Rating: 2.75 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Dimitri Alexeyev was an accidental Tzar. He had parents, brothers, brothers who had children … he was far enough away from the throne that he could relax, settle into a life with his new husband, and simply enjoy his days in peace and quiet, wrapped in Alexey’s devotion. All of that was destroyed with the violent deaths of his family, leaving Dimitri the Tzar of Novo-Svitsevo — and leaving Alexey a mere step away from the power he so desperately wants.

Alexey is a man of faith, who turned to the Holy Science for power. He sought God and was answered. Accustomed to commanding Dimitri, in bed and out, he was taken aback when Dimitri actually said no, when Dimitri tried to stand between his people and Alexey’s religious madness … and now, Dimitri is the Tzar in exile, with a handful of faithful followers and a husband who is amassing armies large enough to swallow the world.

A husband who is coming for him.

Dimitri’s court consists of Misha, a gifted healer; Ladushka, a devoted friend; Annika, a reluctant general; and Vasily, his spy master, who is also a bedmate. Not a lover, though. Dimitri’s heart still yearns for Alexey — the Alexey who he married, the Alexey he loved. Vasily is devoted to his Tzar, the man he will always love, even beyond death.

This is a book that draws heavily from the Ashkenazi Jewish culture. It’s a significant element in the story, with prayers, demons, and angels a constant companion to the characters. There is also quite a bit of gore, violence, cruelty, and murder, as well as marital rape and the rape of a child, so be aware of these are triggers for you.

Dimitri feels like a very passive character, often waiting for someone to tell him what to do. Part of this is due to his own nature, being more inclined to yield and follow rather than argue and lead, but he’s also suffering from PTSD, thanks to the emotionally abusive relationship he endured with Alexey. When Dimitri was married, it was neither with his permission nor his involvement. His parents arranged for a political union and handed him off. When he became Tzar, it wasn’t because he wanted it, simply because there was no one else. When his husband told him to perform a blasphemous ceremony, Dimitri did as he was told.

Vasily is Dimitri’s fuck buddy, someone who served him and who was called into his tent one night and made his lover. The power dynamics of their relationship aren’t really examined. By the beginning of the book, Dimitri is already languishing in exile, sometimes letting Vasily into his bed … but only if Dimitri has a blindfold on so he can pretend Vasily is Alexey. And only if Vasily fucks him the same way Alexey fucked him. Dimitri goes along with this because he loves Vasily, but in his POV scenes — especially at the beginning — his thoughts were less about loving Dimitri and more about hating Alexey. A religious ritual has Dimitri and Vasily sharing dreams and thoughts while Vasily goes back home to spy on Alexey. And it’s in these dreams that the two men actually start talking. But it’s a lot of telling. A lot of words, declarations of love and fondness backed up because they can feel each other’s emotions, but it’s still just the book telling me what they feel, rather than showing the characters experiencing these moments.

Alexey is ambitious, curious, innovative, and a man of two natures. On the one hand, he keeps an injured demon as a pet — not because it’s a demon, but because it was injured and needed him. Ivan, Dimitri’s half brother who looks much like him, is taken as Alexey’s lover and, while he’s treated to the same rough and violent sex, is handled kindly. He knows he’s a replacement, but Alexey lies to him, telling the boy he’s wanted, loved, valuable, and important to make him happy. When Vasily is cozening up to him while under cover, Alexey responds to his overtures, even though he’s not interested, because he wants to keep Vasily content and friendly.

While I understand that people are complex and can hold more than one opinion at a time, it felt odd that Alexey — in his own POV chapters — while ruthless and violent, isn’t quite the monster he is in Dimitri’s mind. While he’s supposed to be the villain of the book, it also seemed strange that he’s the second POV character, given equal weight and and as much attention as Dimitri and Vasily. While his chapters were among the more interesting, dealing with the world and the region rather than what Dimitri would eat for breakfast, I don’t think they quite worked with the book as a whole. It felt like Alexey should have been either more of a monster or more of a person, not a confused and conflicted weather vane. Likewise, his ending is abrupt and felt like too little for someone who had been built up to be a powerful threat.

All in all, little of this book worked for me. I didn’t feel any chemistry between any of the characters. Dimitri never interested me and Alexey’s chapters undercut some of the monstrousness he was supposed to have, as his actions didn’t always line up with how evil he was supposed to be. The world building only really showed up in Alexey’s chapters, and while the magic system was interesting, it was drawn from real life religious beliefs, rather than being part of this world. It was an imperfect fit, with the world around the religious magic not always lining up, and it left me wanting more answers than the few I was given.

This isn’t a bad book, it just didn’t work for me, and personally, I don’t really think it’s good enough to recommend. However, as always, if you do choose to give this book a try, I hope you enjoy it.