I had two major impressions of this book. My favourite was, “WHOA RUSSIA. We have had a Russia crush since high school.” The cultural parts of the setting are meticulously researched, and it definitely shows. Like the best of historical fiction, the details are accurate, and presented as though everything is immediate and familiar. The historical and cultural stuff is put into a natural context, rather than seen through the veil of the modern day or another culture. Katerina is a duchess in the Russian court in a time when the court flourishes. Everyone she knows is royal, and everyone knows who is related to whom. I recognised all the named places. It was never like Die Hard 5, where Russia was actually Hungary the whole time. It’s just a good solid… part of the setting.
My other impression was not impressed with basically the entire rest of the book.
The rest of the setting was given only the vaguest, lightest possible amount of attention. I honestly finished the book unsure of what supernatural elements were definitely a Real Thing and which were debunked as far as this world is concerned. In my original review, I wrote, “There are vampires, but also no one believes in them, except that someone famously drove them away, but people are acting like vampires are only a myth, so what is even the hell.” The writing offers very weak, often incomplete information, and often backpedals and contradicts that very information.
Without the historical fiction as a background, this would have just been an embarrassingly weak entry into the paranormal genre. It borrows from notable books without really bringing new things to the table, either with plot or characters, and the supernatural elements are treated like unwelcome guests to a really loud party.
Katerina herself is not a remarkable character. She isn’t immediately annoying, but she isn’t all that sympathetic or interesting either.. Maybe there isn’t any intentional borrowing, but it definitely reminded me of other books. None of them were ones I would have rather read, but that is not a point in this book’s favour.
Anyway, Katerina is a necromancer, which mostly serves to make her scared of her power and being found out. She doesn’t do anything interesting with it, except by accident once or twice, and it’s easy to get annoyed with her concern and outright refusal to confide in anyone. She behaves a lot like the necromancer in Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning. This is most apparent whenever she is threatened. She’s very easily cowed. The people who menace who dont’ even have to put any effort into it. She does try to stand up for herself sometimes, generally when it won’t matter.
Her silence, often held on the thinnest of pretexts, is the cause of a lot of tragedy in the book, and if you come to care for the world or any of the other characters, it’s hard to forgive her for that. She is almost directly responsible for the death of one of the most likeable characters. For a really stupid reason. To make it worse, even when she has the sense to blame herself, someone actually tells her it isn’t her fault EVEN THOUGH IT EFFING IS. I hate when characters do that. MAN UP AND TAKE SOME RESPONSIBILITY YOU ARE A FLIPPING DUCHESS.
Once I realised this kind of thing kept happening, it was impossible to enjoy the book.
I mean it. There are multiple times when she could have and should have brought someone into her confidence or just explained a situation in order to get out of trouble. There is no way to emphasize this enough. A significant percentage of the conflict is predicated on her not sharing information for no damn reason.
What makes it worse is that every single time that she actually stopped being a moron and asked for help, the conflict was resolved or at least ameliorated. Her cousin is mysteriously ill and no one will do enough to help? She goes to Dr Kruglevski and he saves the day. This is a very direct, positive result to a request for help, and she doesn’t learn from it. People died who did not have to, because Katerina deludes herself into thinking she can’t/shouldn’t tell anyone what’s been going on. Not through some bold hubris that makes her believe she can take care of things on her own. That would be an interesting character flaw. No, she’s just a wet rag who finds it easier to stand dumb than speak the hell up.
The other thing that started to grate on my nerves is that it sometimes feels like a Twilight expy. Not in a big way, but the further it went on, the more little similarities cropped up. And these little similarities were small but rather strong.
- Katerina is crippled from action by fear of others’ opinions
- She refrains from protecting herself from all sorts of harm and justifies it as protecting others.
- Her love interest is a fairy or something
- He has a female relative who sees the future
- Werewolf? (i think)
- Vampire war
- Poorly developed romance that results in encompassing passion
Maybe it’s not the Twilight thing that’s annoying, but that these are all overused tropes that were in that book too. Maybe this book is just not my thing. I liked the plot, I liked the part of the setting that dared to be complete, and I like this author.
This book would have been three stars, but now it’s 2.5 because I’m tired enough to not have understood all of the supernatural elements.
I still think that Katerina could use some better communication skills. I’m really tired of inaction being a character flaw. All it does is open the way to unlimited navel gazing and the only conflict coming from other characters or a timer running out. Give me the screw-ups who rush into danger back, please.