Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight

river

Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.

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So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: A Conspiracy of Truths – Dazzling Blend of Politics and the Power of Storytelling

A Conspiracy of Truths

Title: A Conspiracy of Truths
Author: Alexandra Rowland
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: October 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Stories, Politics
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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A Conspiracy of Truths is a story about people and what makes them tick. And it’s a story about stories. And it’s a story about stories that tell you what makes people tick. And if you love stories (I mean, you’re reading this, aren’t you?) Rowland’s debut is one you should not miss out on.

Admittedly, the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I went into it anticipating something similar to 1001 Nights and In the Night Garden–something whimsical and fantastical–and it took me a while to adjust to the fact that A Conspiracy of Truths is an entirely different beast.

That’s not to say there aren’t stories within stories in this book (or that they’re not fantastical). We get more than a dozen of them and they serve many purposes: they’re used to educate a person on a subject, to deceive and coerce, or to simply pass the time. But the book is less about the stories themselves and more about their…anatomy. The shape of them. While the content of the stories are important, they’re not quite as important as what they say about the storyteller and the storyreceiver. How they’re told, how they’re interpreted, how they’re reacted to–all of that can tell you so much of a person and that’s the beauty of stories.

A Conspiracy of Truths is the ultimate love letter to stories and the idea that people–all people–are pattern finders. The way we look for meaning in chaos, draw through random dots, seeing pictures and creating stories out of them. And sometimes such stories have the power to upturn nations.

It takes a stronger soul than me to not fall headlong in love with a message like that.

Okay, enough vague gushing. Let’s get to the meat of it.

Our story begins when Chant–our illustrious, elderly, cantankerous storyteller–gets arrested and charged with witchcraft, espionage, and brazen impertinence while passing through Nuryevet, a country where polyamory is the norm, the government divided into five Queens and Kings, and nearly everything requires the signing of paperwork (including visits to the brothel).

Chant soon discovers that Nureyviet is rotten to the core with all manner of corruption–assassinations, nepotism, bribery. Things he normally wouldn’t give a toss about, but with his neck on the line and his execution date drawing near, he realizes that to save himself he must first save this country from itself. What can a 70-year old man do from the confines of a cell, you may ask? Well, Chant isn’t without allies. In his corner he’s got one very reluctant but talented advocate; one kindhearted, though a tad naive, apprentice; said apprentice’s boyfriend (who has very beautiful handwriting); and of course, the greatest weapon at his disposal–his stories.

Chant isn’t an easy character to like and he knows it. While undoubtedly entertaining, I found his fiery personality somewhat exhausting in the beginning. But then he started growing on me, and at some point he went from grating on my nerves to pulling at my heartstrings and plastering a grin on my face. I don’t know when it happened, but I do know why. It’s his love of stories and understanding of the human heart that ultimately won me over, and by the end I would have happily fought Ylfing for the apprentice position.

Speaking of which, his relationship with Ylfing was hands-down my favourite part of the book. The teenager’s sweet and unassuming personality contrasts so wonderfully with Chant’s grumpy cynicism, and despite all of Chant’s “I don’t care” attitude, the love shared between them is palpable. Their scenes range from hilarious to intellectually provocative to tear-jerking and I would gladly read five more books about their adventures.

Aside from Ylfing, most of the side characters in the story are women. Diverse women. Women who are flawed and decidedly not nice. Women who stand up for what they believe is right even if it means losing everything else. Soldiers, lawyers, politicians, mothers–Rowland gives a platform for all, which is so gratifying to see in a fantasy novel.

The side characters also serve as Chant’s eyes and ears. A story has no right to be this entertaining when its narrator spends most of his time locked up in cells, but at no point does it feel claustrophobic. These characters constantly come and go carrying news and stories and just the sheer magnetism of their personalities, and you soon forget that you barely know what this country even looks like.

Plot-wise, it’s a lot more politics-heavy than I’d expected. You get thrown a lot of names and info from the get-go and it took me a good 1/3 of the book to get settled into it. But from then on I was fully hooked. I’m pretty sure my initial disengagement has to do with my shoddy memory and lack of note-taking, so a word of advice: write notes on the key political players as they come up.

There are books that make you ponder the nature of humans. There are books that have you on the edge of your seat, brows furrowed and biting your nails. And there are books that leaves you smiling and feeling good about the world. And this book? This book manages all three.

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review