The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 9, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.9 / 5 ✪ – Almost perfect!

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot #AngryRobot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In the mountain village of Heyne Town, there exists a tree known as the Hope Tree. Here, before they are due to give birth, women will leave blankets, food or provisions outside the village—just in case. In case their children are born as stryga.

Stryga (or strzyga or strzygón in Slavic mythology) are children born with two hearts. The first heart is their primary, human one—tying them to humanity and the path of normalcy and righteousness. The second is a much darker heart connected to a second soul, one that indulges its evil desires and preys on humanity. If a stryga were to follow the darker desires of its second heart even once, it would never be able to stop, turning this human into a dark demon. Although, in Heyne Town, all born with two hearts are considered evil and banished upon birth. Thus their parents faced a choice—to abandon their child outside the village; to dispose of them some other way; or to join their inhuman offspring in seclusion, never to set foot in the village again on pain of death.

Nineteen years ago, Miriat and her newborn Salka were exiled from Heyne Town, and taken to the remote haven where all exiled stryga live. Here they live in squalor, unable to leave and hated by the outside world. Here they are taught to control their darker nature, to never once listen to their second heart.

But Salka is young and headstrong. When she is exiled to the far off Windry Pass for a moment of weakness, she must do everything she can just to survive. But as the snow piles high and the temperature plummets, food becomes scarce and predators start to hunt humans as prey, Salka will be forced into a no-win situation: will she use her second heart to survive, or pay the ultimate price for the sake of her human soul?

By in large I really enjoyed the Second Bell. While I’d heard of strygas before, Gabriela Houston introduces a fresh take on the creature more often depicted as a monster in other media. In Slavic lore, it refers to a child born with two hearts and two souls, the second pair of which transforms it into a demon much alike a vampire. In the Witcher, a striga is a child cursed before birth. It is born a demon—a foul-smelling, heavily-muscled monster that runs about on all fours and violently attacks anything that wanders too near its lair. Houston’s take on the stryga humanizes it tremendously compared to these, as the child must only suppress the desires of its second heart in order to retain its humanity. Even so, not all parts of the legend seem to hold true. As with any other story, what is fact and what isn’t is open to interpretation. The villagers in Heyne Town fear and loathe all strigoi in equal measure. Whether or not they have ver indulged their second heart is immaterial. All are evil.

Note: I’ve been talking a lot about stryga being cursed children, born with two hearts. This is true, but not complete. While the affliction dooms from birth, strigoi will grow up like anything does. The only cure (in this book, at least) is death. Likewise, one can’t catch stryga. You’re either born one or you’re not—there’s no in-between.

The Second Bell is all about the story and its characters. Salka and Miriat share a unique relationship that should be quite relatable, and yet unlike any other. While they are obviously kin, only one is human. Her mother is Salka’s link to her humanity—by refusing to indulge her second heart, she feels closer to her mother, to her humanity, but in denying it she feels like she is cutting off a part of her own soul. The Second Bell is therefore a tale of what it means to be human. Salka is Miriat’s child and her whole world. But if her daughter were to listen to her demon heart, would she lose her humanity, the main connection she has to her mother? The Second Bell is also a tale of a mother and a daughter, and their bond.

While the world-building of this story was a bit patchwork, I understand the choice was instead to focus on the story of Salka and Miriat, the story of what it means to be human. Still, I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world. There are some things—like the tree and the dola and more—though the entire world seems like it was built for ‘men and strygoi, but nothing more. While the story centers on the strygoi, they cannot possibly by the only legend in this land: I would’ve liked to hear about some of the others, if only just in passing. The land itself was often painted in greens and browns and white, rather than showing any real detail.

Otherwise, I really have no other notes. The story was good and thorough and made for a quick and immersive read, while still leaving lasting connotations after the book is finished. I hope to see more from the author and this world!

Seven Endless Forests – by April Genevieve Tucholke (Review)

I absolutely love the cover—all those greens and trees!—courtesy of the amazing Elizabeth H. Clark.

Standalone / Torvi #1

Fantasy, YA, Arthurian Legend

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; April 28, 2020

352 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Torvi has seen little in her eighteen summers, as she’s rarely been out of sight of her family farm. Daughter of an Elsh farmer and a Merrows’ sailor, she spent her entire childhood being told that her lot in life would be to tend the animals, steal glory from her sister, and only provide worth to her family through a dowry. Though her nan would often tell her tales of adventure and glory, Torvi’s mother would dismiss these as too fanciful for her eldest daughter, instead using every opportunity to focus on the talents of her second daughter, Morgunn.

The story opens in the aftermath of a plague, one that has devastated farms in the Middlelands. Everyone Torvi has ever known or cared for died in that plague, excepting two: her father—who broke his promise and returned to the sea some years before—and her sister, Morgunn. But their mother, nan, and all farmhands and servants perished, all to be burned or buried by Torvi’s own hand. Even Viggo—her lover—passed, leaving her all alone. Except for Morgunn. Morgunn, the daughter her mother doted on. The daughter that Torvi never could be. The daughter that would inherit the world, that would win glory, the daughter likely to retrieve the mythical sword of Esca, thus commanding a Jarldom.

The daughter that gets kidnapped in the opening chapters.

A roving band of wolf-priestesses, disciples of flesh, blood and flame, descend upon the farm, taking Morgunn off for sacrifice after razing the steading to the ground. And it’s up to Torvi, her only family left, to rescue her sister and kill the wolves holding her. Something she’ll never hope to do alone.

