Tova is a Sami and an airwitch – and like mist Sami airwitches (and a large amount of Sami in general) she is eventually shipped off to the war between Novgorod and the Franks, a battle that has claimed thousands of lives (especially Sami and the magical gytrash) and has raged for years
She is lucky enough to become part of Ataman Piers’s Aileron crew – it certainly beats near certain death in the trenches. The Cossack noble is in disgrace and can only gain back the glory of House Rus by heroic exploits in battle – but there’s only so far you can push an airwitch before her magic kills her.
But Tova isn’t one to silently suffer her fate and she quickly earns the respect – and more – of the Russian Ataman.
I can see myself writing a hugely long review about the culture and oppression of the magic users in this book so am going to try and write about everything else first before I ramble!
Tova is an excellent protagonist who really reflects the world she’s in. She knows the system is unjust, that her people are persecuted – both gytrash and as Sami – and she rebels against it, she resents it – and she absorbs the ideas of it. She is a wonderfully complex character full of contradictions as she both resents the society around her yet still absorbs its messages. She knows she’s treated as a disposable tool, but still dreams of flying the Aileron, the ultimate fighting machine. She wants things to be different and sympathises with the idea of rebellion, but also believes it to be pointless. She opposes the Novgorod imposition on her people, but is still patriotic in resisting the Franks.
In short, she is both a victim of the system and a product of it. And she shows it beautifully. She’s also brave, snarky, irrepressible (perhaps sometimes when she should stay quiet), has a wicked sense of humour, plenty of irreverence (but also an idea of where to draw the line. Usually) and is generally great fun. I like her, yes yes I do. I do think there are times when her grief isn’t properly maintained (Piers often seems to be more upset than she – but, again, that could be a reflection of her harsh life and his pampered one).
The relationship between Tova Vanaksya and Piers Nikolayevich Dashkov also grows interestingly. He regards her with contempt which very naturally and slowly melts, especially as he is pushed more and more from his own society by his disgrace and reputation. While Tova generally sees Piers as more than some untouchable, abstract force, even a man she’d put on a pedestal as one of the respected Cossacks. I never thought their relationship would work. It should never have worked. It worked.
The world setting is also an excellent one – the Novgorod Empire (Piers is of the House of Rus, but this is not, yet Russia). They’re in a long war with the Franks – it’s devastating and all consuming and fought with the gytrash magic users. Oppressed and regarded with contempt, they keep this whole steampunk-esque (if it can be considered steampunk without technology) world going. It’s a great setting to establish this small crew of aileron pilots. Though I do think the crew is a trifle under-developed. Anya is fun – a loyal scion to the House of Rus, desperate for everything to be proper, desperate for everything to be ordered, desperate to maintain appearances and discipline – she is part martinet, part comic relief as she tries to do the equivalent of herding cats. Igor is a fascinating character – she’s big and tough and an incredibly skilled gunner, loved by her crew – but she has a terrible past (reminding us that it’s not just gytrash who suffer in this system) which she deals with by drinking. She’s an alcoholic, she’s, functional but it’s a problem. She has a lot of pity from the crew, a lot of support and respect but also a lot of frustration from them. It’s a very good portrayal and I like her. She also matters because she and Tova get along – which is essential since Tova clashes with Anya and the only other female character she interacts with she loathes because of a rather unnecessary Mean Girl side plot.
There’s also Daffyd and Gwin. They’re gay men. This is the sum totality of their characters. I’m not even sure what they do on the ship except stand in a corner and be gay
The protagonist is Sami – an ethnicity generally found in Scandinavia and part of Russia. It’s also an ethnicity that has faced considerable historical and present persecution and certainly the first Sami character I’ve come across in the genre.
I can’t say I know much about the Sami people so I won’t even begin to claim if the depiction is accurate or not. I will say that there is a strong sense of research in the depiction, that Tova carries with her a culture and a tradition and a belief that feels like it has been researched and studied rather than guessed and made up. I can’t be sure because of my own ignorance of Sami traditions, but often when reading a book you can feel the difference between decent research, a random guess or “Wikipedia will do, right?” and this feels like research.
Through Tova’s Sami eyes we see a Russia that isn’t just one block, it’s a land of different ethnicities, with the Sami actively persecuted and most of the people facing the strong cultural pressure from Novgorod to follow their culture and rules underneath a Cossack aristocracy who are honoured and revered simply from being one of the Cossack families. It also excellently shows how people are forcibly assimilated, not just from grand pogroms and purges – but by banning their songs, by forcing them into schools that call their traditions and beliefs ignorant and silly, by banning their stories and their clothes and their artefacts – the assimilation and destruction of a people comes with the destruction of their culture and all of the cultural markers that go with it.
And, of course, in this time of war, the Sami are considered easy cannon fodder to be used and discarded – giving the army ready soldiers and removing a group they consider undesirable at the same time. It’s a depiction of oppression that covers the many different angles this oppression includes
There is another persecution in the book – a fictional persecution of the “gytrash”, people with magic. They are considered animalistic, uncivilised and are regarded with contempt, as tools and, ultimately, as disposable (a gytrash who pushes their magic often dies – so many gytrash die young). I’m usually very wary of fictional amrginalisations – especially fictional marginalisations where we’re looking at persecuted people with super powers or dangerous abilities as it usually goes very poorly and comes with a shed load of appropriation
But in this case it worked. The worldbuilding of the gytrash being “animalistic” provides an excellent basis for how the oppression developed. It has a lot of parallels with classism without directly appropriating. The higher ups look down on the gytrash with contempt, considering them expendable tools, but their entire society is based on them. gytrash farm the fields with their magic, their vehicles are driven by animals lead by gytrash, their wounds and sicknesses and cured by healer gytrash, their mines worked by gytrash – gytrash are the only reason this society works since gytrash in this world have replaced technology. Even their war machines are driven by gytrash – the Aileron are moved by airwitches. This creates a really fascinating and believable world where society rests entirely on the labour and sacrifice of these people who are, in turn, reduced to tools, to things and regarded with utter contempt. There’s definitely no mistaking the comparisons with socialism, class and even the communist revolution.
What I also found interesting was the examination of class roles even at the top of the ladder and how even the Cossacks do not entirely benefit from this situation. Though most of Piers’s problems serve as an excellent contrast to Tova’s much more dire issues, it does bring some interesting elements – like the Cossacks facing such losses because they have elevated the idea of the military leader to such a degree that in the early years of the war the Cossacks flocked to the fighting. And died. It’s an additional complexity that is great to see
Through all this we also have an excellent story with some great character growth and a well displayed and developed world. There are some shaky moments, I think some of the crew could have been more developed and Tova’s enemy among the airwitches just seems like an unnecessary contrived addition because we have to have a Mean Girl. But that said, this is an excellent story, well paced, exciting and fascinatingly new with a main character I’d happily follow through every step of her war.