Title: The Sisters of the Crescent Empress
Author: Leena Likitalo
Series: The Waning Moon #2
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress is the second book in Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon Duology, a fabulous historical fantasy based on the lives of the Romanov sisters.
With the Crescent Empress dead, a civil war has torn the empire asunder. No one seems able to stop the ruthless Gagargi Prataslav. The five Daughters of the Moon are where he wants them to be, held captive in an isolated house in the far north.
Little Alina senses that the rooms that have fallen in disrepair have a sad tale to tell. Indeed, she soon meets two elderly ladies, the ghosts of the house’s former inhabitants.
Merile finds the ghosts suspiciously friendly and too interested in her sisters. She resolves to uncover their agenda with the help of her two dogs.
Sibilia isn’t terribly interested in her younger sisters’ imaginary friends, for she has other concerns. If they don’t leave the house by spring, she’ll miss her debut. And while reading through the holy scriptures, she stumbles upon a mystery that reeks of power.
Elise struggles to come to terms with her relationship with Captain Janlav. Her former lover now serves the gagargi, and it’s his duty to keep the daughters confined in the house. But if the opportunity were to arise, she might be able sway him into helping them flee.
Celestia is perfectly aware of the gagargi coming to claim her rather sooner than later. She’s resolved to come up with a plan to keep her sisters safe at any cost. For she knows what tends to happen to the sisters of the Crescent Empress.
I enjoyed this book almost till the end. The prose is beautiful and the relationships between the sisters are portrayed in a very realistic way. Some sisters get on better with each other, some not so much. Things that one does or says affect the relationships with the other sisters.
It did have flaws that stopped me from really loving the book and most of them were understandable, considering the author has only written short-stories so far and I wouldn’t have minded those things (as much) then. But in a novel, I want to understand how the magic system works. Here I couldn’t even figure out who exactly is capable of doing magic, let alone where the limitations are or how one can protect oneself against spells.
I can forgive a short-story if it uses a short-cut and someone figures out a secret rather quickly and conveniently. This book was full of occasions where people just knew things. Especially Celestia frequently figures out not only that her sisters are keeping things from her but also what those secrets are. That way a fair number of potentially dangerous occasions are swiftly avoided.
But towards the end, things really fell apart. This book is inspired by the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Revolution didn’t just happen one day. The same is true for the revolution in this book. The previous empress was always fighting wars. With most men conscripted as soldiers, nobody was left to tend the fields or earn money. Gagargi Prataslav – an unholy cross between Stalin and the worst Rasputin caricatures, who enjoys laughing diabolically – took advantage of that and incited the revolution.
Now there are clearly two things the sisters need to worry about: the people who have legitimate grievances and who now definitely won’t want to go back to a time where their Empress had full power over them. And the gagargi who is ye-olde-fantasy-villain. He doesn’t care about people but right now they listen to him.
And the book utterly fails at distinguishing between those things. Nobody points out that even if they somehow manage to get rid of the gagargi things won’t go back to the way they were before. Nobody has the viewpoint ‘The gargari is bad but the revolution happened because of understandable reasons.’
The one character who has sympathies for the revolution also refuses to believe that the Gargari is that bad despite all the evidence against it. (He literally wants to sacrifice children. Not kidding.)
As a result, a series that started as a promising subversion of the popular fantasy trope of ‘good and pure ruler that is threatened by evil outside forces’ ends up sounding like an advertisement for an absolute monarchy.
Talking about ‘ends up’: The ending sucked. Not just the moral of the story. It also was bad from a narrative standpoint. There are open endings. And there are endings where I have to go back and check if this is really the last book in the series. And there are endings like this where I had to go back, check and still refuse to believe that this was the end. I might have bought that ending if it made more effort to built up the revolution and the reasons for it as a genuine problem. But it didn’t and made the villain as cliche-fantasy-villain as possible. So the book stays a conventional fantasy-novel, despite all the pretty prose and nice window-dressing. And a conventional fantasy-novel can’t end like this.
Review of book 1
This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:
Book themes for Hogmanay / New Year’s Eve / Watch Night / St. Sylvester’s Day: Read a book where miracles of any sort are performed (the unexplainable – but good – kind).
I might be stretching the theme a tiiiiiny bit but unexplainable things that help the sisters happen.