Friday, July 29, 2016

THE UNFAILING LIGHT


Review of THE UNFAILING LIGHT by ROBIN BRIDGES
(second in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Katerina’s adventures continue in this second installment in a gripping trilogy about dark magic in 19th century Russia. She’s ready and eager to start medical school, but then the tsar waylays her plans. Given Katerina’s unique position as the only one capable of defending the tsar from a particular threat, he can’t very well afford to have her far away from him, for both his protection and her own. To make matters worse, it’s Katerina’s love interest, the tsar’s son George, who has to deliver this news, proving that Katerina is a bit of a shoot-the-messenger personality.

So Katerina finds herself back at her dull school for ladies, again roommates with Danilo’s sister. George goes off to study with wizards in France, leaving Katerina (and literally, thanks to a spell) trapped at the institute. With a violent ghost, apparently. And unfortunately the same spell that holds Katerina captive also suppresses her magic, so she’s about as powerless as anyone else to stop the ghost.

Thanks to a plot driven storyline, a very fast pace, and short chapters, it’s easy to tear through this whole novel in a few sittings. The book does and doesn’t suffer from middle book syndrome. On the one hand, I found it thoroughly engrossing from beginning to end. However, when I step away from the text and start thinking about the storyline, not much happens in this installment. The majority of it (maybe as much as three quarters) is build up to the actual developments.

I did continue to find Katerina quite a passive heroine. She spends most of the novel observing rather than taking part in events and always takes her boldest steps in each book’s climax. I do feel very frustrated that even Katerina’s amazing magical feats are usually accidental. She doesn’t understand or have much control on her powers. It would be more satisfying for me to feel she’s earned her impressive feats, but instead she’s usually looking around confused and asking, “Did I do that?” 

In general, Katerina does feel like a Mary Sue. I like the layers to her character, but everyone else in this fictional world revolves around her. The rest of the cast is drawn in rough strokes and often has unclear motives that seem more explained by the fact that Katerina (and the book) needed them to do that. In my favorite stories, every character, no matter how small their role, seems the star of their own story that we’re simply not reading at the moment.

I also continued to find myself confused by the characters. In this one, I mixed up titles, relationships, and light vs. dark court alliances. Sometimes it made scenes very difficult to follow if I couldn’t pinpoint those important details. I do like huge casts when the author can handle them, but in my favorites the author usually either manages to make each character unforgettably distinct or she offers a small reminder in important scenes that helps with context.

Criticisms aside, I would definitely call this series a page-turner and can’t wait to read the final novel.

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