“The Gathering Storm” by Robin Bridges

Rating – 4/5 stars

Overall – a nice, quick read. Genres: historical and paranormal fiction. Although the blurb on the book makes it out to be a dark book, it has its funny moments and a cute romantic subplot. A good read, especially for anyone who’s a Russia history buff.

What’s a samovar? It’s an excellent question—and one I’d never thought to ask before I read The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges. It is historical fiction, and those of you who know already what a samovar is can guess what exact period of history: imperial Russia.

The protagonist, named Katerina Alexandrovna or Katiya for short, is the daughter of a minor duke. Nevertheless, because of her ancestry, which can be traced back to Nicholas the First and Catherine the Great, she is considered a princess of imperial blood—and she absolutely hates it. She wants to study medicine and become a doctor, not sit around looking pretty while waiting to find a suitable husband. Katiya’s headstrong, thinks for herself, and is absolutely the opposite of what she’s expected to be as a high-born young woman. Seems like your typical feminist literature so far, doesn’t it?

As if being a tomboy doesn’t make her odd enough, she also has a secret: the power to raise the dead.

Suddenly, Duchess Katiya is Necromancer Katiya. After so many years of hiding her secret, she’s found out after trying to save the tsarevich (heir to the tsar, the crown prince, basically) from a love spell—and suddenly caught in tangle of dark secrets and manipulative people who all want her power for their use. St. Petersburg isn’t just the capital city of imperial Russia; it’s the backdrop of an intense power struggle between two different courts of magical creatures: the Light Court and the Dark Court. Each court is ruled by a powerful faerie—the empress (or tsarina) and Grand Duchess Miechen, respectively. Despite being sisters-in-law, each despises and is jealous of the other. Each court attracts a certain kind of magic and a certain kind of creatures. For example, the vampires featured in the book belong to the Dark Court, as does Katiya, since her powers are dark magic. The creatures of both courts want to use Katiya’s abilities to further their own influence. One family goes too far by accidentally reviving a long-forgotten threat to Russia, and only Katiya has the capacity to save her country.

The first thing I’d like to say about this book: the history is legit (and I don’t use that word lightly). My preference for historical fiction is when it has fictional characters but is based on actual events, such as World War 2 or Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation; as a result, the historical setting seemed sidelined to me when I thought it should be the star of the show. But I certainly can’t say that the history aspect adds no value to the plot: the entire premise of the story is based on actual Slavic myths, such as that about the bogatyr, a legendary knight. Basically all of the characters—except for Katiya herself, naturally—were real people, such as Tsar Nicholas II, who appears in the story as the tsarevich. Really high-quality historical fiction is the kind where you have to spend half an hour on Wikipedia to figure out what was true and what was the author’s imagination—because everything feels real.

Disclaimer though: the pace of the story is a little slow. Some of the scenes are just conversations; they don’t feel like scenes with direction. To be fair, things heat up really quickly at the end, and there are some nice action scenes. However, I, for one, don’t mind a little slice-of-life in books, so if you like that type of fiction, you’ll enjoy the story.

And just so you know: a samovar is basically a large kettle used to brew tea. Apparently, the way the tea is brewed makes it pretty strong, so a samovar is very unique to Russian culture.

“Red Queen” by Victoria Aveyard

Rating – 4/5 stars

Overall – a dark, convoluted tale about power and segregation, all set in a thrilling fantasy world.

Red Queen is set in the kingdom of Norta, a world where the color of your blood determines your future. Reds have red blood and are the working class; they are the peasants that toil all day and never know what it’s like to be full. Silvers are superior in every way: the nobles of Norta belong to different houses with each house boasting a special ability: you could be a whisper who can read minds, a magnetron with the ability to manipulate metal, or a singer whose voice can charm others into doing your bidding. Silvers are taught to value power and strength above all. Their oppressive regime ensures that the gap between the Silvers and Reds ever widens.

Mare Barrow is a Red living in this harsh reality. She hails from the Stilts, a small village of poorly made houses and destitute people. Her only living is made from pickpocketing, so when she’s caught lifting a coin from a Silver’s purse, she expects the worst that the law can bring down upon her: jail? Death? Instead, she finds herself with a new job at the palace, and within a few short hours turns her world on her head. When Mare suddenly reveals herself to have special powers—powers that she shouldn’t have—she becomes something different. Not Red, not Silver, but stronger than both. The king attempts to hide what she is by declaring her a long-lost Silver daughter of a respected house, and she is immediately betrothed to the younger son of the royal family, Prince Maven. While trying to convince the kingdom that she has what it takes to be a true Silver, Mare becomes involved in the work of a revolutionary group called the Scarlet Guard. Who will she choose: the people with her same color blood, or the people with the same special abilities? Will she submit to the will of the tyrannical Queen Elara forever or help orchestrate an overthrowing of the Silver regime? And in a world where anyone can betray anyone, who can she trust?

