Enjoyable enough read but didn't quite live up to my fevered expectations
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 10 April 2019
I can’t remember the last time I’d been waiting for a debut novel for so long or with such anticipation. I remember seeing something about this on social media well over a year ago, and I’ve seen lots of buzz about it since. I wasn’t that clear on the plot, but reading between the lines of the fan art and the author’s tweets, it seemed to involve allsorts of things I love: Eastern European/Russian-inspired settings, folklore, dangerous magic – and above all, plenty of morally ambiguous characters and the prospect of a heroine/villain romance. In short, I was expecting something in the same sort of vein as the original Grisha trilogy, which is one of my all time favourite reads.
Having now read it, I can confirm that all of those elements are indeed present, and on the whole, done well. Overall, this was a dark and romantic read which I enjoyed, though it didn’t 100% live up to my (unfairly high?) expectations, or quite cross the line into a 5 star read for me.
The basic premise is that two countries (apparently based on Russia and Poland, though I didn’t quite get that subtlety, just a general Eastern European vibe) are in a long-standing war, in large part caused by their different approaches to magic and religion. Kalyazin is very religious. Little magic is done, and those “clerics” who can wield it do so by calling on the Gods’ favour. Tranavia used to worship the same gods, but cast them out generations ago. Most people do some degree of blood magic and certain blood mages are very powerful. There’s also a group called The Vultures, who wield quasi-religious power alongside the king’s secular power, and deliberately turn themselves into monsters (morally and physically) in order to maximise their magic. The world building and the magic/religious system was pretty solid though at times I could have done with more background and ground rules. I particularly enjoyed the little snippets of information about various gods and saints that opened each chapter.
The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspective of Nadya, an Kalyazinian cleric (who has the distinction both of being the only one still alive and the only one ever able to speak to all the gods) and Serefin, the son of the Tranavian king and a powerful blood mage. It’s hard to say too much more without getting into spoiler territory, but in short, the former is travelling to Tranavia to infiltrate the court, kill the king and return the gods to that country, and the latter is embroiled in court intrigue, increasingly convinced his own father is trying to have him killed. The other main character (albeit he doesn’t get POV chapters) is Malachiasz, another powerful blood mage whom Nadya meets en route and who seems to have defected from Tranavia, though his motives and alliances are unclear. The plot kept me turning the pages, though particularly towards the end, I found it a bit convoluted and hard to follow in places.
Malachiasz was undoubtedly my favourite character, though all three are pretty strong and there’s a good array of supporting characters too. I’d been expecting and hoping for characters somewhere on the morally grey hero to antihero to villain protagonist/love interest spectrum, and on the whole, I was pleased with how the author made the key characters suitably ruthless and had them take some very morally dubious courses of action, without ever losing sight of believable motivations.
I’ve got to admit that with a book like this, I come for the worldbuilding and the plot, but I stay for the romance. I had slightly mixed feelings here. The main romance is between Nadya and Malachiasz, and it certainly makes for lots of tension and some lovely romantic scenes with a bit of an edge. I enjoyed it, but I never got completely swept away in in. I think the problem is that despite their very different backgrounds and original allegiance, they have pretty much the same aim more or less from when they meet, so for most of the book, it never had quite the full-blown forbidden love vibe that I was craving. Though at times, it did come tantalisingly close.
Overall then, a really well done and enjoyable read and I will 100% be picking up the sequel as soon as it’s available, but sadly, Nadya and Malachiasz – and by extension, their world and their stories - didn’t quite set up a permanent home in my psyche in quite the same way as the obvious comparator of Alina and the Darkling, or other similar couplings from other favourite series.
4 people found this helpful