I got a complimentary ARC of this novel from the publisher – thank you very much! That fact of course didn’t influence my opinion in any way.
Synopsis (from Amazon.com) :
In a world where danger hides in plain sight and no one aspires to more than what they were born to, Inga must find the courage to break the oppressive chains she’s been bound with since birth. Even as a maid in the infamous Kremlin, life in 16th-century Russia is bleak and treacherous. That is, until Taras arrives. Convinced that his mother’s death when he was a boy was no mere accident, he returned from England to discover what really happened. While there, he gains favor from the Tsar later known as Ivan the Terrible, the most brutal and notorious ruler ever to sit upon the throne of Russia. Ivan allows him to take a servant, and to save Inga from a brutal boyar intent on raping her, Taras requests Inga to stay in his chambers. Up against the social confines of the time, the shadowy conspiracies that cloak their history, and the sexual politics of the Russian Imperial court, Inga and Taras must discover their past, plan for their future, and survive the brutality that permeates life within the four walls that tower over them all, or they may end up like so many citizens of ancient Russia: nothing but flesh and bone mortar for the stones of the Kremlin wall.
If you start reading a historical book you expect the author to know their way round basic facts concerning history of the country they set their novel in, right? However in this case, the first serious factual mistake I found right at the beginning. It was something, ironically, I found it in the so-called ‘historical note’. Let me quote the appropriate fragment verbatim:
“He (Ivan the Terrible) was the first leader of unified Russia to crown himself Tsar, and his marriage resulted in the elevation of the Romanov family—the descendants of whom would remain royalty for many years, culminating in the notorious fate of Nicholas and his family during the Bolshevik revolution just prior to World War I.”
A ‘deep respecter of history’, as the author calls herself right in the next sentence, should know that the World War I also called the Great War lasted from 1914 to 1918 and the Great Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917 so it couldn’t have been prior to WWI in any way unless you think about an alternate history book. These are basic facts, easy to be checked. At that point I had a premonition this novel wouldn’t be exactly my thing but I decided to give it one more chance. Einmal ist keinmal (one-time occurrence is nothing) as my grandma used to say.
After the note I stumbled on a foreword written by Dr. LaRae Larkin, a professor from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah and apparently the former lecturer of the author. Its mere presence made me gasp. Why a his-fic novel of a novice author, or any novel in fact, might need a foreword? It seemed to me that Ms Hill was afraid of her own attempts at writing and asked her old prof to hold her hand, metaphorically speaking . Believe me, there are readers who hate being told what to think of an unread story and, unfortunately, the foreword did exactly that – shamelessly touted the book and its author even before I had an opportunity to read the first chapter or the first paragraph. I hate ads so it made my hackles rise the second time. I started to doubt the whole endeavour. Still I accepted the ARC so I felt it was my duty to carry on.
I understand I was sent an Advanced Reading Copy so something not entirely polished, bound to feature spelling mistakes, needless repetitions of names or pronouns and such. I won’t address those minor flaws – they are easily amended and I don’t want to bore you to death. Let me focus on the major plot problems because there were problems, plenty of them.
First and foremost I was appalled by a total lack of internal logic when it came to the narration flow and the connections between different characters. The characters acted strange because there was no psychological justification of their actions. They just happened. Or not.
One example, right from the beginning. Inga, a girl born in Moscow, whose mother died several days after her birth, tells you how her career in Kremlin started. When Inga was seven her alcoholic father took her to a tavern and then left her there because he’d run out of money and wasn’t able to pay for his drink. The tavern owner in retaliation beat Inga almost to death. I ask you now: why? A tavern owner is just a businessman like any other merchant; I bet he wanted to get paid for the served drinks. Beating a child wouldn’t give him one kopeck more so, unless you show his sadistic nature being stronger or more pronounced than the greed, it doesn’t make sense. Of course it also was supposed to make readers feel for the poor child but the same effect would be obtained if the owner, following the example shown in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, made Inga work for him or if he sold her as a slave.
Then Inga was rescued by Yehvah, a senior maid-servant in the Kremlin. Once again I was neither shown nor told what motivated her, what made her go and stop at that particular tavern with enough money to pay off the debt of Inga’s father. Yehvah just appeared out of nowhere, like a guarding angel-ex-machina, rescued poor child, let her heal and employed her as a kitchen maid in order to progress the plot.
After some time Inga was promoted to a supervisor. Once again I was shown nothing to justify that decision – not one scene during which the girl would prove her superiority over other, older maids. It just happened because, you know, she is our main character so deep down she must be unique in some way – use your imagination, dear reader, and fill in empty spaces in the ‘ character build’ section. By the way I had serious problems with the names. For example the name ‘Inga’ is not Russian but German/ Teutonic – it was of course possible that her parents were of German/Scandinavian descent but it was never properly explained, making me doubt whether the author chose it deliberately or just because it sounded sufficiently exotic for a novel set in the 16th century Russia. The love interest of Inga was called Taras – once again that name would be more proper for an Ukrainian boy, not an English-Russian aristocrat . A cook was called Bogdan – a fine name but once again definitely Polish, not Russian.
What’s more? The first 66 pages of this novel featured a surprising number of hideous infodump dialogues which were not only wooden and boring but also rather improbable. It happened that those were usually conducted among Yehvah and Inga so two servants, an adult and a child; still they mentioned political upheaval, court plotting and assassinations. The ladies never spoke about normal life, their work and everyday issues. Why?
Finally the author completely forgot about adding patronymics, at least in the first part of the book I managed to read/skim. In Russia, the patronymic is an official part of the name, used in all official documents, when addressing somebody both formally and among friends. A Russian will rarely formally address a person named Mikhail simply as ‘Mikhail’, but rather as ‘Mikhail’ followed by his patronymic (i.e. ‘Mikhail Nikolayevich’ or ‘Mikhail Sergeyevich’ etc.) but not in this book. Here everybody, be it a boyar (aristocrat) or a kitchen maid, has just the first name, period. How very…Anglo-Saxon.
Ivan IV the Terrible, a very complex human being and undoubtedly outstanding Russian Tzar, deserves a far better book. This one was appaling – I couldn’t even hit the 100-page mark. Sorry.