Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: The House of Arkhangel'sk by Jane Kindred

Cover of The Fallen Queen, featuring a blonde white woman in a ball gown. She is surrounded by mists of red, gold, and dark blue.
Y’all recall my mental block with ‘The Snow Queen,’ right? I love just about every version I’ve ever encountered (though I confess I’ve never managed to read the Hans Christian Andersen original in its entirety), but I almost never recognize them for what they are until I’m pretty far in.

Sometimes I don’t recognize them until quite a bit after the fact.

I read THE FALLEN QUEEN, Jane Kindred’s novel-length debut, shortly before it was published and have spent the last three-plus years recommending it to every fantasy fan of my acquaintance even as I myself let the majority of Kindred’s books pile up on my Kobo, purchased but unread. Last December, I decided it was time to Do Something about this situation--and seeing as how 2014 was the year of the Reread/Catch-Up Project1, I opened THE FALLEN QUEEN and dove back in.

And damned if it isn’t ‘The Snow Queen.’

Anazakia is a Grand Duchess of Heaven, pampered and nurtured within the bosom of her large, angelic family--until her cousin Kae, whom she once considered her best friend, falls under a mysterious woman’s influence and slaughters everyone who stands between his paramour and the throne. Nazkia escapes the carnage thanks to a sorcerous doppelganger and a chance encounter with a demonic grifter who helps her flee to the world of Man, where few angels dare to tread. There, she discovers a freedom she never knew was possible, tingling with magic and brimming with choices, but she cannot ignore the situation in Heaven forever. When an old friend-turned-enemy calls her back home, Nazkia must fight to save her world, regain her cousin’s soul, and preserve the new family she’s built for herself.

And chances are, she can’t do all three.

Since I devoured all three books--THE FALLEN QUEEN, THE MIDNIGHT COURT, and THE ARMIES OF HEAVEN--in rapid succession, I figured I’d talk about them en masse. I read them so quickly that they’ve become tangled up in my mind, and this state of affairs has only increased in the months since I swiped the last screen.

THE FALLEN QUEEN and THE MIDNIGHT COURT were both rereads, while this review reflects my first experience with THE ARMIES OF HEAVEN2.

The series isn’t just a retelling of ‘The Snow Queen;’ it also echoes the Russian Revolution with its oft-repeated claim that Anastasia alone survived the Russian royal family’s murder. In Kindred’s Heaven, this is exactly what happened. Nazkia stands in for Anastasia, of course, while each member of her large, happy family bears a striking resemblance to the human Russians who lived and died a century before them.

I’m a big fan of historical conundrums, and I used to watch documentaries about Anastasia when I was a kid3. This real-world parallel entranced me so much upon my first reading that I failed to pick up on the fairy tale aspect; however, the Snow Queen angle held the most interest for me the second time through.

‘The Snow Queen,’ for those of you unfamiliar with the story, is a fairy tale about a girl, Gerda, whose best friend falls under the Snow Queen’s vile influence. The boy, Kai, loses the ability to see any good in the world, and he reacts by doing some very bad shit indeed (like slaughtering everyone he’d normally care about, beating people most of the way to death, fawning over the Snow Queen’s every word, and so on and so forth). Gerda, however, refuses to abandon him and undertakes a lengthy quest to return him to himself.

’The Snow Queen’ is one of my favourite stories, partly because the woman rescues the man in a reversal of the usual fairy tale trope and partly because it’s about someone who refuses to give up on a friend. I find this uplifting, even though I recognize it can be a dangerous way to approach a situation. No one has the obligation to save anyone else, especially when there’s a violent component to their actions, and you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

‘The Snow Queen,’ then, can also be a story about a woman who realizes she’s caught in a dangerous pattern, and who backs away from someone she once loved lest he drag her down with him.

I’m forever aware of this possible outcome, but I always hope these stories will end in redemption--with the caveat that I want said redemption to be realistically messy because easy outs do nobody any favours. The Kai character inevitably does terrible, horrible things, and it scarcely matters that he usually does them under a spell. Everyone still remembers what he did. He still remembers what he did. It’s gotta be a long road back from that. No shortcuts allowed.

I shan’t tell you how things turn out for Nazkia and Kae, save to say it pulls at my soul as all the best Snow Queen adaptations do.

The Snow Queen plot is compelling, as is the wider battle to oust Queen Aeval from Heaven, but I first fell in love with these books because the characters are so very, very lovable. Nazkia, in particular, has won my eternal affection because she’s utterly unwilling to give up on anyone, as is only right and proper for a Gerda. That doesn’t mean she instantly forgives people who do wrong by her, though. Nazkia gets mad as hell when someone hurts her or her loved ones. She wishes terrible things upon them, and she often tries to forget about them entirely lest they become a cancerous influence in her life.

