Marshall Ryan Maresca – The Velocity of Revolution

Title: The Velocity of Revolution
Author: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.

Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.

Wenthi’s skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália’s presence as she haunts his mind.

Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion

While reading this book, I assumed this was the first in a series. Because there was no way all these problems could be solved easily (or quickly). It is set in a (Mexican or more general Central-American inspired) place which has been colonized and where the (white) colonisers have built up a strict caste-system. The less indigenous blood you have and the whiter you are, the easier your life will be. People with mostly indigenous heritage live in slums and struggle to survive, leaving them with not much energy to fight this status quo. Meanwhile, the colonisers and those light-skinned enough to live comfortably enough have obviously no reason to change it. So getting rid of the dark lord isn’t going to do much because legislative, executive and judiciary are filled with people who never went hungry under him and so won’t see any reason to change anything.

Of course, I didn’t expect to get one book about the revolution and then one about drafting new laws and parliamentary debates (because that would have a very niche market) but I did expect more acknowledgement that it’s still going to take time and effort to make things better again. As it was, over two-thirds of the book were really hammering home the “there’s no single dark lord who is responsible for all our misery” message only to take a sharp U-turn at the last moment and go “but if we press this magical switch it’s going to be all fine” and then veer slightly to the right and mumble “there’s still some vague unspecified stuff to do but really not much”. Now the magical switch felt a bit odd at first and I do wish there had been some more time to set it up but overall it did fit in the story. But I really would have wanted a slightly more open end. As it is, it tied things up far too quickly for me and seemed too rushed.

ARC received from NetGalley

Sam Hawke – Hollow Empire (Poison War #2)

Title: Hollow Empire
Author: Sam Hawke
Series: Poison War #2

Two years after a devastating siege tore the country apart, Silasta has recovered. But to the frustration of poison-taster siblings Jovan and Kalina, sworn to protect the Chancellor, the city has grown complacent in its new-found peace and prosperity.

And now, amid the celebrations of the largest carnival the continent has ever seen, it seems a mysterious enemy has returned.

The death of a former adversary sets Jovan on the trail of a cunning killer, while Kalina negotiates the treacherous politics of visiting dignitaries, knowing that this vengeful mastermind may lurk among the princes and dukes, noble ladies and priests. But their investigations uncover another conspiracy which now threatens not just Silasta and the Chancellor but also their own family.

Assassins, witches and a dangerous criminal network are all closing in. And brother and sister must once more fight to save their city – and everyone they hold dear – from a patient, powerful enemy determined to tear it all down . . .

In City of Lies I really enjoyed the basic premise of the plot: a mystery that had to be solved not by two amateurs who just stumbled into everything but by two people who had been trained to deal with problems…they just had never expected to deal with such a huge problem (or to deal with it that early in their lives). I also loved that, despite it being a historically inspired fantasy setting, there was no “historically accurate sexism”. Women and men are equal. Same-sex relationships exist. Full stop. But I also found that the characters lacked distinct voices. The book switches between two narrators and I frequently forgot who was the narrator in the chapter I was reading. And, more generally, I also had issues telling the other characters in the story apart because they all remained a bit colourless. I picked up the sequel because I hoped that these things would get better.

Now, in Hollow Empire… I still had trouble telling the narrators apart but the supporting characters seemed more developed and I no longer thought “This scene would probably feel more dramatic if I remembered who this person was”. Unfortunately, the plot no longer was what could be considered a very grand scale murder mystery but leaned heavier towards a conspiracy thriller. Not a genre I am very fond of. Besides, one of the main characters got framed for a crime he didn’t commit which is very much my least favourite trope and then the characters have to do quite a lot of dealings with a foreign country that has historically accurate sexism of the worst “women are just there to marry them off to form alliances” kind.

So, while technically some things got better, overall it got much worse for me because there was more and more stuff I simply didn’t like.

Yangsze Choo – The Ghost Bride

Title: The Ghost Bride
Author: Yangsze Choo

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, traditional ghost marriages are used to placate restless spirits. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lims’ handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits, and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever. 

Unlike other girls, Li Lan really hates sewing and embroidery. She’s really bad at it. She still wins a needle-threading competition but she informs us that she isn’t quite sure how she did it. I did roll my eyes at that bit but kept going because the rest was intriguing. The atmosphere of 19th century Malaysia was vividly described and the question of why the Lim family is so eager for her and only her to be the ghost bride of their son promised a good mystery. Sadly, the rest of the book didn’t really deliver on that promise.

