

            Will warns Lyra that people are looking for them and they have to do everything they can to blend in and stay hidden. Alas, Lyra is still young enough to be naïve as she makes her way through Will’s Oxford. She hasn’t figured out that there are a few individuals from her world who’ve made their way into hers a long time ago. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium deals with the death of Cardinal Sturrock—due to the witches’ attack and the motivations of both Father MacPhail and Mrs. Coulter—and an election for a new leader must occur before their plans can continue to move forward. At the same time, the witches convene in order to further their plans, before they receive retribution for their actions. The “testimony” provided by Dr. Martin Lanselius delves into the culture of the witches, which reveals why the Magisterium is afraid of them. “Rituals are not secret.” However, does the Magisterium fear the witches, their knowledge, or both? 

            Will’s story continues to develop further in this media adaptation. There are some hints in the books that Will’s father made arrangements for his family just in case something happened to him. Will learns he has living (paternal) grandparents, but soon realizes why his family is estranged from them. Not to mention, they are working with the authorities in the investigation about Will’s father. This scene embellishes Will’s fear of people looking for him. 

            Lyra’s search into what Dust is and her meeting with Dr. Mary Malone is from the books, precisely. Everything from Lyra using the alethiometer to her using Dr. Malone’s equipment, which confirms that both Dust and Dark Matter are the same thing. In my opinion, Dr. Malone’s research about Dust—known as Dark Matter to us—is explained better in the TV series than in the books. This could be because I read the books when I was in high school, and while I’ve heard of Dark Matter, I didn’t know enough about it to grasp the explanation of it in the books. 

            Lyra and Will share a heart-to-heart about their experiences, their situations, and their families. From there, they decide on what they have to do next. At the same time, a new Cardinal has been elected, and someone else has pinned-pointed Lyra’s location. And, the witches’ decision about war is made for them by their adversaries. 

            In all, The Cave was a better and a stronger episode than the previous one. Now, that all of the characters have a better understanding of themselves through their interactions with each other, they know what they have to do and are ready to follow up on those choices. War has been declared, the existence of worlds are starting to become recognized, and actions are about to be taken as the story continues. What will happen in the next episode?  

My Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Adult Fantasy: Is There Such a Thing?

Video games, graphic novels and comic books and manga, and fantasy literature continue to share the same criticism from those who are neither fans nor creators: they are for children and/or they have no place in a classroom or in an academic setting. The fact that such notions continue to be made is a disconcerting atrocity; and yet, hip-hop continues to gain recognition and acclaim for its role in the music industry and in the rest of society. Pop culture is what it is, popular culture, but there is a difference between an ephemeral fad and a transcendent impact. All of these genres of various entertainment have succeeded in being true art forms, although there are some who continue to ignore the value of these works and what they mean to the fandom and the creators.  

            In the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal for July 18-19, 2020, there was a review in the Books section of The Nine Realms tetralogy by Sarah Kozloff. I read and reviewed all of the books in the series—both on my blog and for Fantasy-Faction—and, they are worth reading. However, the author of the review had more things to say other than praise for the book series. 

            During that same weekend, I learned of the review due to all of the retweets about what the author said about the series in relation to his personal feelings about the fantasy genre. I noticed that several authors, bookbloggers, and readers were angry by what was written in the review. Even one of the authors stated they were going to cancel their upcoming interview they had with The Wall Street Journal. Then, I saw who wrote the article. It took some time, but I found myself as annoyed as everyone else eventually. And, I’m still annoyed.

            Tom Shippey, the world-renowned Tolkien scholar, should be ashamed of himself. Writers, creators and fans of fantasy and other genres in speculative fiction have minimal expectations of The Wall Street Journal publishing anything with an open mind else besides economics. Yet, Tom Shippey presented a negative nostalgia of the fantasy genre, also known as stagnation. After everything Shippey has said about Tolkien taking fantasy to new heights—even though that wasn’t Tolkien’s intent—while writing the sort of tales he wanted to read himself, Shippey’s statement about The Nine Realms is an insult to Tolkien’s legacy—including all of the authors that were influenced by Tolkien—but an insult to Sarah Kozloff in which Shippey seemed to use in order to publicize his viewpoints about the genre. As a fan of The Nine Realms, the author deserves more praise than from someone who has been searching for Tolkien. Not only stating that “fantasy has grown up,” but also calling Tor a “sci-fi publisher” tells me that the quest for “adult fantasy” has managed to overlook Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and Brandon Sanderson amongst numerous other authors as contributors to the genre. 

