REVIEW: Nocturnall by Beth Bernobich

Review of Beth Bernobich, Nocturnall (2015) — Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One of my favorite authors had a birthday, and my first thought was that I should reread my favorite book by her to celebrate, but I couldn’t because that book was packed up to move house. Then I figured I could do something better — I could give her the gift of a review. So, happy birthday, Beth, even if it’s three months late due to the queue at SFFReviews!

The novella Nocturnall is set in Bernobich’s River of Souls world, and I read it after having read the three main River of Souls novels, Passion Play, Queen’s Hunt, and Allegiance. I note this for two reasons — one, so that you go out and read them too, because they are amazing; two, because my reading of Nocturnall was shaped by having read the other three books. As a result, POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW.

The very best of books tell a story that comes to completion and yet leaves the reader wailing “but I want more! I want to know what happens next!!” Not only the immediate future next, but the long down the lines future. What happens not only a year from now, two years from now, three, but what happens twenty years from now, thirty, forty? What happens when the war has been won and the king and queen have been crowned? What happens when the first fire of romance is over, and has been translated into burning coals of comfortable companionship, always able to be stoked again, but sometimes glowing more dimly than others.

Nocturnall is the answer to that “what happens next”. The central characters of PP, QH, and A, Ilse Zhalina and Raul Kosenmark, return in this story, more than thirty-five years after we first meet them. More than half a life time, a life that hasn’t been easy for them, but it has been kind. They have surrounded themselves with the richness of strong familial relationships across and within generations steeped in memory and their love has strengthened with the years even as their bodies have weakened. Theirs is the story of a life (lives) that has worked — even though it has also been work.

It’s hard to describe the quite visceral reaction that reading of Ilse and Raul elicits in me. The first time I read Nocturnall, I was worried that in such a short story the slow build-up that one gets in PP would be lost and that it wouldn’t have the same spark. And then Bernobich drops the bombshell right away on page 4, out of nowhere, taking my breath away and reassuring me that I needn’t have worried: All her power is just as finely wrought in novella as it is in novel form. The first time I read it, I read it in one sitting during a long airport layover, and, Reader, I cried. I cried when I reached the end and I didn’t care who saw. I’m crying again now, as I reread the story and write this review.

Why do stories like this matter? Because the power of a story lies in how we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of the character and see how our own lives might unfold. When I was young, I read of fantasy heroines and dreamed of being one one day. But then I grew up (or at least, older), and I reread those stories and found the heroines were still young, and I was not, and I could no longer see myself in those stories. I started looking for evidence that it wasn’t too late, that I, who’ve already found my prince charming, who has familial ties that preclude any great quest, could still be the heroine of my own story. I started not only looking for heroines like me now, but heroines that I can look forward to becoming in the future, and if I can be half as awesome as Ilse, I would take that as a life well lived! Stories like this matter because they are a gift of possibility to every reader who reads them. That’s a way better gift than any review I could ever gift in return.