The plot seemed to follow two maxims: maximum convenience and maximum drama. Li Lan is – very conveniently – always in hearing range of people who share vital information so she can eavesdrop and be led to the next place where she can overhear the next vital piece of information that advances the plot (and sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes she just stumbles over one piece of information after the other without having to connect any dots). Now to an extent, this is hard to avoid. She isn’t a noisy old spinster in 1920s England who can poke her nose into everything and ask slightly insolent questions. She’s a young (not very well off) woman in a society where that means she hasn’t much freedom. But I simply couldn’t get through such an amount of plot-convenient coincidences without a lot more eye-rolling…

Meanwhile, on those occasions where Liu Lan actually does talk to people, she just believes everything they say. Even when she knows their people have their own agenda, even if those people make no secret about how much they hate her. It’s inconceivable that they would lie to her. Hence many a dramatic freak-out.

But, the absolute death-blow for me was how utterly flat the romance fell for me. This book is not a capital-R Romance; there are two man Li Lan develops feelings for and at the end, she has to make a decision. But many of her decisions are influenced to at least some degree by her feelings for those men. I am fairly sure that the story of the book had played out very differently if she hadn’t had those feelings. And…I didn’t buy any of those feelings. I could sort of buy the first as a crush that somewhat escalated due to some very unusual circumstances but I genuinely had no idea that she had developed any feelings for the second guy until she actually said it and that’s…just not exactly great writing.

Curtis Craddock – The Last Uncharted Sky (Risen Kingdoms #3)

Author: Curtis Craddock
Title: The Last Uncharted Sky
Series: Risen Kingdoms #3

Isabelle and Jean-Claude undertake an airship expedition to recover a fabled treasure and claim a hitherto undiscovered craton for l’Empire Celeste. But Isabelle, as a result from a previous attack that tried to subsume her body and soul, suffers from increasingly disturbing and disruptive hallucinations. Disasters are compounded when the ship is sabotaged by an enemy agent, and Jean-Claude is separated from the expedition.

In a race against time, Isabelle must figure out how to ward off her ailment before it destroys her and reunite with Jean-Claude to seek the fabled treasure as ancient secrets and a royal conspiracy threaten to undo the entire realm.

This book tells us that sometimes everyone does their best and…that’s enough. They haven’t solved every single problem, cured all sicknesses and disposed of all bad people but…the world is a considerably better place than if they’d done nothing. And that is a nice conclusion, especially in times when one might feel a bit hopeless.

But even if it wasn’t for *gestures broadly et everything in the real world* it is great to have a book that finds such a great balance. It builds a realistic world; there are selfish and evil people, poverty, sickness, corruption but it’s not so dark and gritty that you wonder why anyone bothers trying to save this world at all – because there are also good and selfless people, there’s beauty (and people who perhaps aren’t totally good and selfless but who still have a sense of right and wrong). But, as already said, the heroes “winning” doesn’t solve everything. There are still bad guys…but good ones as well. Of course, that’s not a completely unique approach, but I do find that (fantasy) books often still tend either in the dark and gritty or in the fairy-tale ending direction. The Risen Kingdoms books just found the perfect balance for me.

And of course, all the characters I loved in book one and two were still as lovable. And the developing romance was delightful and I’ve read enough romance novels to know what I’m talking about. And – just as importantly – the non-romantic relationships were also amazing. For many of characters friendship was an important motivator…and if they aren’t saving each other they make sarcastic comments at each other which are the best kind of friendships.

A.K. Larkwood – The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates #1)

Author: A.K. Larkwood
Title: The Unspoken Name
Series: The Serpent Gates #1

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does — she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.

But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.

But Csorwe will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

Csorwe is an orc. You can tell that because it is occasionally mentioned she has tusks. There are also elves in this book. You can tell that because it is occasionally mentioned that they have pointy ears. Further differences between elves, orcs and humans? Ehem.

I wasn’t hoping for Tolkien-esque magical races (I honestly had enough of that), but giving us a non-human race and then basically turning them into humans who look a bit funny always feels like wasted potential to me.

Another thing that threw me off was…how quickly things happened. Look at the blurb: “a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.” I had expected this to be the book but it isn’t. Most of her training is skipped over (thankfully), she then infiltrates the enemy camp but gets caught and tortured. But because teenagers who had only a crash course military training can withstand everything she doesn’t give anything away, manages to free herself and go back to the wizard who uses the information she collected to take back his seat of power. And that’s the end of part one.

What then follows is quest after quest but with very little time spent on the way to the conclusion of each quest, on the planning, on the finding the way to the place they need to go, on the travelling, on the despair about having no idea what to do…on all the things that lets you see the heroes in different situations. They don’t have to really search for anything. Time is skipped till a point where they already know where to find what they want. The characters are barely ever uncertain about things. Once they made a decision – to obey or disobey an order, to go somewhere, they just do it and then usually quickly land in a situation where they have to fight and almost get killed.