            The problem with Tom Shippey’s statements regarding fantasy is that after spending years discussing Tolkien, he neglects to recognize all of the fantasy works that came after Tolkien. Not to mention, Shippey made it sound like the genre has not made ANY progress since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. His beliefs on the genre demonstrate how other people—those in the out-group—continue to view fantasy as “kid’s stuff,” but to have a Tolkien scholar categorize which fantasy work is “adult fantasy” because that story reflects Tolkien’s “fantasy,” which Shippey spent his entire career hanging on to instead of admitting that the genre has continued to expand, to evolve, and to go beyond everyone else’s expectations. To say that Shippey is “missing out” on what “adult” fantasy has become would be a huge understatement. 

            Although fantasy continues to evolve and to be read by fans ubiquitously, the genre continues to receive harsh criticism, especially when compared to both horror and science fiction. Fantasy has gained more recognition because of the success of movies, television and video games, but to have the genre get identified based on age group adds another layer of prejudice to a genre whose progress remains unrecognized. People are willing to watch it and/or to play it, but reading fantasy remains to be an issue that needs to be addressed constantly. So, this all goes back to literature and answering the age-old question: Who reads this?

            Fantasy, or “myths for adults,” has been around since the beginning of humanity, going back to oral tradition. Even now, myths, legends and other folklore continue to entertain us through all styles and formats. Fairy tales are told and watched, movies allow actors and actresses to become those characters, graphic novels and manga and comics present non-stop illustrations, and video games give players an immersive experience. How is wanting to explore another world different from space travel and/or escaping from a haunted domain? Is it because space travel have become a reality? Is it because we all know what it feels like to experience fear no matter where an individual is? Maybe the issue with fantasy is that it remains open to interpretation. Maybe your personal fantasy world doesn’t match mine. Maybe, you wish to attend Camp Half-Blood over the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Or, you wish to go further and create your own fantasy world and share it with others who share your imagination and curiosity, like Tolkien did then, and what N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman and M.L. Wang continue to do now. 

            As for the concept of “adult,” “children’s,” and “YA” fantasy, we should refer to J.R.R. Tolkien and some of his critical essays. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford University—alongside C.S. Lewis—whose edition of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are still considered to be some of the “preferred” translations by (some) scholars. Maybe if Shippey recalled Tolkien’s professional works as much as his creative works, then maybe he would have remembered one essay of his in particular. 

            J.R.R. Tolkien wrote On Fairy Stories, and in the essay, he states, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history,” and “only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them…it is a taste, too…one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.” In other words, if children do not show any interest in fairy tales, then they are not interested in them at all. If an individual is interested in those stories as a child, then do not assume that they will outgrow that interest as an adult. Hence, this is why Doctor Who and James Bond have been around for over 50 years! And before you quote that infamous line from 1 Corinthians 13, remember Tolkien was a devout Catholic who created his own fantasy world and inspired millions! Yet, similar to comics, superheroes, animation and fairy tales, fantasy continues to be criticized as being “too silly for adults” and labelled for children. 

            Yes, Disney altered our perspectives of how fairy tales are told, but the studio continues to water (most of) them down. Only the young readers with enough curiosity and imagination will search for the older (and the more violent and the more tragic) variants collected by the Grimm Brothers, those written by Hans Christian Andersen, and others. Nowadays, those children can read Harry Potter and Alanna of Trebond alongside the books written by Rick Riordan and Holly Black as adolescents. Afterwards, as adults, they can read the stories written by Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman. Then, they can (and will) read all of the “adult fantasy” that is not based on folklore directly. As for the maturity content found within (most) adult fantasy, let me put it this way: Shakespeare is required reading in many secondary schools, and many of the plays that are read and/or performed tend to be from the “tragedies” catalog, not the “histories” or the “comedies.” And yes, I just brought up Shakespeare in an essay about Tolkien! Deal with it!

