Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple – The Last Tsar’s Dragons

Title: The Last Tsar’s Dragon
Authors: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

It is the waning days of the Russian monarchy. A reckless man rules the land and his dragons rule the sky. Though the Tsar aims his dragons at his enemies—Jews and Bolsheviks—his entire country is catching fire. Conspiracies suffuse the royal court: bureaucrats jostle one another for power, the mad monk Rasputin schemes for the Tsar’s ear, and the desperate queen takes drastic measures to protect her family.

Revolution is in the air—and the Red Army is hatching its own weapons.

Rating: Burned to a crisp

I do have to point out, that I expected something very different from what I got. Sure, the blurb talks about revolution, Bolsheviks and Rasputin, all things we are familiar with, but I still expected a different Russia. After all, this world has dragons. One would think, that the existence of dragons would change the world in some way but the Russia in The Last Tsar’s Dragons is exactly the one you know from the history textbooks. Only that Tsar Nicholas has dragons.

Well, that’s not 100% true. While the real Nicholas had five children – Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – who all died with him Yekaterinburg, the Nicholas from the book has a son called Alexei, a daughter called Anastasia and two unnamed daughters who are still alive, and a daughter called Sonia who died of an illness before the book started. But considering none of that is in any way relevant to the plot and the afterword just tells us that the Romanovs were among the characters in the book that were real, without any caveat about how they didn’t actually have a daughter named Sonia, my guess is that the authors couldn’t be bothered to look up basic facts. This makes sense, since they also didn’t consider it necessary to run their German by an actual German speaker. And so the Tsarina says “Ein Fluch auf ihrem schmutzigen Drachens!” at one point.

Fun fact: I spent a lot of time yelling about Google Translate not being a reliable source but in this case it actually gives you the correct translation of “A curse on their dirty dragons” which would be Ein Fluch auf ihre schmutzigen Drachen. Bing Translate does worse with Fluch an ihren schmutzigen Drachen, but even they know that Drachens isn’t a German word, so I really have no clue how they managed to get it that wrong. Perhaps one of them once did learn German, just like they once learned Russian history and then were so convinced of themselves that they saw no need to check their vague memories.

Anyway, after this short diversion, back to the actual book. Which, as mentioned is The Russian Revolution with dragons. That means, that while the Tsar is busy being stupid and evil and antisemitic, his wife being German, stupid, evil and antisemitic, Alexei being sick, spoilt and evil and Rasputin being evil, creepy and antisemitic, somewhere else Lev Bronstein, a Jewish peasant, has found some dragon eggs and is trying to hatch them himself – a dangerous feat, since only the Tsar is allowed to own dragons. Bronstein is supported in this endeavour by his old friend Wladimir Ulyanov who has also brought a questionable Georgian character called Koba along who acts as a bodyguard for the eggs – and later the hatched dragons.

You probably know all those gentlemen under different names. Bronstein is more well known as Leon Trotsky, Ulyanov changed his name to Lenin and Koba is an early nickname of Joseph Stalin.

Yeah. I definitely did not expect that. And granted, I knew I was reading a fantasy book based on the Russian Revolution, an event that was very bloody and violent and which lead to decades of more death and violence. It’s not that this is the only book that ever did this. The Waning Moon books are set in a pseudo-Russia on the eve of a Revolution (including a character that seems to have been inspired by Rasputin and Stalin). The Poppy War is the Sino-Japanese war with magic. There are certainly many other examples and I think you can take a horrible atrocity, add dragons, mermaids or whatever and be tasteful about it. I don’t think it works when you make the actual architect of some of these atrocities – not even some thinly disguised version, not some conglomerate of several people – in a character in the book. Admittedly, while Trotsky is a POV-character in the book, Lenin plays a much smaller role and Stalin says only two or three sentences. But still: There’s a Wikipedia page Excess Mortality under Josef Stalin. In this book he plays bodyguard for some dragon eggs. I am uncomfortable with this.

But, YMMV and all that and neither Stalin nor Lenin are portrayed as likeable characters, so perhaps some people are OK with that. If you are: I’m not judging you (I do read a lot of other judgeworthy stuff myself after all). But I will inform you that it’s still a very boring book. Because, when I say “this is the Russian Revolution with dragons”, I’m speaking very literally. Do you have the most basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution (as in “the Bolsheviks took over, the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and later executed”)? Do you know the Boney M song Rasputin? Great! Then you know what happens in this book*. I mean it’s the Bolsheviks take over with the help of dragons, but since that happens off-screen, you won’t get much out of reading it. No, I’m not kidding. With the exception of Rasputin’s murder, all the action happens off-page and is then summed up in a few sentences. That is…not great. Of course, it’s a novella, and in the afterword the authors explain that they originally planned a full novel but couldn’t find a publisher, only one who would take a novella. But then you can’t just take the novel and leave enough stuff out to make it fit the novella length. Especially if the stuff is essentially the climax and you’re left with what’s more or less a retelling of historical facts.