But once she’s finished raging, Nazkia is able to evaluate the situation from a no less emotional but infinitely compassionate perspective. She considers why people behave as they do and what circumstances in their lives led them to make the choices that affected her so deeply. With these factors in mind, she’s often able to forgive people their transgressions and move forward into a future that includes former enemies and flawed loved ones alike.

I love Nazkia dearly, but Belphagor, the demon who agrees to smuggler her into the world of Man and protect her from her enemies (for a generous fee), emerged as my favourite this time through. Belphagor is good people, plain and simple. While I liked him after my first reading, I was somewhat disinclined to trust him because of how he behaves towards Nazkia on their first meeting. He shaves her head, drags her into modern Russia, and persists in treating her as a meal ticket rather than a person. It’s far from a pleasant situation.

This time, I found myself focusing on why Belphagor behaves as he does. He’s determined to keep the people in his charge safe, and that sometimes requires him to play the bad guy. He’s not malicious about it; he’s just doing what he’s gotta do to provide for himself and his partner, Vasily, and to keep Nazkia well away from those who might try to hurt her. There’s a failure of communication between them in the beginning, but it’s by no means insurmountable.

And they surmount it so hard, y’all. Please excuse me while I cry my eyes out over the glorious beauty of found families.

The thing that really makes me love Belphagor, though, is how hard he tries to understand how a given situation appears to others, even as he acknowledges its affect on his own self. He’s able to understand how Nazkia can still love Kae, even after everything he did to her and her family. Belphagor himself hates the guy for reasons that require absolutely no forgiveness on his part, but he realizes that for Nazkia, Kae isn’t just the vicious madman who tore her world to shreds. He was a friend and loved one, and it can be difficult to separate your friend from the person they’ve been warped into by dark magics.

Good for you, Belphagor. You keep on being awesome.

Vasily, Belphagor’s partner, rounds out their trio. Vasily is one of those characters I loved the very moment he appeared on the page, but on reflection I think I should probably have disliked him at first read. He’s rather surly and self-absorbed, and he can be pretty damned selfish with it--but at the same time, he loves things deeply and acknowledges his mistakes once he’s backed away from his own bullshit long enough to realize what he’s done wrong. I find him impossible to dislike, no matter how many reasons he gives me to do so. Some characters just hit me that way.

Nazkia, Belphagor, and Vasily become a family, and it’s the best thing. Like I said above, Belphagor and Vasily initially see Nazkia as nothing more than a spoiled angel who doubles as their meal ticket. They’ll keep her safe for a while, then get on with the rest of their lives once they’ve cashed in on whatever monetary reward comes up. Nazkia, in turn, is terrified of the pair of them because they’re demons, and particularly scary demons at that. Belphagor cultivates an anti-angelic persona with his tattoos and piercings, and he did shave her head and drag her into the world of Man. He doesn’t make the most inspiring of first impressions. Vasily is 6’5” with flaming red hair and throat piercings, and he can literally breathe fire. All three of them need to overcome their first impressions before they can hope for anything more. Kindred slowly develops their bonds until there’s respect between them, then affection, then love.

And yes, there’s a love triangle. No, both men don’t fall for Nazkia; Belphagor’s gay, while Vasily is bisexual and deeply in love with him--but that doesn’t stop him from eventually nurturing an attraction to the to the privileged angel Belphagor leaves under his protection.

Bisexual love triangles make me seventeen kinds of happy, friends.

Even better: Kindred, in a refreshing break from the norm, acknowledges that poly relationships are an actual thing that happens, and also that it’s possible to have something deep and meaningful with a person even if you don’t remain with them forever. I love it.

About midway through THE ARMIES OF HEAVEN, I began to fear the romantic resolution would break my heart, but it didn’t. It made me gloriously happy, for reasons y’all can probably guess if you know me. If not, I shall say no more.

The secondary characters are equally compelling. Love, the Roma girl who becomes part of their tight little family, absolutely lives up to her name, and baby Ola is as delightful a child character as one could wish for. (I love realistic child characters. They’re so cute.) The bits of Kae we see are enough to break your heart, and to lead this particular reader to lots of spoilery musings on the role the Kai character plays in any adaptation of ‘The Snow Queen.’

So far as the setting goes, the action slides back and forth between contemporary Russia and Heaven, which is very like late nineteenth/early twentieth century Russia without propulsion engines or guns. (The aether disrupts the mechanisms, and angels are notoriously sticky about using even the most useful human inventions.) Kindred develops both spheres beautifully. The Russian segments make me regret I can never visit the country4, while the scenes set in Heaven paint a picture of a gorgeous, flawed world ripe for change.