            Tom Shippey is one of the most informed Tolkien scholars, but his knowledge and his interests are limited to Tolkien. The Wall Street Journal tries and fails, constantly, to present insight into other topics besides economics. The newspaper has more than enough resources to gather authors and scholars of the fantasy genre, but wish to limit themselves by delivering something that reflects American society from the 1960s. Jack Zipes and Elizabeth Tucker are prime examples of scholars of folklore and children’s stories. If you want to discuss how much video games have evolved, then read what Frans Mäyrä, Nick Yee, Mia Consalvo, and other game studies scholars have to say and what they have researched. As for scholars of fantasy literature, you can start with Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and Nnedi Okorafor.

            Ironically, this essay was written and posted during Worldcon 2020, which presents the Hugo Awards to authors in recognition of their achievements in science fiction or fantasy works for (mostly) adult readers and are chosen by its (adult) members. As I await the announcement of the winners, I’ll be reading N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, S.A. Chakraborty, John Gwynne and other authors of “adult fantasy.” If either Tom Shippey or The Wall Street Journal are interested, then I can offer a galaxy of books for you to choose from; and, you will find them all to be magical and extraordinary. 

            The peculiar quality of the “joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly), “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, Epilogue

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!! 

Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!   

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: Betrayal”

The season finale of Season One begins with both Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel—Lyra’s parents—preparing for what they’ve been planning for since the first episode. The former is planning to kill Lord Asriel under the orders of the Magisterium, and the latter is planning something that involves the aurora—a.k.a. the northern lights—and this involves his strange interest in Roger. 

            Lyra’s reunion and confrontation with her father does not go the way she wants it to go. Lord Asriel admits that he is Lyra’s father, but he’s not going to be the sort of father she wants him to be. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter admits that her abandoning Lyra was a mistake and she’s been trying to rectify it. Lyra goes from being an orphan to knowing she’s an abandoned child, and she doesn’t know how to deal with either the knowledge or the rejection of it. It is Roger who comforts her when she doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings. Roger tells Lyra that they can “pretend to be orphans” again, knowing life for them has changed and things won’t ever be the same. 

            Lord Asriel makes the decision to explain to Lyra the purpose of his research and his reason for him being absent. The discussion of Dust and its origins comes from the novel. The Magisterium believes that Dust is Original Sin and that it begins to affect humans once they start puberty. Lyra begins to understand why the Magisterium conducted the experiments on the missing children, and Lord Asriel explains his beliefs on Dust and his discovery about the aurora and Dust—it can build a bridge between worlds. He asks Lyra if she wants to go with him, but Lyra has already decided to return to Jordan College with Roger. 

            Meanwhile, Lord Carlo Boreal continues his search for the Parrys and the letters. Will is hiding in town knowing that the police are looking for him because of the man he killed. What Will doesn’t know is that the reason he’s being tracked is because Lord Carlo Boreal is using the police to find him. It’s interesting how far the power of the Magisterium stretches across the worlds. Will manages to stay hidden, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before he’s found, and he needs to hide somewhere where no one can find him. 

            Lyra wakes up when the Magisterium has arrived to arrest her father, but her father has already left taking Roger with him to the peak of the mountain. Lyra realizes that her father didn’t need the alethiometer, but Roger. Lord Asriel needed a child whose daemon hasn’t settled yet in order to use the energy from the bond to create a bridge. Similar to how Mrs. Coulter wouldn’t sacrifice Lyra to the intercision, Lord Asriel refused to sacrifice Lyra. This could be viewed as a twisted type of love parents have for their child.  

