Clark’s (The Midnight Land: Part Two: The Gift, 2015) fantasy novel, the first in a series, takes place in an alternate-history version of Russia where women rule and wood spirits lurk among the fir trees.
Krasnoslava “Slava” Tsarinovna is the younger half sister of the Tsarina, Empress of all Zem’. The throne has descended, through their mother’s line, from the very first Empress, Miroslava Praskovyevna, who seized power with “fire and steel. And blood, lots of blood and suffering.” Slava, unlike the capital’s ruthless, scheming princesses, is disgusted by her heritage, feeling “nothing but pleasure in being so totally unlike someone she would have liked to deny all connection to.” She’s gifted—or cursed—with the supernatural ability to feel the emotions of others when they’re nearby, and she can’t help but be overwhelmed by the ugliness she senses in almost everyone she encounters. To Slava, “people are wolves hiding in rotting lambskins,” and she longs to escape them. When a northern princess, Olga Vasilisovna, comes to the Tsarina proposing an expedition to the far north, beyond the edges of maps, Slava begs to go with her. The journey challenges and changes Slava, and she gains physical strength even as her psychic powers grow. The mercy she shows others comes back to their traveling party tenfold; for example, an elk she saves leads the expedition back to the road when they go astray. Eventually, the leshiye, forest spirits who take the forms of trees, take notice—but will they prove to be friends or foes? Clark’s narrative wears its Russian literature influences on its sleeve: the parsimonious Princess Primorskaya, for example, seems like she’s right out of a Nikolai Gogol tale. The author weaves together realistic episodes of life on the road (with its uncanny watchers just off the path) and skillfully evokes the epic scale of the taiga and tundra: “The great snowy plain stretched out before her all the way to the horizon, where a pale sun was rising.” But her choice to swap the usual gender roles—the matriarchal society controls the life of every character, be they man or woman, peasant or Tsarina—elevates this book beyond the average fantasy novel.
A bold beginning to a series that explores gender, empathy, and the frozen north.