Cambions, demons, and distals, oh my! — A review of Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

Servants of the Storm book cover

“…the whole reason I got out of the fog was to go back to the Paper Moon Coffee Shop and look for signs of Carly. When I saw her last week, I was on my pills. Without them what will I see tonight?”

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson

Since Hurricane Josephine swept through Savannah Georgia, life hasn’t been the same. Leaving behind nothing but death and destruction, there is little brightness to the lives of Savannah residents, especially for Dovey after witnessing her best friend, Carly, being swept away in the torrential swamp waters. Since then Dovey has been in a medicated haze, numb to everything and everyone around her…that is until the day she sees Carly at their favourite café. Dovey begins to think that she is seeing things that can’t be real and, determined to know the difference between what is real and what is fake, she stops taking her pills. Suddenly Dovey is seeing the real Savannah, the darker Savannah full of fear-feeding demons. She learns that the storm that took Carly away from her was no act of mother nature but a demon takeover that hasn’t ended yet but is about to.

Desperate to save her friend, Carly, Dovey teams up with an alluring stranger named Isaac, who is also wrapped up in this demon infestation. However, as Dovey continues to search for Carly in the shadowy corners of Savannah where nightmares are real, she begins to realize that this hunt she is on may be a dangerous trap that she had always been meant to fall into.

At the beginning of the book, I was hooked. Dawson gave you little time to ease into the story with the sudden arrival of Hurricane Josephine that leaves Dovey’s life torn asunder. The reader is immediately caught up in the action, also swept away by the hurricane. You feel the emptiness Dovey is left with in the aftermath, and you also feel her sudden rise in hope when she catches a glimpse of Carly leaving their favourite café in the same outfit she last saw her in. Through the majority of the book, the action continues to happen at this fast and invigorating pace. I found myself always tensing at the turn of every page and the beginning of each chapter, unsure of what dark and ghoulish being Dawson would pull from the childhood closet next.

The one up-side to this suspenseful structure is that it leaves the reader little time to notice the flaws. While this book was full of excitement and intrigue, the characters are, for the most part, one-dimensional. The only character with some actual depth is Isaac, and this is because he has an interesting and mysterious background that is revealed to us in only small tidbits at a time. In comparison, Dovey and her friend Baker are very superficial. Baker is the cute dork who grew up to be a handsome dork who has fallen (unprecedentedly) in love with Dovey, and Dovey is the once-drugged-now-seeing-demons girl who won’t give up on Carly. That about sums it up. However, you can happily ignore the limitations of these characters simply by being caught up in the pure creativity of this plot line. I mean, how did Dawson come up with the whole phenomena of demons eating the tips of people’s pinkie fingers (i.e. distals) thereby making them distal servants now and in death to that said demon? Pretty creepy stuff, and fascinating!

Unfortunately the action started to slow down in the latter half of the book and suddenly the details, or lack there of, became more obvious. Due to the consistent lack of character development, I had trouble becoming wholly invested in Dovey’s story apart from her search for Carly. Her conflicted emotions regarding Baker and Isaac felt irrelevant and unsubstantiated. Dovey also has a very dull way of reacting to all the crazy shit that goes down in this book. I mean, the amount of fear and disbelief Dovey displayed paled in comparison to my own. I felt like Dovey needed to take some lessons from the reader, because she obviously wasn’t seeing what I was reading.

Also, not to spoil anything, but the ending was very unexpected. It was a sad attempt at the unresolved literary ending that instead became one of those cliché endings in horror films (you know the ones I’m talking about). Upon closing the book, I kind of just sat there with my lips pursed thinking, “Yup…that happened. Alrighty then.”

While Servants of the Storm has its faults, I will admit that I did initially get caught up in the story. It was an unusual read for me, a southern Gothic, which is what made it enjoyable. I still responded to the book’s content, therefore, the book was never an entire loss for me. While it may not have been a challenging read, it is definitely of the young adult genre and something any demon-loving, science-fiction fan would enjoy.

3 out of 5 book thumbs up

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First Reads copy via Goodreads provided to me by Simon and Schuster Canada.

Servants of the Storm by Delilah S. Dawson, Simon and Schuster Canada © 2014.

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere August 5, 2014.

