Being the shallow sort who tends to pick up books because of their covers and nifty titles, I would have given this book a pass if it hadn’t been for Himself singling it out – and I’m very glad he did.
Rose Kovalenka is wild and beautiful and broken: when she returned to Russia, her homeland, she left behind her lover Daniel, and part of herself. She is trying to rebuild her life when she finds a golden bear, hidden in a bathhouse wall, and her inherited Second Sight recognises the sudden lash of power as something otherworldly, something dangerous. Released from the protection of the bathhouse, the golden bear starts to recall the magic that once raged through the land of the Rus.
That’s as much of the blurb as I’m giving you, on the grounds that the rest of it tells you too much of the initial action. Have to say that I picked it up without too much enthusiasm, but with the grandchildren staying, my planned read – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson – was proving just a tad too challenging for my exhausted brain. This looked a lot less daunting – which goes to show just how much of a wolf can prowl behind a girly sort of cover. It only took a page to draw me right into the writing, when it was apparent that I was in the hands of an experienced, accomplished writer at the height of her powers.
By rights I should have been rolling my eyes and swearing under my breath as breathtakingly beautiful Rosa stalked across the pages, enigmatic and flighty. The sort of heroine I normally loathe. But this time around, I found myself sympathetic to her difficult, contrary nature and drive to take mad risks. As for her lover – the fact that he is the timid, frightened one in the relationship ticked all my boxes. I get sooo sick of lantern-jawed alphas busy flexing their status and muscles – and when he is accompanied by the practical, cool-headed Em who never panics in an emergency, his terror is highlighted. But this isn’t some simple love story. In fact, I’m delighted to report that while the love interest provides some of the initial impetus that gets the story going, this layered, complex novel is far more about the pursuit of what matters – and how one ambitious woman’s drive for power and riches drove magic from Rus and caused it to become a whole lot wilder and more dangerous.
It is refreshing to read excellent quality fantasy based in a culture other than my own – and Wilkins does a superb job of braiding a number of half-familiar old Russian mythological creatures into a terrifying land riddled with dreadful risks for mortal travellers. The most poignant were those fleeing Stalin’s purges, who tried to shelter beyond the veil with disastrous results. As Daniel and Em struggle to survive, while looking for a way out, Rosa is trying to find a way in. Wilkins handled the pace and tension such that I was reading into the small hours, despite my tiredness, despite being woken at unearthly o’clock by my small grandson.
Any niggles? Have to say that having one of the main protagonists address me, the reader, directly did jar and I would have preferred it if that passage had been turned into one of his stories for his young daughter. Or even a late-night musing. But it isn’t a deal-breaker – the overall richness and drama of the narrative, the complex and interesting characterisation and occasional bursts of brutal violence and action were far too well written for me to want to put this book down until I’d reached the ending. Which was unexpected, but very satisfying. I will be looking out for more from this author – she also writes as Kimberley Freeman. And if you haven’t yet encountered any of her work, and enjoy well written fantasy, then track down the uninspiringly titled Rosa and the Veil of Gold – it’s a lot better than it sounds.