First of all, let’s talk about Mare. As a main character, her morals seemed fairly flimsy to me: she’s a criminal even before she’s crowned a princess-to-be and begins to scheme to overthrow the throne.The Scarlet Guard seem at first like a mere bunch of troublemakers who may be justified in wanting a change of government. The narrator shared the ideology of the Scarlet Guard and felt so deeply that they were doing the right thing—that’s the only thing that prevented me from immediately being suspicious. Part of the reason why I was so intrigued by this book is because I feel like I would never make the decisions Mare did, but I still speculated what I might have to do if I were in her circumstances—being shamed and forced into generational poverty and an early death in the military, simply because her blood was red and she didn’t have any power. For the most part, though, I liked her as a main character. She’s tough. If she isn’t given something she wants, she takes it. At times she can be indecisive and bitter, and at others surprisingly compassionate. I could best describe her as a cross between Ella of Frell from Ella Enchanted and America Singer from The Selection.

One of my favorite things about dystopian literature is the world building. I was interested to see how Silvers’ prejudices of the Reds manifest in their everyday lives. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, really: a set of strict, slightly biased laws that seem to punish Reds more often but equally severely as they do Silvers; quite a bit of hate-speech used to describe how Reds are inferior to Silvers; and a sharp contrast between the Reds’ low-paying manual labor and perpetually empty stomachs and the Silvers’ lifestyles of luxury, excess, and power. A few nice details jump out at the reader, though: the slight feud between noble houses to have the best ability; Mare having to paint herself so that she blushes silver instead red once becoming a princess-to-be; and Reds having to face conscription at age eighteen if they don’t have a job or apprenticeship by then.  Overall, the effect is a satisfyingly diverse and conflicted world. The author got creative with some of the Silver-Red differences that completely didn’t occur to me. I was pleasantly surprised.

Some of the other minor characters were fun to read about and watch Mare interact with. For example, Captain Farley, captain of the Scarlet Guard, reminds me of Mare: strong-willed, confident, and able to take care of herself. At first, she and Mare clash because of their different ideas on the same topic; however, they learn to respect each other. Kilorn Warren is Mare’s childhood best friend who barely avoids the conscription and soon joins the Scarlet Guard. They exchange a substantial amount of banter and argue just as much. Being a whisper, Queen Elara is used to having her way with everybody, but she isn’t as satisfied with Mare, who takes every opportunity to fight her will. The queen is established from the beginning to be rotten, but watching Mare squirm out from under her thumb is delightful. Various other minor characters add color to the backdrop of the story.

All in all, Red Queen was a well-paced, vivid read that was alternately heart-wrenching and triumphant. The ending was more bitter than I’d liked, but the suspense of the whole story was great and had me eagerly anticipating the sequel. All in all, 4 out 5 stars.

Note: this book is part of a four-book series. It’s followed by Glass Sword, King’s Cage, and War Storm.

“The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Rating – 3.5/5 stars

Overall – “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton as an intriguing read. The premise (and the vibrant, colorful cover) are what immediately drew me in.

Orleáns is a world where beauty is prized above all else. According to the people’s mythology, the Sky God became jealous of how his wife, the Goddess of Beauty, spent more time with their children—humans—than him. As revenge, he turned all humans red-eyed, gray-skinned, and doomed to one day go crazy. These “ugly” humans, called the Gris people, had no hope until the Goddess of Beauty bestowed upon them a gift: the Belles. The Belles are young women born beautiful and with the power to turn others beautiful (albeit temporarily). When all Belles turn sixteen, they are presented at the palace, where the queen will assign different places to live and work for each of them. Camellia Beauregard and her five sisters are the only Belles in her generation, and each one wants to be chosen as favorite—the most powerful Belle, who lives at court and advises the queen and princess on beauty and fashion decisions. Camille loves her sister, but harbors a fierce desire to become the favorite. After navigating through disappointment, anger, and confusing secrets, she becomes the favorite—only to find out that life is not as rosy as she thinks. The princess slowly demands that she do more and more horrifying things. The queen begs Camille to use her powers in unintended ways to heal her other, comatose, daughter. And through all of this, Camille fights to figure out the mysteries of court—and of the Belles, where they come from, and what their real use is.

