Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack
Last year, Anya and her friends Ivan and Håkon defeated a bloodthirsty Viking named Sigurd, who wanted to murder Håkon for his river dragon magic. Since then, Anya’s been bat mitzvahed, Ivan’s family has settled into their lives in Zmeyreka, and the local magistrate has been expelled, with the result that Anya’s family has been openly welcomed among the other villagers, but her papa still hasn’t returned from war. When Anya learns that there’s been a miscommunication and her papa has been sent to Rûm rather than home, she embarks upon a secret journey to bring him back, accompanied by Ivan and Håkon — who, thanks to a friendly forest spirit named Lena, has been transformed into a human boy. Additionally, Lena magically transports the trio to Kiev, saving them from what would certainly be quick deaths along an arduous journey, but is nowhere near Anya’s papa.
As fate would have it, something strange is happening in the woods outside Kiev. Travelers and soldiers alike are attacked by a mysterious creature known only as the Nightingale, and the tsar has charged his men with killing it at any cost. But Anya and her friends already know that appearances and first impressions can be misleading, and they find an ally in the creature, who turns out to be a Deaf wood-elf named Alfhercht in search of his older brother. And, they soon learn, there’s something far more dangerous under the city of Kiev than a young elf who speaks with his hands and coerces trees to do his bidding.
Anya and the Nightingale (2020), the second installment in Sofiya Pasternack’s ANYA series, is just as action-packed and fun as its predecessor, Anya and the Dragon. Various types of benign magic are utilized by the characters: herbal potions and tinctures Anya’s mama and babulya use to heal common ills among the villagers, Ivan’s manipulation of words and water, and Alfhercht’s conjurations of light and woodcraft, with far darker uses on display, as well. All kinds of complications are thrown at Anya, from meeting her very first rabbi and his boisterous family, to difficult-but-inspiring encounters with Princess Vasilisa, to grappling with her lingering and intense PTSD in the aftermath of the first book, and she rises admirably to every challenge in a way that’s realistic given her age and the intended audience of these books.
Pasternack also takes plenty of opportunities to explore Ivan’s character, whether he’s attempting to sweet-talk the tsar’s soldiers into believing a fabricated backstory or come to grips with his complicated feelings for both a cute village girl and Alfhercht himself. Håkon, unfortunately, gets short shrift this time around, spending most of the book grousing about his awkward human body or sulking in their guest room, where he’s forced to hide so that no one comments on his striking resemblance to the princess. (This is one of a few plot points which are repeatedly brought up without any resolution in Anya and the Nightingale, leaving lots of dangling threads for a potential sequel, but resulting in a fair amount of frustration on my part.) Håkon gets to prove his worth during the battle against the Big Bad, but Anya and Ivan are such a consistently strong pair, and Håkon is of so little consequence in the bulk of the preceding chapters, that I almost forgot he’d come along on the journey.
The basic themes of friendship, faith, and family within Anya and the Dragon are utilized again in Anya and the Nightingale, to equally strong effect. The conclusion is full of heart-warming moments, and honestly, I’d read an entire series just about Anya’s babulya and everything she’s experienced. I have a strong suspicion that I know where Anya will be heading in the next book, and hopefully some key answers will be forthcoming in that installment.