            Lyra rushes to save Roger. She dodges the Magisterium’s attacks thanks to Iorek Byrinison and the other panserbjørnes; however, not even Iorek can travel across the thin bands of ice. Lyra Silvertongue says goodbye to Iorek not knowing what will happen once she reaches the top. Pantalaimon tells Lyra that Roger is in a cage similar to the one at The Station and Lyra knows what her father plans to do. Unfortunately, she’s too late. Lord Asriel creates the bridge at the cost of the life of his daughter’s best friend. 

            Mrs. Coulter arrives too late as well, but she resists her orders to kill her former lover. Lord Asriel tells her of his plans to end the Magisterium and asks her to join him. It’s a brief, yet strange, reconciliation between Lyra’s parents (in which, Lyra witnesses firsthand in the book). However, Mrs. Coulter rejects Lord Asriel in order to stay with Lyra. Lyra regains consciousness in time to avoid her mother and she goes to say goodbye to Roger. Lyra decides that she needs to find Dust before her father and the Magisterium. At the same time, Will goes to the park, the same one where Lord Carlo Boreal travels from, where he finds a cat that disappears into thin air. Lyra and Will go through the bridges at the same time not knowing where they’ll end up. 

            Betrayal is an appropriate season finale because it wraps up all of the plots throughout the season going back to the events of the first episode. All of the questions asked from that first episode are answered. The deviation from the books works for this episode as well because it fits with the adaptation presented to us by the BBC and HBO. The only question left is “what happens next?” There will be a season two, which will be based on The Subtle Knife. Hopefully, the next season will continue to follow the darker tones left by season one.

My Rating: 9.0 out of 10. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Lost Boy”

This episode has three parts. The first part mirrors the 2007 movie. Lyra, the Gyptians, Lee Scoresby, and Iorek Byrnison are traveling further North to “The Station” where the missing children are being held by the Magisterium. Farder Corum meets with Serafina Pekkala to discuss both the Magisterium and their love affair. It’s Serafina who describes the importance, and the threat, of both Lord Asriel and Dust. Lyra reads her alethiometer again and learns more about The Station and about a “ghost” in a nearby village. 

            The identity of the “ghost” is the same individual as it was in the 2007 movie. However, this is NOT the case in the books. I believe the studio(s) kept this change in order for the same emotional reaction(s) from Lyra, Lee Scoresby, the Gyptians, and the audience. The answer to the question of “what” the Magisterium is doing to the children has been answered, but the question “why” has not been answered, yet. The brutality of the power of the Magisterium has been revealed in the most devastating and heartbreaking way. 

            The second part is a prequel to the events of The Subtle Knife, the second book in His Dark Materials trilogy. This is not too much of a spoiler because the series has already received a second season; and, the scenes of Will Parry and his mother are NOT in the books. The man from the Magisterium has been staking out the house where both Will and his mother lives. After his “talk” with the mother triggers an episode, Will has to be the adult and take care of his mother. These scenes between Will and his mother reflect the reality of what many people who know and/or live with someone with mental health issues experience on a regular basis. 

            Will’s mother tells him a bit about his father. The expedition he was on when he disappeared and whatever was written to her in the letters Will’s father sent her. And, while Will’s mother’s mental health is sad to watch, we—the audience—know that she’s not as crazy as everyone else believes her to be. 

            The third part is the further explanation about daemons and their importance to the humans in Lyra’s world. Daemons are souls which are manifested outside of the human body. There is a reason that many people place “the soul” in such high regard, and Philip Pullman—regardless of him being an atheist—makes sure that his audience, both readers and viewers, comprehend this information. Lee Scoresby tells Lyra his reason for the Magisterium performing “intercission,” but similar to our world, things are not always that simple. Then again, the Magisterium cannot be allowed to commit such atrocities and expect to get away with them. 

            In all, Lyra’s discovery about both the motives of the Magisterium not only makes her desire for rescuing the missing children more essential, but also sparks her interest in the relationship between Lord Asriel and the Magisterium. The introduction to Will Parry is a treat to book readers who wanted to learn of the events leading up to the beginning of The Subtle Knife. The last scene of the episode puts the last events of The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass in the order of the books, and not the 2007 movie. This climatic episode lets the audience know that the falling action is coming next.