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:

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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.

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:

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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)

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

Dust and Light (Sanctuary #1)

18683282Title: Dust and Light
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Sanctuary #1

How much must one pay for an hour of youthful folly? The Pureblood Registry accused Lucian de Remeni-Masson of “unseemly involvement with ordinaries,” which meant only that he spoke with a young woman not of his own kind, allowed her to see his face unmasked, worked a bit of magic for her….After that one mistake, Lucian’s grandsire excised half his magic and savage Harrowers massacred his family. Now the Registry has contracted his art to a common coroner. His extraordinary gift for portraiture is restricted to dead ordinaries—beggars or starvelings hauled from the streets.

But sketching the truth of dead men’s souls brings unforeseen consequences. Sensations not his own. Truths he cannot possibly know and dares not believe. The coroner calls him a cheat and says he is trying to weasel out of a humiliating contract. The Registry will call him mad—and mad sorcerers are very dangerous….

RatingC

One part of Dust and Light is a buddy cop movie. No, seriously. There’s the new guy who is a posh bloke, arrogant, privileged and obsessed with obeying rules to the letter. And there’s a working class guy who has been doing this job for a long time who is very aware that justice sometimes clashes with what is legal. Of course, they can’t stand each other at first. But then a murdered child turns up and they realize that both want the person behind this to pay for their crime. There is also some mutual life-saving involved and soon they’re willing to do everything for each other.
The other part of the book is a conspiracy thriller. Lucian discovers that he has some very powerful enemies. He has no idea why they are after him but he soon learns that he can trust nobody. Now he somehow has to find out what’s so special about him that the whole magical government is after him while also avoiding being captured by said magical government. (And catch a child-killer. Because the constant threat of imprisonment and worse is no excuse to neglect your strong moral compass).

I love buddy cop shows. I hate conspiracy thrillers. And the thriller is the main plot. Now despite my dislike for that particular genre: it’s a very well done one. The more Lucian finds out about the why the less he knows whom he can trust. And the more he has to deal with what this why means for him and his convictions. Carol Berg once said that she likes to put her heroes in situations where they have to go against their most valued beliefs and that is very true for Lucian. I really felt for him that on top of everything he also has to come to terms with something that major.

And all that made me often almost forget that all the conspiracy thriller tropes actually exhaust me. But then came yet another scene that made me wonder why Lucian hasn’t collapsed from exhaustion at an inopportune moment because he spent the last three days mostly without sleep, constantly running and getting beaten up at least once. Or he got attacked and my first thought was ‘Well, there’s about 8 possible choices for who did this’. So I was annoyed and at the same time really wanted to know how it all continues. (I still do and so I will read book two). Somebody who is less bothered by these tropes will probably enjoy this book more than I did. But for me, it’s a book I liked but one that won’t get a space on my favorite shelf.