Helen is taking a holiday in Russia with her mother, desperately trying to get some space from her disastrous break up and collapse of her career. She never expected to find a place so alien to her – and she certainly never expected to find the rich and intriguing Alexey
But Alexey has more on his mind than romance – his father and father’s 2 business partners have all been murdered within a short space of time. People are whispering about a curse – and not only is the murderer still uncaught, but other forces have their eyes on his father’s business, looking to wrest it from his inexperienced and idealistic hands.
The first thing that struck me about this book was the amount of research that has gone into it. From my unfamiliar eye, this author seems to have made the effort to ensure the Russia of the book wasn’t just a Russia of bad stereotypes and alien culture – there has been some work into making this real and authentic. I can’t say how good a job has been achieved since I am neither Russian nor especially experience in all things Russian, but I can feel the effort behind it.
I just feel it’s a shame that so little has been done with it.
I don’t understand why Helen is the protagonist. In fact, take a step back, I don’t understand why Helen is in the book at all. All the action, all the story twists, all the mystery and the investigation and everything else? It doesn’t involve her. It cannot involve her. It’s all completely beyond her experience, affecting people she’s only just met and investigating/resolving it requires knowledge she doesn’t have, skills she doesn’t have and working with/speaking to a lot of people she’s only just met, most of which she doesn’t even share a common language with.
Rather reasonably, because of that, she doesn’t actually do anything. And it is reasonable – even her few interjections about whether Alexey can trust someone or not (for example) come across as ridiculous because she is so outside of her experiences, her skills or her specialities that her intervening would be ludicrous. She doesn’t. She can’t. She spends the vast majority of this book just following Alexey around and occasionally taking little breaks to work on the romance (I’d say “develop” the romance but that would be a stunningly generous description of what happened). Honestly, she could be entirely removed from the book and very little of real value would change.
So let’s get to that romance – firstly, it also adds very little to the plot. It’s an odd tool used to pull Helen (and, therefore, the protagonist) into the story as audience without having to come up with an actual reason for her to be there. Helen and Alexey meet (he nearly runs her over), they arrange a second meeting. Boom. LOVE FOREVER, Alexey (a man receiving death threats) is now happy to have Helen follow him around everywhere, be party to all of his company’s secrets and generally be with him every second of the day when business doesn’t drag him away (and she is free to roam around his work place/home as you would any near stranger). The romance is tooth-achingly saccharine and quite dated - Helen actually uses the words “Oh, Alexey”. She says this more than once; I started picturing everyone in black and white after that. It’s also comically speeded up with Helen happily considering moving to Russia and spending the rest of her life there after… a week? Less?
I also don’t even think this book fits our actual genre – Urban Fantasy (or even speculative fiction at all). I am unsure as to whether there are any actual supernatural elements in this book – there’s a lot of talk about psychics and psychic ability and lots of people who believe in psychics and psychic ability and even people who act based on that belief. But actual psychic ability? Frankly, it could be all read as a commentary on how superstitious these people in particular are (or possibly even a commentary on how superstitious many Russians are) more than actual psychics with actual preternatural abilities. Whether they actually have the powers they claim is in doubt and, more tellingly, completely irrelevant. Honestly, it doesn’t matter as far as the plot, relevant world building or anything else is concerned whether all the psychics are real, charlatans, superstitious, gullible or just highly imaginative. Which means if there is a supernatural element to this book, it is such a tiny side issue as to be irrelevant.
That makes me a little irritated. If I had requested this book from a publisher/author/agent or picked it up myself I would have been kicking myself afterwards for having read the blurb wrong or somehow misunderstood the book’s contents. But I didn’t pick out this book – this was sent to me by the marketing department of the author’s publisher who should really know the content of the book they’re publishing.
The supernatural – or people’s belief in the supernatural – serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows Alexey to decide “I trust this person because of good instincts” and just bring complete strangers – like Helen and Maxim – into positions of highly sensitive trust without actually having to build any story reasons behind it. This doesn’t feel like a story element so much as a story excuse, a clumsy deus ex machinae to get the characters in line without actually having to do any real work to get them in place. Secondly, it’s there for Maxim’s great big teasing red herring as he spends half the book following up leads among alleged psychics that don’t actually go anywhere
Which brings me to a final frustrating element with the whole mystery/conspiracy of this book: when we finally get the answer(s) it turns out to be pretty much unrelated to everything they’ve been researching/investigating. I understand a good mystery needs a red herring or two – but just about everything the characters did/found/researched was a dead end/red herring up to an ending which seemed to have been hurriedly pasted on from a whole other story.
Inclusionwise we have one minor central Asian character who briefly appears for a few pages – and that’s about it. No LGBT characters, no disabled characters and the female protagonist is pretty lacking in any real capacity.
If you like grand conspiracy dramas, industrial espionage stories and murder mysteries more than Urban Fantasy then maybe this book won’t be bad for you. Though even then I can’t really say it would be one I’d recommend. The protagonist is just to surplus to requirements and frustrating (though, given the way the book ends and the fact this is the first of a series I dare say she will become more integral) and the plot to tangential to the actual result for me to say it would be an ideal choice