(review was originally posted on my livejournal: intoyourlungs.livejournal.com)
***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***
This was another case of: "I've never heard of this author, let alone this book, so I have no idea what to expect" kind of book. Kim Wilkins is an Australian writer and is pretty scarce here across the pond which is probably why I've never heard of her before, but I have to say that I'm really glad I was introduced to her work. This is a gem of a book and it's too bad that it isn't more widely recognized.
Spoilers under the cut.
So, the first thing that really jumped out at me was that this book was going to be a frame narrative. The prologue is shown from Papa Grigori's point of view, which makes this immediately feel sort of fairy tale-esque, which I *love*. I love stories within stories, especially of this variety. Throughout the novel, there are entire chapters dedicated to Grigori telling us, the reader, stories about the golden bear and the Russian history it followed. Just... awesome.
The Russian spice lent to the fantasy aspects of the novel was also super cool. There's so much fantasy out there that is european-centric and is more reminiscent of medieval times. Now, this is totally fine (I love Game of Thrones for example, which is very much in this vein of fantasy) but it was also really refreshing to read this completely new variety of fantasy that was full of Russian folklore creatures that I had never heard of before. The rules governing Skazki (the Russian fantasy world) were also really cool and lent really well to the world-building.
Where this novel really shines though is through its characters, which is a huge plus with me; I prefer character-driven stories over plots ones, and while this one balances the two quite nicely, the main cast really resonated with me. They all have their thumbs-down qualities (Daniel is quite frankly a bit of a wuss, Em is mostly cold and unfeeling, and Rosa is arguably vain and a bit fickle) but they also all have their thumbs-up qualities as well: Daniel could toughen up a bit, yeah, but he's caring and super kind; Em is practical and gets shit done; Rosa is stubborn, but she goes to great lengths to save Daniel and Em from Skazki. The way all their personalities fit into each other was kind of neat too: Em was one end of a spectrum, being so cold and frigid; Daniel was the polar opposite of that, being someone who feels almost TOO much; Rosa was right in the middle, having a little bit of that frigidness that Em has that allows her to break ties with people, but also has some of that passion that Daniel encompasses.
Criticisms I have for the book are few and far between. My first one, though this isn't really a criticism per se, because this is more of a personal preference thing, is that I was a lot more invested in Daniel and Em's side of the story than Rosa's. But that's because Em and Daniel were in a whole new place with all kinds of new things I had never seen before, which made their journey a little more exciting than Rosa's. Rosa's stay with Anatoly and his family was definitely still GOOD, it just didn't grab me as much. The other little thing that bothered me was Rosa and Daniel's romance; I felt like I got *told* constantly how they had this great, albeit short-lived, romance, but I never got a sense that they would actually make a good couple. They don't get a lot of time on the pages together, which probably attributed to my feelings towards this. I could definitely see that Daniel really loved Rosa, but not to much the other way around; I don't know what made Daniel different for Rosa from all her other sexual conquests. I *did* believe that she cared very deeply about him though.
Rosa's big secret revealed at the end of the novel through me off at first. My initial reaction was: "Really, that's it?" because I thought it was going to be... I don't know, something grander or tied in with her magical background or something. But it wasn't. It was something very human and very real, and at first I found her reaction to it to be kind of... well, shallow and sort of vain I guess. This really peeved me off at first. But upon further reflection, I became a lot more sympathetic towards her. I've never had to deal with Alzheimer's in any way, so I felt my initial reaction was a little harsh. And the more I thought about it, the more Rosa's reaction (running away from Daniel, sleeping with several people but never making any attachments) fit with who she is. In a way, it was sort of a little selfless as well; why let someone get all attached to you when they're going to have watch you mentally deteriorate slowly before dying?
Final Verdict: This is really a great fantasy novel, and one that should be more widely recognized. It's a very refreshing take on the fantasy genre with Russian folklore as its background, as opposed to the standard "western european medieval" vibe most fantasies offer. The world-building is fantastic as well, with the fantasy world of the novel having all kinds of rules and customs. There's also a great cast of characters who I loved, despite their very obvious flaws. While I was more invested in Em and Daniel's side of the story (I think this is due to Em being my favorite character), Rosa's was still very GOOD. Em and Daniel's was just a little more exciting, them being in this whole new and fascinating world that I kept wanting to see more of. I also absolutely loved the chapters narrated by Grigori. I love it when any novel injects fairy-tale elements into the narrative and Wilkins pulls it off beautifully here, with Grigori's stories of the golden bear and its place in history. It's really a great read, and one that any fan of fantasy should check out, or if you're at all interested in Russian folklore.