Honeyed русский whispers: A book review of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

book cover of the winter palace by eva stachniak. image of a woman's golden dress

“Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal…”

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

There are so many myths and misguided perceptions of what the large land mass of eastern Europe consists of. From rumours of a single surviving Romanov to whispers of a Soviet resurgence, Russia is full of mystery…and deception—or at least that is how Eva Stachniak portrays the Russian imperial era in her book The Winter Palace.

With a love for anything and everything to do with Russia ever since my first Russian history course in university, I was naturally very excited to read this book. While it has taken me at least a year to do so since its original release date, I have finally had a chance to read Stachniak’s proclaimed masterpiece.

The book is narrated by Barbara—or Varvara, in Russian—, who is a the daughter of a Polish bookbinder working for the royal Russian family. It is after the death of both her parents that Varvara also comes into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth. Initially, Varvara is simply one of the many seamstresses set to work on Elizabeth’s extensive closet; however, one night, she is discovered by Elizabeth’s chancellor, Count Bestuzhev and under his tutelage, Varvara learns how to become the “eyes and ears” of the Winter Palace, for him and for the empress. Assigned to assist and spy on the Crown Prince Peter, Varvara is introduced to the art of deception and thrust into a world of luxury and debauchery, which is consistently masked by gold, glitter, and fine foods. The Winter Palace is also where Varvara meets the newly arrived Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, the Crown Prince’s betrothed. Varvara ends up befriending this German princess, now named Catherine, while Peter ignores his wife-to-be, more interested in playing at war.

Most readers, such as I, would already be aware of the outcome, knowing that Peter is an incompetent ruler and no match for Catherine’s intelligence and diplomatic skill. Therefore, no foreshadowing is necessary to know that Catherine the Great triumphs and takes the Russian throne for herself—a German immigrant now Empress of All the Russias. But while this is the result Stachniak’s novel leads up to, it is not the tale she has decided to tell. Instead, The Winter Palace is an exposé of the palace’s more sinister side, where there are always concealed intruders and easily bribed servants.

Stachniak outdoes herself in setting the scene with layers upon layers of marble, gold, and amber, building the Winter Palace up before the reader’s eyes with remarkable glittery detail. She also brings to life the wide array of foods consumed at the court, which inspired odd cravings, as I found myself lusting for honey-covered cucumbers, Catherine’s favourite snack.

However, while Varvara may be telling the story and Catherine may be strategically planning for ascension to the throne, Stachniak is unable to bring the same intensity she easily provides Empress Elizabeth with. No other character speaks and acts with the same spirit and vitality. Simultaneously, she inspires awe and repulsion, keeping the reader in suspense as Elizabeth moves between kindness and cruelty as easily as time passes from day to night.

Unfortunately, the more I became fascinated with Elizabeth, the less I was convinced by Varvara’s and Catherine’s characters. While Vavara narrates all that is happening, she is also hiding behind this detailing of acts of conspiracy and spying. There is little else to identify her with. Vavara’s secret alliance with Catherine as her confidante also falls short, as the same level of intimacy achieved in the conversations between Varvara and Elizabeth is not translated when she is in closeted conversations with Catherine.

Catherine is aloof and often, disappointingly so, fades into the background. I really would have liked to see more personality from both Varvara and Catherine, rather than having both of them so easily subsumed by Elizabeth’s more eccentric and compelling characterization. It was almost a pity to see her go.

Slow to begin and slow to end, The Winter Palace is a commitment the reader must want to make, as it is only in its middle that the story truly has the potential to grab you, as Varvara navigates her way through the dusty passages of the Winter Palace, listening, learning, and spinning stories to help or to hinder those she’s required to confide in.

Stachniak’s ends the first book of her Catherine the Great trilogy anti-climatically with few reassurances. As time progresses after Catherine’s coup, Varvara becomes disillusioned and unsure of her “friendship” with the new ruler; Catherine’s character remains just as impenetrable as before and this time, the reader is not alone in this deduction.

The Winter Palace, while not being what I had expected, was a delightful read that returned me to Russia in all her imperial glory. However, Stachniak didn’t just allow me to walk the grand halls of the Winter Palace for a second time, she married time and place together in perfect unity, making my memories a living portrait of eighteenth-century Россия, and with her sequel just a little over a week away from its official release date, I am intrigued to see where she will take Catherine’s story and her infamous reign next.

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3 out of 5 book thumb’s up

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The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, published in Canada by Doubleday, © 2012

Available at Random House of CanadaAmazonIndigo, and independent bookstores.