*though not even the Rasputin here is the lover of the Russian Queen, but apart from that the lyrics are fairly accurate

ARC provided by NetGalley

Curtis Craddock: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery

Title: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery
Author: Curtis Craddock
Series: Risen Kingdoms #2

Isabelle des Zephyrs has always been underestimated throughout her life, but after discovering the well of hidden magic within her, unveiling a centuries-long conspiracy, and stopping a war between rival nations, she has gained a newfound respect amongst the cutthroat court.

All that is quickly taken away when Isabelle is unfairly convicted of breaking the treaty she helped write and has her political rank and status taken away. Now bereft, she nevertheless finds herself drawn into mystery when her faithful musketeer Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King.

As panic swells, the capital descends into chaos, when the emperor is usurped from the throne by a rival noble. Betrayed by their allies and hunted by assassins, Isabelle and Jean-Claude alone must thwart the coup, but not before it changes l’Empire forever.

Rating: An Abundance of Awesome

It’s not unusual for the second book in a (fantasy) series to go deeper into the worldbuilding and this book is no exception. For example, we learn more about the different kinds of magic that exist but compared to many other series, I don’t feel like I’ve learned that much more about the Risen Kingdoms. Instead, I got a lot of…emotional worldbuilding. Just saying backstory feels like not enough because while we do learn more about Jean-Claude’s past and meet old acquaintances of his, the book doesn’t just go “Here’s a person he met X years ago. They did this together.” Instead, the book focusses on the feelings they had for each other back then and the ones they have right now and that’s portrayed with nuance, I’ve rarely seen, especially when it comes to romance. Because Jean-Claude does meet two former lovers in this book and neither goes to the extremes fictional romance often goes to (it was the worst and everything was miserable or doomed one true love that could never be and now they’re both miserable). True, one of those relationships ended badly, and he’s still affected by it but then…they talk about it? And he deals with his feelings? And things between them get better?

Characters dealing with emotions in a healthy and mature way? How could that happen? Am I focusing an unreasonable amount on this minor part? Probably. But comparing it to other books I read close to it, made it really stand out just how well it was done here.

But, to quote a certain movie, this isn’t a kissing book. It’s more of a magical murder mystery but not quite of the golden age type where everybody meets in the library at the end. Not that I mind those, as you can probably tell from my other reading, but the climax does feature a few more explosions than the average Agatha Christie. And it’s awesome. Also because Craddock is really great at writing action scenes and make me care for the people involved in it (the former is already an achievement, but the latter is really rare). I got so engrossed in the story that I was even constantly worrying about Isabelle and Jean-Claude – despite being sure that they had to survive untill the next book.

What else is there to say? Perhaps the fact I should have opened with (and then left it there because it sums everything up perfectly). After I finished A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery I lost my reading-mojo for a while because, really, all I wanted was experience the awesomeness that is this book again, but nothing else could compare.

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of MoscowEvery city contains secret places. Moscow in the tumultuous 1990s is no different, its citizens seeking safety in a world below the streets — a dark, cavernous world of magic, weeping trees, and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairy-tale creatures whisper strange tales to those who would listen. Galina is a young woman caught, like her contemporaries, in the seeming lawlessness of the new Russia.

In the midst of this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away — prompting Galina to join Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances. Their search will take them to the underground realm of hidden truths and archetypes, to find themselves caught between reality and myth, past and present, honor and betrayal … the secret history of Moscow. 

Rating: B-

The blurb makes it sound like a relatively ordinary fantasy novel: protagonist sets out to find a disappeared loved one and discovers a magical world. But it’s not quite. Usually, in these kinds of set-ups, the protagonists take a long time to accept that there is really something supernatural going on. Here, it takes Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor three chapters until they decide that all the disappeared people must have turned into birds and crossed through a portal that appeared in a puddle to a different world. Then they come to the obvious conclusion that they are too large to fit through the puddle-portal and that they need a larger one. Fortunately, Fyodor knows just the place and a few pages later they are in an underworld in which they don’t just meet old Russian Gods and spirits but also humans – from the time of the Golden Horde, the pogroms under Alexander III, the Decembrist revolt and the Stalinist Terror – who also passed through a portal and now live in this underworld. They don’t question any of those things. In fact, it doesn’t take them long to discuss which spirit would be the most likely to be helpful or trust solutions that appeared to them in a dream.

