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Review of The Sins on Their Bones by

The Sins on Their Bones

by Laura R. Samotin

Sometimes love is not forever. Sometimes relationships end. Sometimes you transform your lover into an unholy monster bent on world domination. That’s the gist of The Sins on Their Bones, by Laura R. Samotin. Heavy on tragedy and pathos, this is a book steeped in magic and mysticism yet not always satisfying in terms of pacing or plot. I received a copy in exchange for a review.

Dimitri Alexeyev used to be the Tzar until his magically reanimated husband overthrew him for being a softie. Now in exile from Novo-Svitsevo, he and his court come to the unenviable conclusion that the only way for Dimitri to retake his throne and save his people from Alexey’s depredations is to kill the unkillable thing that Alexey has become. Easier said than done, of course. Meanwhile, hopped up on dark power, Alexey is determined to harness as much of that power as possible to create an army of demons that he can use to take over the entire world.

Do … do we call this a love story? The love between Dimitri and Alexey is central to the plot of this book, yet they are definitely on the enemies side of the lovers-to-enemies equation even at the start. I would have to describe the principal feeling that suffuses this book as ache. Not only does Dimitri ache for Alexey (and, though Alexey would not always admit it, vice versa), but all the supporting characters seem to ache as well. Whether it’s for someone or for something, each character has an ache, a want, a desire unfulfilled. This is a story about the depths of loss.

To that end, I really liked how languid this book is at times. The pacing is really slow (and I do have some criticisms of that to come). Dimitri is so, so broken throughout this book, from start to finish, because of what has become of his husband. This is not a story of heroism, patriotism, or fighting the good fight. It’s a story about the uncomfortable fact that if a loss doesn’t kill you, life goes on. Dimitri didn’t die. (Alexey did, but look what that did for him!) Dimitri has survived to watch the monster he created overrun his country and potentially the world. That must be a kind of living hell, and Samotin does an excellent job exploring what that would be like for someone.

The people who surround Dimitri do their best to bolster him, though they can only do so much. I enjoyed meeting these supporting characters and learning what we do about them. I wish we had learned more. The book focuses extremely tightly on three characters. Samotin sketches out, more or less successfully, distinct personalities for the rest. Nevertheless, the result is that this book feels far more intimate than your standard epic fantasy, much more like a stage play.

My biggest issue with this book, however, is how Samotin eschews showing flashbacks in favour of telling us about what happened in the past. I’m not a show-versus-tell purist. But I can only read so many scenes of characters sitting around telling us about how bad the war was, about how awful Alexey’s heel turn was, etc., when it is entirely possible to simply show us those moments. I understand Samotin starts this story very deliberately from a certain place, basically Dimitri at his nadir. Alas, the constant looking back and wallowing in the past made me wonder at times while I was reading whether the story should have started earlier.

Regardless, I can’t fault Samotin for the premise, for Alexey’s transformation and subsequent machinations. The tragedy that underpins this story is simple: Dimitri feels guilty for being the cause of Alexey’s transformation, yet Alexey left him little choice. Both men are responsible for what happens. I really liked how the story draws out and sustains a kind of narrative revulsion for Alexey’s character: his coldness, his cruelty, his dominating streak. He is a study in inhumanity as much as Vasily is a study in humanity, each man orbiting Dimitri, a study in misery and regret. These apposite characterizations are extremely satisfying.

The Sins on Their Bones is a clever, character-driven novel. I like that Samotin draws upon eastern European and Jewish folklore and history, which are all underrepresented in fantasy. I like the overall setup, the way that Dimitri and Alexey are at odds, and how Samotin unspools each man’s thoughts and feelings. I like the queernorm society. Overall, this is a rich, sympathetic, resonant novel—one that I wish I had connected with more.


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