This dual-world setup is notable, too, in that it’s a portal fantasy where characters from another world enter ours. When I first read THE FALLEN QUEEN, I couldn’t point to another book that did anything remotely similar, unless I chose to count Jadis from THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW or Caspian’s brief stint in England from THE SILVER CHAIR. Nowadays, we also have Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE and sequels; another series that deals with angels and demons who visit and draw resources from Earth.

More of this, please.

Plot-wise, there are instances where the pace lags. THE MIDNIGHT COURT sometimes takes a few steps back as everyone gets into position, and I think the martial resolution of THE ARMIES OF HEAVEN might be a bit too simplistic. (I’ve had trouble gauging it because the character resolution is so gloriously wonderful that it’s made up for any other shortcomings that may or may not exist.) All three books contain scenes that some readers may consider too domestic, too. There’s a certain amount of this-happened-then-that-happened.

Overall, though, the series’ virtues far outweigh its shortcomings. The characters are fabulous enough to drive the books through even the quietest scenes. If you’re going to read this trilogy, you’re going to read it for the characters and for Kindred’s exquisite first person prose. (Her third person prose is good, but not as lyrical.) Oh, how I hope she writes a sequel series about Ola! I’d snap it up in a heartbeat.

I loved the trilogy to death and shall continue to recommend it to anyone in the mood for fantasy with fabulous characterization and a distinctly Russian flavour. Please be aware, though, that the books do contain physical and sexual violence against both men and women, perpetuated by both men and women. This has been your trigger warning.


This is the point where I'd normally encourage you to buy the books if your library cannot oblige, but alas! They've gone out of print. The Book Depository and Amazon are both out of THE FALLEN QUEEN, while they have so few copies of the other two left that it's not worth linking to them.

This causes me great sadness, friends. I dearly hope your library has some copies in their collection, or that you can find used copies at your favourite second hand retailer. I want you to read these wonderful, wonderful books.

  1. Yeah, 2014. I drafted a pretty detailed review outline right after I finished the series, but I did absolutely nothing with it for months on end. I don’t know why. I love these books and I love talking about them, but somehow I couldn’t make myself, like, do that.

    Regarding the wider reread/catch-up project I undertook last year: I began with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, but fizzled out pretty quick once I slipped away from my standard in-between reading scheme (which: finish one book; read a hundred pages of a chunkster; finish another book; read another hundred pages of the same chunkster. Repeat as long as necessary.)

    I had much better luck with Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series. I reread the first three trilogies, caught up on the Rain Wilds Chronicles and FOOL’S ASSASSIN, and had a generally marvelous time. It was an all-around successful reread/catch-up.

    I also engaged in a Joan D. Vinge Binge (which would’ve been so much more fun to say if Vinge were pronounced like binge with a V; it’s Vin-gee), though I elected not to go back and reread THE SNOW QUEEN and WORLD’S END until I had a little more distance between them and my first read.

    (Semi-related Sidebar: are y’all aware THE SNOW QUEEN is coming back into print this October? Y’all should pre-order it, or ask your library to do so if if they allow you to request purchases prior to the book’s publication date. Alas, it doesn’t look like WORLD’S END is also slated for a new edition, but one hopes this will change.)

    I also finished my epic reread/catch-up of the Wheel of Time in late June. It was intense, y’all, even if it did take me approximately ten months longer than I thought it would.

    I’d love to do a Jacqueline Carey reread at some point in 2015, too. Elizabeth and I have talked about reading KUSHIEL’S DART together, and I really hope we can coordinate our reading schedules to make it happen.

  2. I really ought to have gotten to it aaaaages ago. The publisher gave me a review copy through NetGalley right before I backed away from Stella Matutina. It’s been so long that all trace of the request and its fulfilment has disappeared from my account.

    This is what happens when you stop blogging for a while. Chaos, and also unfulfilled obligations. I think Nazkia would understand that pretty durned well.

  3. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from these documentaries is that everyone’s earprints are as unique as their fingerprints. Scientists used photos of Anastasia to figure out what her earprints looked like and thus debunk any claimants to the title. Your earprints do continue to grow over time, but even with that taken into account no one who came forward claiming to be Anastasia was a match.

  4. There’s this bit in one of the Demons of Elysium books, which I’ve elected not to review even though they’re also most enjoyable (and quite a bit sexier than the Arkhangel’sk books), where Vasily realizes everything about him is illegal in Russia. I feel you, bro.


  1. "Even better: Kindred, in a refreshing break from the norm, acknowledges that poly relationships are an actual thing that happens, and also that it’s possible to have something deep and meaningful with a person even if you don’t remain with them forever. I love it."

    OMG I need these books. WHYYYYYYYYYY out of print D:

    1. RIGHT? Their out of printness is a sore trial to me.

    2. Yes! When I read this series, I was so excited that it wasn't the kind of love triangle where one person got shafted. The fact that all three of them could work out their differences and be one happy family was amazing!

    3. Hurray for poly relationships! Fiction needs more of them.