My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Prince Nikandr Iaroslov, of the Duchy of Khalakovo, one of the mountainous islands of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, harbors many secrets. He contracted a fatal wasting disease, as has his sister Victania, for which he desperately seeks a cure. His lover, Rehada, is a native Aramahn, scorned as the ‘Landless’ by the ‘Landed’ citizens of the duchy. Rehada, in turn, harbors secrets of hate and revenge for the murder of her infant daughter by the Landed. Scorning her peaceful Aramahn heritage, she joins the splinter terrorist sect called the Maharraht, seeking to secretly strike back at the invaders The Aramahn work with the Landed, setting an example of peaceful coexistence, unconditional love and all-encompassing forgiveness, while the Maharraht strive for action, sabotage, subterfuge and lethal violence to rid the islands of the hated Landed.
Princess Atiana Radieva, of the Duchy of Vostroma, arrives with the rest of her family to seal the arranged marriage with Prince Nikandr, becoming the third and final side of this love/hate triangle. She and her two sisters grew up with Nikandr, teasing him and their brother, Borund, relentlessly and sometimes cruelly. Nikandr dreads leaving Rehada, has little hope of forging any emotional connection to Atiana, and fears what will happen should the Vostromans discover his disease. As with most arranged marriages among aristocracy, all is not romance and roses, political influence shifts hands, trade concessions secure Khalakovon natural resources for the Vostromans, all to strengthen these two Duchies as the islands are wracked by years of famine and blight. The starving peasants care little for the political posturing, seething with unrest and starting to riot over scant rations.
I could appreciate the new twist on a fantasy world, using Czarist Russia (and possibly the Cossacks in particular) as a basis for the ruling regime. I didn’t quite grasp the connection from land-locked unforgiving Ukraine or Siberia with a naval-like empire of wind ships, which appeared to be (from the limited descriptions provided by the author) some sort of strange sailing monstrosity with masts on four sides (top, bottom, port and starboard). Landing, even on an eyrie perch, must have been a nightmare, and what happens in an emergency when you need to ‘crash’ land on the sea or land? Masts break and sails rip dramatically, but completely impractical and short-sighted.
The magic system as revealed through the actions of various bit players also did not lend itself to easy understanding. The Aramahn bond with elemental spirits through various semi-precious stones and the Matri (the Duchy matriarchs) manipulate the aether from the cold dark, forcing order upon the world’s winds over the entropy of the natural and spiritual worlds. This, together with a thin skin of worldbuilding left me with nothing but the forward fast pace of the events unfolding to keep my attention. Not even the tragic ending could bring any emotion to the surface for Nikandr, Atiana or Rehada. The growth experienced by these characters failed to convince me to believe the actions they took. Even Rehada’s confession to Atiana lacked conviction. Nikandr’s professed love for the pivotal Nasim, even though Nikandr seemed willing to sacrifice himself for the boy, just didn’t ring true. Much too much ‘telling’ and sparse ‘showing’ prevailed throughout the novel.
Kudos to Brad Beaulieu for providing me with a crash course in Slavic vocabulary, including words he crafted for this world that look and sound like their consonant-heavy guttural Eastern European counterparts.
I doubt I’ll be following the further permutations of Nikandr, Atiana, Nasim or the Flying Cossacks. The pacing kept me wanting to read what happened next, but when I finished, I found I didn’t care what had happened.