Book: “The Bright and the Pale” by Jessica Rubinkowski
Publishing Info: Quill Tree Books, March 2021
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Valeria is one of the only survivors of the freeze, a dark magical hold Knnot Mountain unleashed over her village. Everyone, including her family, is trapped in an unbreakable sheet of ice. Ever since, she’s been on the run from the Czar, who is determined to imprison any who managed to escape. Valeria finds refuge with the Thieves Guild, doing odd jobs with her best friend Alik, the only piece of home she has left.
That is, until he is brutally murdered.
A year later, she discovers Alik is alive and being held against his will. To buy his freedom, she must lead a group of cutthroats and thieves on a perilous expedition to the very mountain that claimed her family. Only something sinister slumbers in the heart of Knnot.
And it has waited years for release.
Review: Of course this new YA fantasy was marketed as similar to Leigh Bardugo’s work. If it’s not the Grisha series, it’s “Six of Crows. This nonsense has gotten completely out of hand. At this point, that comparison has been used so often (and so poorly) that it’s essentially meaningless. But, alongside the Leigh Bardugo comparison, this book was blurbed as being for fans of Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” trilogy, an all-time favorite series of mine recently. So that did the trick in getting me to pick this one up. Unfortunately, the book really doesn’t deserve either comparison…unless we’re back to the meaninglessness of the Leigh Bardugo spin where all it really signifies is that the book you’re about to pick up is a YA fantasy, which, then, yes.
To this point, Valeria’s life has been nothing but loss. First she lost her home and everyone she loved to a deep freeze. And later, after finding refuge in the Thieves Guild, she loses her best friend Alik to a brutal death. But she is also a survivor, eking out an existence beneath the very nose of the Czar who is out to silence anyone who has survived the freeze. Her life takes a turn, however, when she discovers that Alik is alive. Alive, but changed. To save him, she must venture back to the very place she fears most, the mountain that claimed her town to its cold power.
To get it out of the way from the start, this wasn’t a favorite read of mine. But the one thing I did enjoy, overall, was the world-building involved. Most especially, perhaps, the gods called the Bright and the Pale were very interesting. I liked the idea that neither is inherently good or bad, therefore choosing to follow one over the other doesn’t necessarily speak to any overall world-view or intent on an individual’s part. I also enjoyed the general world-building. It was easy to picture the frozen landscape and the ominous presence of the mountains and the magic that lurked there. The atmosphere itself worked very well for what the story was trying to accomplish.
However, I struggled to enjoy this book. The pacing was difficult, with a slow start that took quite a while to become engaging. This beginning was also hindered by a style of writing that too often veered into telling rather than showing, with information feeling squeezed into dialogue and in the narration in ways that felt unnatural and ponderous. The writing itself was rather clunky, and it took me several chapters to realize that part of the reason I was struggling with the book was the fact that I needed to re-read several sentences to try to piece together what the author was actually getting at. Hopefully, as I was reading an e-ARC, some of this will be cleaned up in edits (there were words missing from sentences even, though the sheer number of times this seemed to happen makes me think it might have just been a very poor writing style choice??).
Valeria was also not a character to write home about. There was nothing obviously wrong with her, and the attempts at giving her a dark back story with the loss of her home suited well enough. However, she still simply felt like every other YA heroine with “a past.” There wasn’t enough distinction to her voice or character to make her stand out from the increasingly crowded set of leading ladies in YA fantasy.
I also didn’t care for the romance or some of the twists in the story. I felt like most of the reveals were telegraphed way too early and too obviously to provide any sort of weight when they finally landed. And the romance struggled against some of the unlikable aspects of Alik’s character. There was too much time spent on him saying horrible things and then later apologizing for those same horrible things. From there, it just followed the typical YA romance arc without adding much or creating any real sizzle between these two.
Fans of Russian-inspired fairytales may enjoy this read, but I do think it has enough marks against it to not earn a strong recommendation. It definitely wasn’t for me, and I think there are likely better examples of similar works to read if one is looking for books like this. Katherine Arden’s “Winternight” series, for sure, and Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver,” come to mind.
Rating 6: A disappointing read that had promise but seemed to lack some of the writing proficiency needed to really pully it off.
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