Read an advanced copy on NetGalley
Content warning: on-page murder and violence, decapitation, gun violence, body horror, off-page dismemberment, reference to the mutilation of corpses, religious and ethnic persecution, death of a parent (off-page)
Toma lives in the wilderness with her benevolent upyri parents and younger sister. A dirigible erupts near their home, where the found family nurses a boy back to help. He turns out to Mikhail, the tsar who is on the run from violent revolutionaries. The two run off to find Toma’s sister, Galina, stolen by enemies, and pick up a snarky boy witch on the way.
With layered world-building that examines monstrosity and otherness with an endearing cast, this one is a must-read for fans of historically-grounded Slavic dark fantasy.
An interview with the author is going up on September 20th, release day.
I might be somewhat biased because I am Slavic myself, but the way folklore and mythology weave throughout the tapestry of this novel is so cool. It’s unequivocal that this is a fantasy world and the levels of familiarity with that magic felt so organic to me. For example, some people see the rusalki as monsters. Others see them as beings not to mess with. Sometimes resurrections and necromancy just happen like any other natural phenomenon, or it’s guided by a magician’s hand. And this kind of nuance extends to all aspects within the world. It’s an empire teetering on the edge of revolution, with the scars of past wars and conflicts still very raw. The shadow hanging over every new location feels immersive and makes the world seem much larger and older than this one adventure of a girl seeking her sister while crossing a continent in conflict.
Though the aesthetics, world conflict, technology, and class structure clearly draw from early twentieth century Russian history, this is not a Romanovs book. While Mikhail might be the tsar on the run, he’s fully aware of his privilege, power, and role among the characters he interacts with and meets. His character arc is probably my favorite. He starts off as an emotional-injured boy who would love nothing more than to run. As he sees what conflict and inequality are doing to his country, he slowly learns that he cannot run away, but he can try to make things better between the nobility and everyone else. The book doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after as that conflict goes, but there is the promise of rebuilding and work to be done. There is also the acknowledgement that just because he survives this story, it doesn’t mean he’s healed. But there is healing to come well past the last page.
That being said, the happily ever after coupled with a mysterious past and present belongs to Toma. Specifics are avoided because spoilers. But what I can say is I loved how Polydoros strikes a balance between love of family and love of friends, with both carrying equal weight. This book does embrace its darker themes and moments, but treats them with the proper reverence, especially when the characters themselves wallow in gallows humor to keep themselves going.
When it comes to the queer representation, I found the solidarity among all the characters so refreshing. The world isn’t necessarily queernorm, but queerness is not at all the reason our characters are on the run (the mention of paternal rejections stems more from unreasonable expectations rather than homophobia). They have other problems, like a tribunal, rebels, monsters, and more. Talking more specifically with regard to how the relationships play out would spoil the end game couple, but I really enjoyed the camaraderie, banter, and bickering among Vanya, Toma, and Mikhail.
I’m going to be thinking about this story and its cast for a long time.