Title: The Gathering Storm
Author: Robin Bridges
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural/paranormal, mythic fiction, young-adult
Series: Katerina Alexandrovna #1
Pages: 395 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: expected January 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Source: publishers via NetGalley
St. Petersburg, Russia, 1888. As she attends a whirl of glittering balls, royal debutante Katerina Alexandrovna, Duchess of Oldenburg, tries to hide a dark secret: she can raise the dead. No one knows. Not her family. Not the girls at her finishing school. Not the tsar or anyone in her aristocratic circle. Katerina considers her talent a curse, not a gift. But when she uses her special skill to protect a member of the Imperial Family, she finds herself caught in a web of intrigue.
An evil presence is growing within Europe's royal bloodlines—and those aligned with the darkness threaten to topple the tsar. Suddenly Katerina's strength as a necromancer attracts attention from unwelcome sources . . . including two young men—George Alexandrovich, the tsar's standoffish middle son, who needs Katerina's help to safeguard Russia, even if he's repelled by her secret, and the dashing Prince Danilo, heir to the throne of Montenegro, to whom Katerina feels inexplicably drawn.
The time has come for Katerina to embrace her power, but which side will she choose—and to whom will she give her heart?
Robin Bridges brings a whole new life to 1880's Russia with her novel about a young, aristocratic, female necromancer. This is a novel that was another slow-starter for me. I was mildly interested and intrigued by Bridges' magically fantastical and dangerous world set in St. Petersburg, but I wasn't well and truly hooked until late in the game - when I was about 300 pages into the novel and less than a hundred from the end. With a disquieting introduction featuring and honing in on the young Katerina Alexandra Maria von Holstein-Gottorp, Duchess of Oldenburg, The Gathering Storm sets its dark, magical tone right from the very first paragraph. With revenants, ghosts, vampires and creatures of the night stalking through the cold nights of Mother Russia, only Katerina has the dark curse able to control them, and try to figure out where all the zombiefied soldiers are coming from - and why they are being created.
Actually beginning eight years after the introduction with Katiya learning her dark powers of reanimating the dead, The Gathering Storm is set during the reign of Tsar Alexander III, known to his people as "The Bear." In this version of historical Russia, both the Light and Dark Courts of Faerie are at play within the Imperial Court of Alexander Romanov. The Imperial Tsar's own wife Dagmar of Denmark (though renamed as Marie Feodorovna) is actually a Light Faerie and controls that aspect of power in Russia. Alexander's own brother Vladimir married, shockingly, into the Dark Court fae: his wife, the Grand Duchess Miechen, has a obvious rivalry with the Empress. Not at all surprisingly, caught between these two women, these two factions, the Russian Court seethes with intrigue, betrayal and. . . magic. I loved the new integration of the faerie within the folds of the historical Russian aristocracy; I just wished it had been more detailed and fleshed out what the roles of the faerie were for, besides fomenting drama. Added to the tensions of the distant/enemy fae courts constantly around her and her family, Katerina has to contend with a witchy classmate at her boarding school named Elena, a princess of the country of Montenegro. And as the reader learns and Elena demonstrates, the fae aren't the only supernatural creatures populating 19th century Russia or its nobility. The author created numerous species/sub-species of vampire to contend with the human population as well. From the moth-like veshtizas, to the upyri, wampyr and even the supreme form of them all: the Vladiki - blood-drinkers descended from Vlad Dracul of Wallachia himself - Bridges has her own, fresh interpretation of vampirism. It's a very dense and complicated mythology that the author has created for her world, but it works.
Katerina, nicknamed Katiya by those who know her and love her, grew on me as the novel progressed. My increased affinity for the book can be directly traced to my increasing affection for the main character. My thought process concerning her went pretty much like this: "Eh" to "I don't hate her" to "I kinda like her" to "Ok, she's cool with me. I want her to live." Her necromantic ability isn't the only "otherworldly" capabilities the young Duchess possesses: she can also see a "cold light that seemed to grow stronger as a person drew nearer to the end" - convenient gift but not one I minded overmuch. What starts out as a sarcastic, genial sixteen year old girl develops into a headstrong, stubborn, intelligent and capable necromancer. Katiya has ambitition, like all the girls her age at the Smolny Institute. Unlike those girls, Katiya is not ambitious for power, for money or for even a Queenship. What she wants most in the world is to be a doctor (this is a girl, who when embroidering, pretending to be working on her sutures) - something not allowed for women in Russia. I found her dream to be interesting: a girl cursed with a gift for the dead desires to use her other powers (brains, strength, audacity) to help others live. Katerina isn't perfect: she can be a bit naive and silly but on the whole, it's her brains that define her - not her ballgowns or boyfriends. She's already a strange girl with her powers, but what truly sets her a part from the mold are her desires for a completely non-traditional life and profession.
And speaking of ballgowns and boyfriends, those were two of my main issues with the bulk of the story in The Gathering Storm. When the novels centers around the hidden magic of St. Petersburg and Katerina's increasingly erratic powers within the city, it is a smooth, engrossing read. When the novel veers off into the endless balls and pageantry of the nobles, the plot gets lost and I got bored - quickly. I kept waiting for the action to start whenever a pleated skirt or a mazurka was part of the narrative. I understand it can't be all madcap-chasing-after-a zombie, or fighting a vampire in a hospital but I needed more meat to the story when the endless balls and banquets were involved. The other main issue: the inevitable and predictable love triangle. Torn between the Tsar's younger son, Georgi Alexandrovich, and a Crown Prince from a family of "blood drinkers" I hresented the triangle from the moment of its introduction. Katerina flits between the two of them, unsure of who she really wants. The only redeeming factor of the love-triangle is the unique spin Bridges' places on it in regards to Danilo. That was the only saving-grace for a young-adult trope I am increasingly weary of reading. The young grand duke, however, ha my full support from his first reticent appearance. The only person in the novel who actually sees Katerina for what she is, he earned major points for his level-headed actions. He does need some individual attention and development from the author, but I like what she has set up so far for the Duke.
Sadly, only Katerina herself and the Grand Duke pass my test of characters for the novel. All the rest, from Katiya's cousin Dariya to the evil antagonist Elena, were fairly one-dimensional and lacking development. There's hardly any distinguishing characteristics to set Elena apart from her coterie of evil siblings. Dariya serves little point but to be Katiya's voice of caution and suspicion, only around for emotional pull. Elena, the driven witch with her eyes on the Tsarevich, can be faintly cartoonish in her villianous ways. The author did manage to surprise me with the hemlock revelation and what that meant for Elena/Militiza/etc., but on the whole she was a villain without bite. They simply did not as much tension nor atmosphere for me to really feel the antagonism or fear their reprisals. It's also easier to dismiss the other girls of the novel, because unlike Katiya who is so forward-thinking she's practically a walking anachronism, they are completely caught up in the ideals and values of a male-dominated society. For these same reasons, it's also easy to disregard the ideas and opinions of even Katerina's mother. This was a woman so focused on power and moving up her own daughter's entanglement with a family of blood drinkers doesn't bother her in the slightest; in fact, only Katiya's Papa was an adult/parent worth his salt in the whole book.