This debut historical fantasy sees a Russian family battle dark forces in the wilds near the Black Sea.
In 1840s Russia, 17-year-old P’etro Fedorchak fights in the Allied Shadow War. He joins comrades Samuil “The Fox” Wolowitz and Dimitri “The Bear” Popovitch against human soldiers and demons coming from a forest by the Black Sea. Samuil perishes in the war but P’etro returns to Moscow a hero. During the celebratory parade, he saves a young woman named Ilia from being trampled by runaway horses. Later, he works on her family farm where the two fall in love. They marry and move to Bakota, Ukraine, to start a family of their own. When Ilia becomes pregnant, she’s sure it will be a boy, and they plan to name him Samuil. One evening, P’etro notices an otherworldly fog rolling in from the forest. This is the night Ilia gives birth, but not without complications. P’etro crosses the countryside to fetch aid from Galina, the wife of their friend Ivan “The Boar.” P’etro ends up in a magic cave that leads to a cabin in the “Borderlands.” He encounters a “dark presence” that says, “I am he who will destroy everything and everyone you love.” Luckily, P’etro’s family doesn’t face this evil alone. Nikolai of the Caves and his hound, Wolf Killer, will help. For his series opener, Stephens offers a fantasy focusing on primal good and evil that should entrance fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The heroes embody natural icons, and readers see P’etro “the Rock” earn his name during the war for being “strong, unmovable, and true.” The narrative hops forward in stages, checking in on P’etro’s son, Samuil, as a 3-month-old baby, then at ages 8 and 12. Fabulously realized ambiance, utilizing mist and wild cat screams, portrays the eerie Southern Forest as a place of deepening weirdness. Grounded human elements, like P’etro’s traumatic flashbacks to the war, allow the supernatural motifs to ramp up evenly. This first volume’s magical crescendo should create loyal readers who will return for more fairy tale-style grandeur.
A captivating start to an Eastern-flavored and methodically built fantasy epic.