The Waning Moon Duology: Book I
In a towering glasshouse at the Summer Palace, a new marvel is unveiled to the Crescent Empress and her five daughters. The Great Thinking Machine will be able to calculate numbers at incredible speed and will simplify the administration of this vast empire. But this is more than a scientific demonstration. Little Alina, the Empress’s youngest daughter, feels the danger rolling out from the vast contraption and fears what it may bring, and what it might have to devour in order to work. And she also fears its promoter: her mother’s unsettling, ambitious adviser, Gagargi Prataslav. In this novel, Leena Likitalo reimagines an alternate universe based on the world of the Romanovs, in which magic and visions go hand in hand with the first deep stirrings of revolution.
Likitalo’s concepts are charming: they give her world a half-haunting quality. Here, souls can be – and often are – harvested. Bird-souls are used as the equivalent of electricity, to give light and warmth, of different levels depending on their natures in life. The souls of swans are most sacred of all, for the swan is the sacred animal of the Crescent Empire and its soul is used in the ceremony which binds every one of the Daughters of the Moon to her name at the age of six. I say ‘daughters’ advisedly: this is a female court, comprising the Empress and her five daughters, in descending order Celestia, Elise, Sibilla, Merille and Alina. There are no brothers (I’d be fascinated to find out what would happen if there was a brother; would boys be treated differently?). Indeed, the only male in this semi-sacred family is the Moon himself, regarded as the father of the girls and, in due course, as husband to the eldest when she becomes Empress in turn. The mundane issues of earthly incarnation are dealt with by the girls’ ‘seeds’, men whom the Moon places in the Empress’s way to provide her with various children.
There’s also Gagargi Prataslav, of course. And, as the story is taken up by each of the girls in turn, in ascending age, we grow to understand just why little Alina might feel so afraid of him, and exactly what the enigmatic priest might be after. (He is, very clearly, meant to be Rasputin and so I found it nigh-impossible to imagine him in any other way.) For all is not well in the Crescent Empire. While the girls giggle and dream and fritter away their days, people out in the country are starving. Whispers of dissatisfaction reach even into the palace itself. And, as the mobs begin to gather, Gagargi Prataslav begins to put into action a plan that will bring the Crescent Empire under his control forever…
Despite the ideas, which captivated me, there wasn’t always quite enough meat to the story to keep me gripped. Likitalo certainly manages to capture the different voices of the five girls, ranging from the age of six up to eighteen (and that in itself is admirable, because she’s writing not in her native Finnish but in English). However, each Daughter feels like an assembly of three or four character traits, rather than a fully rounded human being. My favourites were probably Alina, who sees so much more than anyone suspects, and Elise, who has the sense and compassion to see beyond the walls of her palace. But the others never really took on full personalities, for me, at least. And there were many things left frustratingly explained. The lack of any male heirs, of course. What exactly the girls do when they’re not at balls. What happens to the younger girls, the ‘spares’, once the eldest becomes Empress. The fact that the Great Thinking Machine doesn’t really do anything except brood in the background after its appearance in the first chapter. The question about exactly how Gagargi Prataslav controls such large numbers of people. There’s a lot of fascinating material to be got from this world, but I felt that opportunities were missed while we watched Merille simpering over her pet dogs for the fiftieth time.
I think this is best regarded as a young adult novel, in that it deals quite heavily with the trials of growing up alongside the broader plot, and doesn’t always keep the balance as tight as it could do. However, I don’t want to criticise it overmuch. Perhaps its loose ends will be neatly tied up in the second part of the story (for this is one of those newly-fashionable ‘duologies’). And there is much to admire in its carefully-crafted setting, not to mention the choice of that setting. Late imperial Russia isn’t a world that’s drawn on very often, either in historical fiction or historical fantasy, and so it’s rather lovely to be in this world of glittering balls and white dresses and white gloves – even if I suspect it is all about to collapse in a rather grim fashion. But this is fantasy, not historical fiction, so we might yet find that our plucky quintet of Daughters find a way to break free.
While it’s true that this particular period is the road less travelled, it’s funny that Russia is becoming more and more popular as an inspiration for fantasy. Just look at the success of Katherine Arden’s Bear and the Nightingale series, Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha books or Catherynne Valente’s Deathless. The dark magic of the old country is finally rising…
Plus, just take a moment to admire that gorgeous cover. It’s by Anna and Elena Balbusso, whose work has also featured in my posts on Tor.com’s short stories.