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)

Revelation (Rai-Kirah #2)

618197Title: Revelation
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Rai-Kirah #2

The former slave Seyonne, is busy fighting demons in the mental landscapes where they possess the living, just as his people always have–until the day when he meets a demon who is not a ravening beast, but an urbane charming being who knows altogether too much about Seyonne. To the pursuit of an explanation, and a new justice based on that knowledge, Seyonne is prepared to sacrifice everything he has–including his friendship with the Imperial Prince Aleksander and his marriage to his own queen Ysanne. 

Rating: C+

As had happened each time I thought I had discovered the true depth of despair, I turned another corner and found the way still pointed downwards.

It’s rare that a single quote encapsulates a book so perfectly but this one tells you everything you need to know about Seyonne. He quickly reaches a point that makes the events of the first book look harmless – already an achievement – and then things still continue to get worse. As a result, the book slides quite close to the Dark, Edgy and Miserable(TM) territory (something Berg managed to avoid in her other books, despite their protagonists always being really unlucky). So especially during the middle part, it dragged a lot and I managed only one or two chapters per day. It wasn’t because it was boring; I just couldn’t cope with that much misery at once. Seyonne just couldn’t catch a break.

At the same time, the overarching plot is fascinating. It goes in a completely different direction than I would have expected after the first book. While Transformation had a pretty standard (but incredibly well done) fantasy plot of ‘We have to fight the demons’, Revelation now asks ‘Why do we have to fight the demons?’ and the answers to that are hard to stomach. And these parts remind me again why I love Carol Berg’s books so much. It starts off with typical fantasy tropes and then digs really deep into it. She doesn’t subvert them in some high-and-mighty ‘actually fantasy is crap and if this was reality everything would be horrible so I’ll write about how horrible everybody is’-way. It’s rather about ‘We’ve always done it like this and we can’t suddenly change our ways is a really bad reason for doing something’. Especially, if, like in this case, you really don’t know anymore why you’re doing something.

But also, after having enjoyed the great relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander in the first book, none of those in this one could match it. Aleksander himself is absent for most parts and while there are other interesting characters they all only stay with him for a short while and so the relationships with them lack the depths and simply weren’t as fun to read.


Review of Book 1


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

a7449600a5876f7a4153efaf1612dde9

Book themes for Las Posadas: Read a book where the main character is stranded without a place to stay, or find themselves in a ‘no room at the Inn’ situation.

Seyonne is very much stranded. His own people exile him and then he does find a place to stay in the sense of a room with a bed but he isn’t really welcome there.

Ash and Silver (Sanctuary #2)

25176096Title: Ash and Silver
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Sanctuary #2

Ever since the Order of the EquitesCineré stole his memory, his name, and his heart, thinking about the past makes Greenshank’s head ache. After two years of rigorous training, he is almost ready to embrace the mission of the Order—to use selfless magic to heal the troubles of Navronne. But on his first assignment alone, the past comes racing back, threatening to drown him in conspiracy, grief, and murder.

He is Lucian de Remeni—a sorcerer whose magical bents for portraiture and history threaten the safety of the earth and the future of the war-riven kingdom of Navronne. He just can’t remember how or why.

Fighting to unravel the mysteries of his power, Lucian must trace threads of corruption that reach from the Pureblood Registry into the Order itself, the truth hidden two centuries in the past and beyond the boundaries of the world…

RatingC-

I stand by my opinion that people who are not me might enjoy the Sanctuary Duet a lot. Unfortunately, I am me and I still don’t enjoy conspiracy thrillers. And while Dust and Light had at least a very entertaining murder mystery B-plot, Ash and Silver is all about the conspiracy. Well, and Lucian’s lost memories. I like the amnesia trope about as much as conspiracy plots. Still, like for the first book, I have to say that I might dislike the trope in general but it’s still well written. The complete confusion before Lucian’s memories come partly back isn’t drawn out too much and there are enough other things to keep him (and the reader) busy. Very busy in fact. And that’s where I’m again back to a complaint I already had about the first book: there is only so much of a character being constantly on the run and almost getting killed or seriously injured I can take before I refuse to believe that a single person could get through this. At some point, I just crossed the line where I felt for Lucian because yet another thing went wrong and just rolled my eyes and thought ‘seriously?’

Besides, one of the things I always enjoy about Carol Berg novels are the friendships. Her characters might start off as lone wolves but over the course of the story, they meet somebody with whom they form a strong bond. And all of these friendships feel so well-developed and go far beyond what you usually find in fantasy novels. In Dust and Light Lucian had Bastien but while he still appears in the second book his screen-time is much shorter. And, with the conspiracy plot getting turned up to 11, there really isn’t anybody else he can form such a friendship with. He can trust nobody and everybody at least quadruple-crosses him because that’s what happens in conspiracy thrillers…

Last but not least: I wasn’t a fan of the ending. I am used to endings that don’t rule out another book completely from Berg’s other novels. But this one felt a lot like a very strange sequel hook.


Review of book 1