And because they didn’t question these things, I didn’t either. Often enough I do get frustrated when characters just know things or just accept something extraordinary without complaining but here I just rolled with it. More than once I was reminded of Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song, another book that doesn’t bother much with complex worldbuilding (or going deep into the characters’ motivation) but I felt that it wasn’t necessary for the story.  And similarly, when Galina and the others go and question a celestial cow about the missing people’s whereabouts I just shrugged and went ‘Yeah. Seems a reasonable thing to do.’

What did bother me was that the book doesn’t make much difference between the main and the side characters. Once they appear for the first time, we get their backstory of how they ended up in the underworld but each gets the same amount of detail. It doesn’t matter if the person ends up being important for the plot or just appear this once. It feels like some of the backstories are just there to give the reader a small history lesson about a certain era. I would have preferred to get to know some of the other characters better, especially since there were loose ends in some of the storylines.

I saw that a lot of people didn’t enjoy the book at all and I can understand that. The ‘just roll with it’-attitude won’t work for everybody but for me it did and so I got a charming and magical story.

Carol Berg: Restauration

618198Title: Restoration
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Rai-Kirah, #3

By the time Seyonne survived sixteen years of slavery, reclaimed his life, and watched it slip away again he had undeniable evidence of the gods. Now, exiled from his homeland, he is left to face the demon inside his soul. Meanwhile, the Hamraschi have sworn to destroy Prince Aleksander and anyone who shelters him. Assassins abound. And when Seyonne journeys across the borders of the world to finally confront his own haunted dreams and put them to rest, he discovers instead something both unreservedly terrifying and thrilling. Soon he will become all that he ever feared… 

RatingB

There is no evil one human will not work on another.

I rarely say this about fantasy novels but: this book would have worked better if it had been longer. And had had more POV-characters. Now usually I appreciate it when fantasy-authors manage to keep their stories short(ish) and limit their POV-characters but in this book, there was too much major stuff going on off-screen.

Seyonne continues his journey from the last book. After all, he made an irreversible decision in the last book, one that went against everything his people believed. Now things are happening that make him question if he really did the right thing. And because having only one thing to worry about would be boring there’s more: Even if he did the right thing, his work isn’t done. And he is scared of the consequences of him taking the next step.

But Seyonne isn’t the only one with a problem. The unrests Aleksander had to deal with in the last book have turned into a full-blown rebellion. A massive one. And now he is well and truly fucked and has to think and act quickly if he doesn’t want to end up as head on a spike. And he and Seyonne are together for large parts of the book and we see how both of them are working on their problems. But for about the last third they are separated and we only see what Seyonne is doing. And in that last third, the major things happen. For Aleksander, that means major win-your-kingdom back battles and various other problems you can guess if you’ve read the previous books. And all of that happens off-screen which is disappointing. Even if the finale we actually got to see was still epic.

But in the end: what drew me into the series was the beautiful friendship of Aleksander and Seyonne in book one. And I appreciated how Berg completely turned my expectations about where the plot was going on its head in book two. But I also missed that friendship because they spent most of the time apart. Now, Restauration again has lots of interactions between them and I loved them. (And that epic finale I mentioned? I still can’t even). So even though I would have loved to see more off Aleksander’s storyline, I still got all the things I came to this series for.


Review of Revelation (Rai-Kirah #2)
Review of Transformation (Rai-Kirah #1)

Leena Likitalo: The Sisters of the Crescent Empress

34850418Title: 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.

RatingD-

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:

515cbaa36ec308aeacad092f1ad0f103

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.

Naomi Novik – Black Powder War

91989Title: Black Powder War
Author: Naomi Novik
Series: Temeraire #3

With the Chinese threat neatly dissolved, Temeraire is free to return to Britain and continue to help his friends defend their country. But before they board the ship, Laurence — now a member of the Chinese Imperial family by adoption — receives orders from the British Air Corps that he and Temeraire are not to sail with the British forces. Instead, they must take the land route and stop in Istanbul to collect three dragon eggs which the government has purchased at great expense from the Turkish. But the overland flight is fraught with danger. They will have to scale mountains and cross deserts, evade Napoleon’s aggressive infantry and hide from unpredictable feral dragons. And even before they leave, they discover that Lien has left China before them, intent upon revenge.

She wants to destroy Temeraire by stripping him of all that he holds dear and being a celestial dragon, she has the power and intelligence to carry out her terrible threat.

RatingB-

“It seems very peculiar to me that it should make any difference how one says words, and it must be a great deal of trouble to learn how to say them all over again. Can one hire a translator to say things properly?”

“Yes; they are called lawyers.”

