rangers of marzanna review
jan 18 2022
I really did not like this book, which is a shame because the blurb sounded pretty good. I love plots with complex sibling relationships, especially on opposite sides of a war, but this book was just completely disappointing.
I'll be positive, first, and point out some things I that I actually did like about the novel. The Russian inspired setting is really unique and interesting, and Skovron is at his best writing-wise when he gets to describe the frozen tundra. There was an interesting magic system, although I did wish it was more fleshed out. The magic system being based off siphoning power from both metals and gemstones felt inconsistent, and I would have preferred for it to be either one or the other. Jorge was the only character that I actually liked and thought was interesting to read about— he's just this random PhD student who accidentally gets in way over his head, he's one of the only characters who can't fight at all and is just along for the ride. He was funny but not in an obnoxious way and had understandable and well-developed motivations. Like I said, he was basically the only character I like but he's also the only character who actually felt like a human being. The thing that really pleasantly surprised me about this book was the polyamory setup— at first I thought it was just going to be a love triangle and I started rolling my eyes. I was already tired of the book at that point and thinking about having to slog through a boring love triange made me want to rip my hair out. However, the book basically explicitly says that all three of these people are romantically and sexually interested in each other and want to all date each other. It was refreshing and the only thing that distinguishes the book from any other contemporary YA fantasy novel.
That's all I liked, so now onto my critiques. The biggest problem with this book is the flimsy plot setup. Once you start thinking about it, the entire reason for the plot happening makes absolutely no sense, which starts to drag down the rest of the story. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief about typical fantasy elements like magic and gods, but if the narrative structure is unbelievable I start to get pulled out of my immersion. At the beginning of the story, Sebastian's father doesn't let him use magic in public because he doesn't want anyone to find outabout his powers. Imperial soldiers come to their house, and Sebastian asks his father if he can use magic to protect them. His father says "No, you'd just be doing exactly what he wanted," and the imperial soldiers kill his father and take Sebastian and his mother to the imperial capital. Ten pages later we learn that the imperial capital somehow already knew about Sebastian and the soldiers were there to take him to the army, which Sebastian's father also already knew. So... why doesn't he just let Sebastian use his magic to create a diversion or kill the soldiers so they can escape? Later in the book they try to convince us it's because Sebastian's father, a former general implied to have PTSD, never wanted Sebastian to use his magic for violence. But surely Sebastian's father, a renowned strategist, would know that Sebastian would be forced into violence in the army and that it would be better for him to just escape from the imperials violently once instead of being forced to kill many people in the army. It especially irks me because there's such an easy solution to this— simply have Sebastian use his magic! Sebastian trying to use his magic to save his family but messing up and making things worse would've been a much better beginning to this story and would've set precedence for his emotional outbursts that take place later. I think an even stronger beginning would be to have him accidentally kill his father, instead of the imperial soldiers killing hin, so we can see him struggle with his guilt throughout the book. For a character who is regularly exploding people with their own blood, Sebastian is remarkably boring and flat without any real depth to his character.
Basically every character was extremely flat, like Sebastian. Sonya never struggles with her faith or her beliefs or with the task she's been set, and for someone who's supposed to be a killing machine she doesn't seem to understand killing very much. When she gets sharp, pointy fox teeth, she remarks that they don't have any practical use, which doesn't make any sense. She can (and later does) rip someone's throat out with those, and yet she starts complaining that they're useless! Sonya also basically has no character arc in this story and everything just feels like a setup for the next novel, a problem with most YA series. Galina, Sebastian's love interest, is like seven characters smushed together. She's plain, but also the most beautiful woman alive. She's shy, but also a socialite and political genius who networks with powerful generals with no anxiety. We don't see her grow into any of this; she just suddenly switches to whatever the plot needs her to be for Sebastian. This feels like it has some slightly sexist undertones. I won't be finishing this series, so perhaps this is purposeful social commentary, but putting the blame for Sebastian's mental health on Galina not "saving him" irks me. It's based on the misogynist idea that women have to be their boyfriends' therapists as well as their partners. Their reomance never felt believeable, like most of the romances in this novel (of which there were a surprising amount). Characters fall in love so quickly, without any actual build up. Even Sebastian's grieving, widowed mother gets a random softcore sex scene entirely out of left field. It felt like the only way the author knew how to get characters to work together is to suddenly make them be in love. With Jorge it's especially awkward because he already has genuine reasons other than attraction to want to help Sonya. He's established to be a compassionate and selfless guy who has a strong sense of responsibility, and already feels like he owes her for saving his life. He doesn't need his master to be like, "Oh, I think you want to go with her because you ~liiiike~ her!" and for him to be like, "Oh yeah I am in love with her, actually!" With Jorge, I feel like the lightning-fast romantic pacing was because the author wanted to get Sonya and Jorge together quickly so he could set up the polyamory later, but it just happens way too fast. Let them naturally grow into their relationship.
There's also a lot of needless POV switching in this book, which is part of why the characters are so flat and uninteresting. A character with murky motives will enter the plot and you think, "Oh, it'll be interesting to try to puzzle out what their actual game is." Then the next chapter is their POV and they directly tell all their motives to the audience, only to vanish and never get another POV chapter. The Uaine necromancer did not need one POV chapter to tell the audience she's going to be nefariously seducing Jorge away, especially when Jorge himself even considers that might be what she's doing in his own POV a chapter later. It sucks all the tension and fun out of the story because you know exactly what characters are going to be doing and how they think at all times. Even the main characters do this, which is part of what makes them so flat. We're never shown their motivations through actions or subconscious thoughts, but by just coming right out and saying it to the reader. Characters would also just magically know things it felt like they had no way of knowing. It makes no sense that the queen of the empire knows or cares about Sebastian. Sonya allies with the Uaine tribes out beyond the frozen tundra and one page later the empire knows all about it somehow. Even if they had spies out there, it would take longer for the information to make it back to the capital, and even Sonya's mom, who is a random civilian noblewoman, knows that an alliance exists and that Sonya was the one to broker it.
The writing style also just felt juvenile and sparse, not something I was interested in or gripped by. Sometimes I'll read a story with subpar characters or plot if the writing style is gripping or beautiful, but this honestly felt like an outline or a rough draft. A minor nitpick is that the time period was just all over the place. The Aureums are clearly meant to be Roman inspired (around 27 BCE - 476). The Uaines are clearly meant to be the Picts/Woads because of the customary blue face paint (around the 600s). The general convinces Sebastian the army can do good by telling him a story about vaccines (invented around 1798). Like I said, that's a minor nitpick and I can overlook the blending of time periods to create a more unique fantasy world. The bigger issue for me was the characters speak like they live in the 2010s. Sonya and Sebastian sound like current day teenagers and regularly say stuff like "yeah" or "no problem." It's incredibly jarring and distracting. There was also an obvious grammar mistake repeated several times and every time took me out of the narrative. It's repeated so many times that I started to just wonder if I was the stupid one and it is technically gramatically correct. Even if it is grammatically correct, the way it looks on the page is just jarring. It's just awkward to see "'Blah Blah Blah' was all she said" because it's an uncommon and clunky dialogue tag.
Overall, the story has some good ideas but I won't be continuing the series. Even if the characters and plot were well developed, I would still have a hard time because of the sparse writing style and shoehorned in romances. The poly relationship setup was interesting, but otherwise this series has nothing to distinguish itself and stand out in an oversaturated genre.