Just like I’m not saying that it should have been Tolkien elves and orcs, I’m not saying that book should have been 95% road travel and then one epic battle but by only seeing them in these high-strung situations made me feel as if I missed important parts of their characters. And as a result of that…I simply didn’t care much for them.

ARC received from NetGalley

Sam Hawke: City of Lies

Title: City of Lies
Author: Sam Hawke
Series: Poison War #1

Jovan wears two faces. Outwardly, he is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible heir. He’s quiet. Forgettable even. But in truth he is a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family. Then there is his sister, Kalina. She hides her frustrations behind a mask of serenity. While other women of the city holds positions of power and responsibility, her path is full of secrets and lies – some hidden even from her own brother.

It’s when the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city that the siblings’ world begins to truly unravel. Trapped and desperate, they soon discover that the society into which they were born and grew up also possesses two faces – for behind the sophistication and the beauty lies an ugly truth – this is a world built on oppression and treachery…

This book does a few things very well: the world building is great. Silasta – the city the story takes place in – isn’t just a thinly disguised historic Venice/London/Paris; it has a unique setting and history. Besides: there’s no historical accurate sexism. Women and men are equal and it’s no big deal – there’s just a throwaway comment when an emissary from a different country appears, that it’s different there but since he doesn’t have a big role, that’s it. (It probably should’t be as refreshing as it is but that’s a dissertation for another day).

The plot is also gripping. It’s a mystery at heart. I’d argue with the “It’s like Agatha Christie” but yeah…somebody got poisoned. And then the city is suddenly under siege, something that hasn’t happened in living memory. It’s not a big mental leap to assume that both are connected but how? Who is the poisoner and how many other people are involved?

Jovan and Kalina aren’t just some random people from the city who get caught up in the whole thing. They have been trained to protect the city and its chancellor from a young age. They are prepared to deal with problems…they just didn’t expect the problems to be that huge and for them to happen that early. Really that feels very Millennial Mood to me. But it’s still very different from clueless farmboy who just happens to be the chosen one, which is another thing I really liked about the book. I do prefer it if the world-saving is done by people who know what they’re doing.

Now for the big weakness of the book: the characters. The POV chapters alternate between Kalina and Jovan and there is nothing distinctive about their voices. At one point I put the book down mid-chapter, forgot who the current POV-character was and then wondered why Kalina was suddenly talking so much about poisons before realising that this was actually a Jovan-chapter. That’s…not good.

Then there were all the side-characters which were all really hard to keep apart, especially the city council. There are about a dozen of them and…well they’re also the suspect pool for the poisoning/treason and it’s kind of hard to guess along or just follow a whodunit if you cannot tell the suspects apart.

So that’s really a rather big but. It’s also a first novel, so I’m willing to give the author another try and read the sequel because I’m curious how things will continue (admittedly mostly for the city and the politics and only a bit for the characters but I still want to know).

Allie Therin: Spellbound

Title: Spellbound
Author: Allie Therin
Series: Magic in Manhattan #1

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925

New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

Rating: *sings* you could have had it aaaaaall

This book seemed to have everything I wanted: fantasy, history and romance. It even had history from a peroid I haven’t read much about, so I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I then ended up disappointed.

The most jarring thing was actually the language. Admittedly that’s not an easy thing in historical novels. Having characters use period-authentic speech can sound ridiculous at best and incomprehensible at worst. Which is why I’m usually content with characters that use mostly neutral and possibly to our ears a bit more formal language and avoid saying “That’s so cool” when the novel is set in the middle ages. Really, that’s all that I need to be happy. But in the book, the characters sound modern almost all the time and there’s just the occasional prohibition-era slang-word thrown in, like “doll” for woman. That didn’t work for me at all and every time I came across it, it threw me out of the scene because it didn’t fit together at all. Well, and since characters tend to talk a lot in books, it became really grating.

The romance itself is also not exactly overwhelming. Neither character acts much like their age (early and late twenties respectively) but more like teenagers. There is lot of telling how much they feel for each other but we only really see how Arthur almost gets a hard-on every time Rory uses one of the three Italian words he the author knows. Please. If I never have to read another story in which the mere uttering of a few words in a foreign language leads to near orgasms it’ll still be too soon. I have been on Fanfiktion.de. I have seen things.

I might be a bit more generous if the fantasy part had been better and admittedly it did hook me at first. But then the great climactic battle included some so stupid decisions by our oh-so-clever heroes that it retroactively marred the pretty cool concept and the good ideas that went into the worldbuilding.

ARC received from NetGalley

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.