And so Torvi sets out upon a quest: to find and gain allies in her fight, to save her sister, to rebuild her life, and even—maybe—to liberate a magical sword from a certain stone, thus winning glory. Though on her journey Torvi shall face death, tragedy, danger, and deceit, she may yet find adventure, love, glory, and the acceptance that’s eluded her all her life. But will she reach her sister in time?

Well, she certainly doesn’t reach her sister IN TIME. This is NOT a spoiler, just a note on just how long it takes her to get going. A few chapters in, she (and Morgunn, before her capture) meet Gyda, a druid, and gain their first companion. Then a little after her sister is taken, they collect some Butcher Bards—and are off on a magical adventure! Just, not a time-sensitive one. Honestly, the first part of the story is so random and wandery that by the 1/3 mark I fully expected them to reach the wolves only to find that the raiders had sacrificed Morgunn a month past. And then I realized this probably wouldn’t be very Arthurian. Nevertheless, there’s no real sense of urgency to the plot—as if they’d a gentleman’s (or ladies) agreement from the wolves to stay any executing of anyone until there could be a showdown. Torvi and her band just kick around the world having exciting adventures and telling mystical tales while at the same time casually keeping an eye out for anyone they could use to help free her sister.

The most surprising revelation wasn’t actually that they were wasting waaay too much time. It was that—despite the lack of urgency, despite the impending death of Torvi’s sister—I was actually enjoying the story. Torvi and her band travel to exotic and fanciful locales, face unknown horrors, meet exceptional people, and explore breathtaking forests. And despite the lack of any urgency—or maybe because of it—I really enjoyed it. I mean, the fact that they take their sweet damn time is entirely irksome, something that can’t be understated. It bothered me when I picked up Seven Endless Forests every evening. But by the time I set the book aside each night I was over it, already lost in the aftermath of the adventures they’d undertaken. It is a magical and wondrous world Tucholke created, one that overwhelmed all the issues that came with it. Not that there are many. Other than the sense of urgency, I had one other issue—that of the plot that is Morgunn. Without spoiling as much as possible… the kidnapping of Morgunn doesn’t extend through to the end. At about the 3/4 mark, we clear that up and take on the next adventure: that of the sword of Esca. Now, the two tales are loosely connected, but Tucholke doesn’t really take any pains try and tie them closer. And as much as I adored the story—and I did—this disconnect was annoying, and stupid.

The world-building of Seven Endless Forests is impressive. The myths and stories that appear in the text are so varied and unique that I’d be interested to go back and read Tucholke’s other stuff to see if they weren’t established earlier. Now some of the legends within are retelling of Norse faery tales, like how the story is a retelling of Arthurian legend. But others I didn’t recognize. Now, I don’t pretend to know everything about either topic, but I have dived pretty deep before, into each, so I’m aware of a decent amount. But the various characters that Torvi and her band meet are so wondrous and colorful; the Butcher Bards, the Quicks, the wolf priestesses, the Pig witches, the Merrowsfolk, the monks and witches and wizards and more. And the places they visit are no less amazing—tree villages, night markets, endless forests—that it was easy to lose myself in the world for a few hours or more and then go to bed, forgetting that the plot had basically wandered around aimlessly during that time.

Magic is different depending on who you are. Instead of one universal magical system, there are many. Pig witches read the entrails of beasts to decode the future. Drakes read the stars to accomplish the same. Flemmish Wizards do a bit of both, but command the more traditional magicks besides, making them a class all their own. Wolves (priestesses) rely on yew-berry poison to see the world as it truly is, and to manipulate it to their own ends. Additionally, there are Sea witches, Druids, Bone monks, Jade Fells, and more. Each with their own abilities and styles.

TL;DR

A retelling of Arthurian legend with an emphasis on ancient Norse culture and a map that very much resembles Finland, Seven Endless Forests is the wondrous, meandering adventure that I didn’t know I needed. While it wastes too much time to be considered an urgent rescue mission, and while that whole plot thread ends at the 3/4 mark, the resulting tale that this book tells are worth their weight in gold for their adventure, questing, myths and legends, and its fabulous world. Though possessive of a strange blend of wandering and urgency at first, the story settles down to tell the tale of Torvi, a farm-girl out to seize control of her destiny. It’s not without fault, but succeeds much more than it fails—at least, in my opinion. It reminded me of a novelized Quest for Glory game, if you remember those. Magic, fun, adventure—what more could you ask for? Definitely worth a read.

A Note: While everything I’ve read claims that this is a standalone, at the end of the epilogue there is a disclaimer noting that the story is not over yet, and the conclusion reopens a few threads, just in case the author decides to revisit the world in the future. What I’m saying is: this is just primed for a sequel. So don’t count one out.

A Historical Note: Seven Endless Forests is set in a mythical not-Finland. The story is a retelling of Arthurian legend, but relies heavy on ancient Norse culture and tales. I actually had this in the midst of the review and one point, but then I rambled a bit too much (and this is the CUT DOWN version). Now, as I’ve been an archaeologist and historian in past lives, well… Finland wasn’t originally Norse. It was conquered by Sweden in the Late Middle Ages and generally settled as a colony. They converted the people to Christianity, and several Norse cultural aspects bled into Suomi during this time. But while they bordered one another, the two cultures aren’t the same. The Scandinavian and Finnish languages aren’t even remotely similar. The myths and legends, while occasionally similar, are not the same. And importantly, Norse paganism and Suomenusko are not the same. Norse featured Odin, Thor, Asgard, and Yggdrasil. Suomenusko relied on its own pantheon of gods (like Ukko, Lempo, and Nyyrikki), ancestor worship, and the veneration of forests—that did actually make it into the text. Otherwise, despite the fact that the map is essentially that of Suomi, it’s heavily Norse, with a few Finnish influences.