I enjoyed the first two Temeraire books but also had some problems with them. Mainly their lack of plot. It was understandable that the first book in a fantasy-series is heavy on worldbuilding (and that the first book in any series spends a lot of time introducing the characters) but the second also was more ‘things are happening near the characters’ than a more conventional ‘the characters have to get from A to B and on the way they discover that they need to go via Z’ type of plot. As a result, it dragged quite a bit.

Black Powder War finally has a plot. Or at least the first half has. Laurence and his crew have to get the dragon eggs. Things go not as planned. They have to improvise. Once that is done the plot starts to disintegrate again. Laurence and Temeraire just happen to end up in the thick of the war again and there is again a lot of fighting. And I did have the same problems with the fight-scenes as the last time: they are awesomely written but I don’t care enough about the gazillion side-characters to worry about them much. Still, it didn’t feel quite aimless this time around. There might be no typical fantasy-novel goal (kill the evil wizard/retrieve powerful artifact…) but the general aim of defeating Napoleon is much more present than it was during Throne of Jade. And you can’t expect much more from a book about a military force in the Napoleonic wars.

Also: the dragons are cute.


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

aea8e0d7dc6a4b59979a9f8b443ab621

Book themes for St. Martin’s Day: Read a book set before the age of electricity.

The Five Daughters of the Moon (The Waning Moon #1)

33099589 Title: The Five Daughters of the Moon
Author: Leena Likitalo
Series: The Waning Moon #1

The Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, and the Five Daughters of the Moon are the ones to determine its future.

Alina, six, fears Gagargi Prataslav and his Great Thinking Machine. The gagargi claims that the machine can predict the future, but at a cost that no one seems to want to know.

Merile, eleven, cares only for her dogs, but she smells that something is afoul with the gagargi. By chance, she learns that the machine devours human souls for fuel, and yet no one believes her claim.

Sibilia, fifteen, has fallen in love for the first time in her life. She couldn’t care less about the unrests spreading through the countryside. Or the rumors about the gagargi and his machine.

Elise, sixteen, follows the captain of her heart to orphanages and workhouses. But soon she realizes that the unhappiness amongst her people runs much deeper that anyone could have ever predicted.

And Celestia, twenty-two, who will be the empress one day. Lately, she’s been drawn to the gagargi. But which one of them was the first to mention the idea of a coup?

Rating: C

I rarely say this, especially about fantasy novels but: This book would have been better if it had been longer. Especially the chapters featuring the oldest sister, Elise and Celestia, just throw important information at us at lightning speed. By the time of their first POV-chapters, many important parts of their story have already happened and all we get are flashbacks to those events. In addition to the things that are currently happening of course. In Celestia’s first chapter I almost laughed because it was so crammed with dramatic reveals, surprising twists and shocking events at a speed that made it hard to take it seriously (other authors would get a whole book out of what happened there, if not a trilogy).

It’s not quite as extreme in Elise’s case. Partly because not quite as much happens directly in the chapters and partly because we met Elise before her POV-chapter through her sisters (either directly or via her sisters thinking about her) while Celestia is barely mentioned by her sisters as being an actual person. (She’s only ever the future Empress). But there is still so much that happened to Elise before the book started that her chapters also feel like missing half the story.

And there is so much else that is done rather half-heartedly: One of the sisters cares deeply about another person but that person falls under a spell so that they don’t even remember that they once knew her. What the reader sees is one chapter where the two are still together, then in the sister’s next chapter, she has already figured out that the person is under a spell so there is no emotional fallout from the situation. It felt more like reading an early draft that needed more depths.

The world building also leaves some questions: The Crescent Empire can only ever have an empress. She doesn’t even marry (not a human man at least, symbolically she marries the moon…it’s complicated), just takes lovers to conceive children. Yet, for the ordinary people, life is still sexist: the men alone go to war and without a man to earn money, families will starve. (And also for the empress and her family there are various rules about when they are allowed to lose their virginity).

I already bought the second book anyway. Because the story is still good even though it could have used a lot more polishing. But also because the book stopped mid-scene. Of course, the first book in a series is supposed to set everything up but I also expect a closure of something. The heroes solving one problem, only to discover that they caused another/now see the much bigger problem that was hiding behind the smaller one. At the very least I expect them to have a plan about how to solve the big problem. But The Five Daughters of the Moon just…stopped. Nothing is resolved. Nobody has any idea what to do. Things just got a lot worse and then it was over.


This is also part of the Reading for 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

4d6ccfdf529e6fbc2b7ac3eaef174ac1

Book themes for Calan Gaeaf: Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft.

A ‘proper’ witch appears at one point in the book to help the sisters (or perhaps not…) and some of the sisters have supernatural powers (though mostly passive ones)