My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let's look at the blurb. The time and place:
St. Petersburg, Russia, 1888. As she attends a whirl of glittering balls...
That right there, ugh, I should hate it. On the other hand it's historical, which I absolutely love, but on the other hand it's Russia and we Finns have a long history with Russians. On the other hand, it's Imperial Russia and the tsar is the son of Alexander II who we Finns love, never mind what he did to the rest of his subjects, we love him. (If you're interested to know why, look it up.)
Oh, and the neverending balls, ugh. I should definitely hate this.
...royal debutante Katerina Alexandrovna, Duchess of Oldenburg, tries to hide a dark secret: she can raise the dead. No one knows. Not her family. Not the girls at her finishing school. Not the tsar or anyone in her aristocratic circle.
And here we have the main character, the girl with the first person voice (another strike against the book, by the way), and she's keeping secrets. The undead kind. I should definitely hate this. Paranormal and I have a rocky history, and there's a reason why I prefer character driven romances without the supernatural element. The authors of paranormal stories tend to either forget the character development by focusing on the plot, or they overindulge in the so-called 'destined to be life altering soul connection love affair' so that the two lovers don't actually have anything to do within the book.
Not the case with this one. I actually fell in love with Katerina's voice. She's both the product of her upbringing – an obedient loving daughter whose sole purpose in life is to marry well and have children – and a headstrong girl dreaming of a life and career of her own healing the sick. She has a good head on her shoulders and recognises when she's in trouble. She knows when she should be smarter, when to run away, and when to stay and fight. Oh, and she detests balls, but she participates because that's what good girls who love their parents did in the1880's.
Katerina considers her talent a curse, not a gift. But when she uses her special skill to protect a member of the Imperial Family, she finds herself caught in a web of intrigue.
The hook. There's a healthy dose of self-hatred and insecurity in Katerina, but that doesn't stop her from using the part of herself she hates to do something she feels is right. She has a sense of duty to her tsar and to her motherland that supersedes her self-interest even when it could be hazardous to her health. Speaking of hazards...
An evil presence is growing within Europe's royal bloodlines—and those aligned with the darkness threaten to topple the tsar.
There's a presence and it's evil. There's the plot and there's plenty of it; it's not just a love story. There's little else I can say without spoiling the book and I really don't want to do that. I think I loved this book as much as I did partly because I knew so little about it beforehand. I'd just barely glanced at the blurb. So, I think I'll let you discover it for yourselves.
Suddenly Katerina's strength as a necromancer attracts attention from unwelcome sources . . . including two young men—George Alexandrovich, the tsar's standoffish middle son, who needs Katerina's help to safeguard Russia, even if he's repelled by her secret, and the dashing Prince Danilo, heir to the throne of Montenegro, to whom Katerina feels inexplicably drawn.
I know what you're thinking. It's not that. I promise you, it's not. I hate the fact that the blurb makes it sound like there's going to be a love triangle in this book, because there's not.
True there are two young men dancing around Katerina – or letting her dance around them, remember the balls – but the actual love story part is told like it should be:
It starts with mild dislike and deference. As circumstances – the actual plot – keep bringing them together, a tentative rapport emerges and feelings change. There are light touches and longing glances as well as fits of anger and disagreements. There's still much keeping them apart – for a good reason and not for one of those 'let's make a flimsy excuse why they can't be together' – but their love for each other is clear.
It's all deliciously subtle and romantic. It outshines all the star-crossed instant love romances, making gentle mockery of them all. Or maybe that's just how I read it.
The time has come for Katerina to embrace her power, but which side will she choose—and to whom will she give her heart?
Ugh. It's not a love triangle.
There also were things I didn't like about this book.
The name dropping. I'm assuming it was done to paint the era and to show that the author had actually done her research, but all it made me want to do is to go peruse Wikipedia to verify the facts. Pasteur, Pavlov and the rest are happy to report I was too lazy to actually do this.
The silly, silly rituals. I know it's to be expected but all mysterious rituals become ridiculous when you become part of them, even if it's only through a terrified non-believer character.
The abundance of supernatural creatures. Some were only hinted at, others were prominently used, but the sheer number of them meant that none of them were thoroughly utilised or examined. For one, I still don't know what exactly can a necromancer do. I expect this is a part of the bigger journey Katerina and I will have to take together.
The occasional stupidity and inactivity of the main character. But unlike many other heroines, Katerina at least was self-aware, most of the time. She recognised when she was being stupid or silly.
Remember that this is a trilogy and though the story finished without any cliffhangers, the characters themselves are left in a sad but hopeful place.
I received an Advanced Reader's Copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
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