Let’s first talk about the premise for this book. The author encloses a letter to the reader at the back of the book talking about why she wrote the book. It’s obvious from the cover and the blurb on the inner jacket flap that the book is going to be focusing a lot on beauty. I think that the questions the author tried to explore in this book were “What is beauty?” and “Who defines what is beautiful?” These elements do come through in her writing; the societal and cultural background of the story clearly reveals to the reader that that the people of Orleans believe that beauty is the opposite of what they are born as. The whole premise of the book revolves around people who are born thinking of themselves as ugly, and are practically addicted to constantly undergoing plastic surgery to be accepted as beautiful by others. When put like that, the whole idea seems absurd and unnecessary. I feel like in this book, the author intended to mirror and exaggerate the faith people in our modern-day world have in the fact that if they try just a little bit harder—or spend a little more money paying for another surgery—they will be just as beautiful as the celebrities they see in the media.

It’s a theme that’s being talked about in real life as well; I think the author hoped that by exaggerating our reality just a bit more until it seemed crazy, readers would realize how flawed our perception of beauty is, and how each person has a different way of being beautiful. I feel like the main theme, while powerful and relevant to readers today, doesn’t really successfully come through in the book. The book describes the twists and turns of Camille’s court life and her relationships with her sisters after being split up. Later, her main problems include whether to help cure the unconscious princess, how to obey the awake princess’s demands to make those she is jealous of less beautiful, and her troubling feelings for a boy. The idea of beauty’s excessively important role in Orleans—and even our own society—comes through well when describing the setting. It’s all in the small things, such as how women completely change their body types and physiques every few months to keep up with the trends, or how beauty tokens to pay for treatments are extremely hard to procure, or even how the Belles have had to formulate a tea to serve as a painkiller for patients during surgery (yes, beauty IS pain, and a lot of pain at that). The details are subtle. The plot subtly suggests this theme, but readers have to be astute to pick up on this hidden message. I suppose this might be for the better; after all, there is some pride that comes with figuring out the theme of a complex story. Overall, I wasn’t quite satisfied with how well the message came through. While the main ideas are well conveyed in the backdrop, the actual story doesn’t seem to completely revolve around the idea of how beauty is given too much importance.

I may have ranted about the message of the story, but my other problem with this book is how passive the narrator is. She witnesses and is forced to perform many of horrible events—changing a woman’s face to make her look like a pig, for example—in this story. Camellia understandably tries to protect herself from the full force of the princess’s wrath; still, it’s hard not to judge her for letting other people make her do things and try to make amends later, even if she knows the demands aren’t ethical or the right thing to do. When her best friend is selected as the original favorite, Camellia wanted the position so badly that she can’t feel any happiness for Amber; instead, she’s angry and jealous. Thankfully, she moves past this phase. The ending is satisfying mainly because Camellia realizes the error in her ways and seeks to fix her mistake. It provides a hint of a promise that she’s changed, as most good protagonists are supposed to do. Although the plot arch is well constructed and the conclusion is intriguing but fulfilling, I still feel a little annoyed that Camellia was an indecisive narrator for so much of the book.

What I truly have to commend Dhonielle Clayton for is her world-building. Lately, I’ve been interested mostly in dystopian fiction, and setting is SO important there: is there a corrupt government? Is there a geographical reason why things are so bad? Is the world about to end? Although I wouldn’t quite classify this book as dystopian—the premise is a little less blatant and a little more magical than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, for instance—the world that this book is set in really affects how and why each character acts the way they do. I feel like one of the most important questions in a dystopian novel is whether there are cultural and social obligations driving each character’s actions. Ms. Clayton effectively presents Orleans as a vibrant society of people who are motivated by the attainment of their society’s idea of beauty, and how everyone—even the young Grises who haven’t had their first beautifying surgery yet—is affected by the compulsive need to be on trend and possess beauty. Without all of the subtle details I mentioned before that the author tucks in here and there, it would be much harder to understand the characters, and the plot arch of the story would be much less logical. Although I wish the plot had been more centered on Ms. Clayton’s beliefs, the way she paints the backdrop of a sparkling yet greedy Orleáns is well done. She doesn’t force the idea of beauty’s idea on us too much because she knows that most readers were raised that way, surrounded by icons and media that encouraged going through any length to look perfect. I think that she balances how much detail to add and how much to leave to imagination really well.

All in all, an intriguing story. I have some minor issues with how the book was constructed, but it was on the most part a satisfying read with a surprising ending. And who doesn’t like a surprise?