Friday, July 1, 2016

THE GATHERING STORM


Review of THE GATHERING STORM by ROBIN BRIDGES
(first in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Young duchess Katerina lives in a glittering world of balls, etiquette, and, yes, magic. Only Katerina hides her power, ashamed of her disturbing gift. She’s a necromancer, and a powerful one at that. Even with her best efforts not to use her dark magic, sometimes it happens almost by accident. However, when a vampire prince threatens her family unless she marries him, Katerina doesn’t see a lot of other options.

Yes, vampire. My committed readers will know how I loathe all things undead, be they vampire or zombie or some attempt at a creature more unique. However, THE GATHERING STORM held my attention primarily because the focus isn’t on the undead (and, by the way, there are both vampires and zombies...and creatures more unique). This is a historical fantasy at its heart about Russian society and how to be yourself in an environment that pushes you hard to be something else.

My only complaint about the vampire element is that, as usual for me, I found there to be abrupt, erotically toned scenes that just seem random and out of place. I guess it’s supposed to allude to vampires’ seductive powers, but I’m at a loss to understand the appeal of these scenes where all of a sudden a guy you don’t like is stroking your neck.

I did keep mixing this book up with another one I read at the same time. (Review to come next week.) While I always read several books at once, I rarely do that, confuse them. However, these two featured protagonists so eerily similar as to be almost interchangeable. Both want to be doctors in a strict society that limits women’s options and laughs at such ambitions. Both have rule-abiding mothers who want only for their daughter to be good, normal, and feminine. Both have progressive fathers who encourage, even admire, their daughter’s controversial aspirations. From there, the books become so incredibly different that it’s funny I would confuse them: this one about the undead in late 19th century Russia and the other about an insane asylum in Victorian England. However, Katerina Alexandrovna and Louisa Cosgrove could easily be the same person.

The book opens with a disclaimer about all the names and will confess that I didn’t truly invest until well over halfway through because I couldn’t keep track of everyone. Also age was very unclear for me. It significantly changes things to know whether Katerina is talking to a teenage boy her own age, someone more her father’s age, or an elderly gentleman - and same goes with the women. I often couldn’t root the scene until I figured out age and sometimes I would discover later that someone was much older or younger than I thought and had to re-frame past scenes. I did find the villains enjoyably complex. Most seem more spoiled and entitled than “pure evil.” And, once I could keep track of everyone, I loved the large cast.  

I also found the novel slightly too gender roled for me. Now Katerina is certainly no damsel is distress. However, there is a sense of women being the brains and men the brawn. When wit is needed, she will step forward to help, maybe even be the foremost problem solver. However, when the situation calls more for a sword or a punch, she seems to stand around waiting for someone male to take action. In short, her self-sufficiency comes and goes.

I knew going in that this is the first in the trilogy and it definitely feels that way, more like the beginning to a bigger story. The climax is quite chaotic and the ending a little abrupt. While I’ve listed plenty of criticisms in this review, I did feel myself sucked in (sorry, couldn’t resist the vampire pun) and can’t wait to discover how Katerina grows into her own strength.

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