Review: The Sins on Their Bones by Laura Samotin

The Sins on Their Bones by Laura R. Samotin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Dimitri Alexeyev used to be the Tzar of Novo-Svitsevo. Now, he is merely a broken man, languishing in exile after losing a devastating civil war instigated by his estranged husband, Alexey Balakin. In hiding with what remains of his court, Dimitri and his spymaster, Vasily Sokolov, engineer a dangerous ruse. Vasily will sneak into Alexey’s court under a false identity to gather information, paving the way for the usurper’s downfall, while Dimitri finds a way to kill him for good.”

I have complicated personal feelings about The Sins on Their Bones, so I will try to take that into account for my review and note the places where I am being less objective.

Additionally, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to ask the author some questions about the book, so please find those at the end of this review.

When I heard of this book being a queerer, darker Shadow and Bone, I was totally on board because I enjoy the dark fantasy landscape, and anything that advocates for normalizing queerness is a win to me. And I have to say that I wasn’t disappointed here. The way the characters interact with the person who identifies as non-binary and the fact that two men got married to become tsar both seem so natural in this world, and I love that. (It did raise a question on how they planned to deal with succession since the position of tsar was passed from father to son. I would have liked that to be addressed in the story, but that is a minor criticism).

The story starts in an interesting place for a first novel, after the climax of a giant war between spouses, devastating a country. I really appreciated that unusual starting point, though unfortunately, it did make the first 100 pages feel a bit slow, and made me wonder if I would continue the book or not. Fortunately, I persevered and found the action ramped up well after that, but I would have preferred it to start a bit sooner. The other issue with this slowness was the content itself, which was mostly the MCs sitting around and moping and being sad.

I know that it’s difficult to portray emotional distress (such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, etc.) without making it sound overdone and whiney, so I’m generally forgiving of the whining as long as things continue to happen to push the action forward which the beginning of the story didn’t do so well. All the forward momentum relied on Dmitry and Vasily doing something and making decisions rather than being externally driven. And we all know that with depression, it’s really hard to force yourself to do anything, so more external motivators would have sped up the pace.

Which brings me to the parts that were harder for me to read and involved the trigger warnings of domestic abuse, toxic relationships, emotional abuse, and non-consent. The third perspective was from the villain, Alexey, who the author attempted to portray as a sympathetic, anti-hero (in his own mind, maybe?). Instead, he came off as cringey abusive and narcissistic and I wondered how Dmitry could ever be into that (note: the whole “domination and control as being sexy” trope is super hard to believe when you’ve had a controlling, abusive partner that made you feel powerless and trapped).

Thus, Dmitry’s hangup on Alexey even after all he did, while somewhat believable in terms of abuse survivors, was also stomach churning and heart-breaking. (I did skip or skim a good number of Alexey’s early chapters because I just couldn’t ). But hey, some people like that, I guess? I am happy about the ending between these two characters though, so that definitely increases my rating.

Character-wise, I did enjoy the Vasily /Dmitry story, but I didn’t feel quite as invested in the others’ stories because we don’t get to see a lot of growth in anyone else. Some of their decisions don’t make sense, their relationship with each other is pretty much completely established, and their shared traumas are merely alluded to, rather than shown. This might be the issue of starting the story after a large and life-defining war (where most of the characters presumably grew and bonded). Thus, this book felt more like a sequel than a first novel.

Lastly, some of the scenes seemed pulled out of Shadow and Bone (I mean, I like goats as much as the next guy, but did we really need a goat scene in this book too? And Alexey is pretty much the Darkling – he even looks like Ben Barnes from the TV show). But, I suppose if you’re writing to that fan group, this is inevitable.

On the whole, there were about equal positives and negatives. The writing was very good. I really enjoyed the spicy scenes and respect the risks the author took, even if some of those risks fell flat. I still opted for a 4-star review (though my actual rating is closer to 3.5-stars) because I feel that this book is definitely tailored to those people who like this kind of story And I 100% want to see more queer fantasy (and queer sci-fi, and queer mystery, and just queer stuff in general) out in the world.

My interview with Laura Samotin is below.

1. Your background in political science and military strategy is truly commendable. What motivated you to venture into the realm of dark fantasy?

I’ve always loved writing. (I wrote my first book when I was 8, a disturbingly dark exploration of a war between rats and mice who, in defiance of biology, all happened to be siblings.) But when the pandemic hit, I finally had the time on my hands to sit down and start writing as an adult.

I think I naturally gravitate towards dark fantasy because as a reader, I really enjoy being able to explore the darker side of the world through the safety of fiction—it definitely dovetails with my day job as a political scientist studying the causes of war. I was lucky enough to be able to turn my COVID hobby into a publishing career with the help of my agent, Hannah Ausbury, and a lot of writer friends I made along the way.

2. What was your inspiration for The Sins on Their Bones? Are there any authors or works that particularly influenced you?

A lot of my work centered around themes of grief, acceptance, and personal agency—TSTB was written while I was extremely ill with tuberculosis (yes, like a Victorian-era character in a Dickens novel) and writing was one of the ways I could make sense of what I was going through emotionally. Dimitri, the main character, starts off the book feeling as though he’s lost everything and won’t ever be able to put himself back together. I think in many ways his journey in the book echoed my own personal journey of recovery from serious illness and adjusting to a new normal.

There are so many writers who inspire me on a craft and storytelling level that it would be impossible to name them all. I will say that I loved the way that Leigh Bardugo crafted a found family dynamic in Six of Crows, and the way that CS Pacat explored yearning and political tension in Captive Prince—as I was writing TSTB, those two series were top of mind for me as examples of how to nail the kind of fantasy I wanted to write.

3. The start of this book, a protagonist at rock bottom after losing practically everything, is an interesting choice for a debut novel. What made you decide on this particular setting?

I’ve always thought it was so interesting that the war is the climax of most fantasy novels, but we don’t really get a view of what goes on in the aftermath. I wanted to address the question of what those who lost the war did to piece themselves back together in the wake of a horrific personal tragedy. I didn’t realize, at the time, how challenging this would be on a craft level, and what a struggle this would make it to get readers to connect with my characters. I’m incredibly lucky that my editor at Random House, Amanda Ferreira, was there to help me shape the narrative and the character journeys into what readers get to see on the page.

4. How did you come up with the world and the place names? Are they based on real-life geography or complete fantasy?

The world is based on 19th century Eastern Europe—I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, and so it’s where most of my family is from. Wilnetzk, in particular, is a little play on Wilna (which is now known as Vilnius, Lithuania, but which at the time my family lived there was part of Russia). I based TSTB on the places where my family was from, at the time my family was gradually leaving and migrating to America and other parts of Europe.

I wanted to make a book about a world like the one my family had been driven out of by pogroms, discrimination, and poverty—a kind of reclaiming of the place where I’m from, without the negative baggage of the historical antisemitism. Too often, Jews in fiction only get the chance to be victims—or, by extension, Nazi-punching heroes defined by how they stand up to extreme hatred and violence. These narratives are so important, but I was also craving a world in which people like me got to do the things that typical fantasy heroes did, all while happening to be Jews.

5.Your characters are very well developed in their beliefs and feelings. In what way did they challenge your abilities as a writer? Did one challenge you more than the others?

TSTB has three points of view, and one of them is from the perspective of the villain. I definitely found Alexey the hardest to write because he’s the villain of the story, but he firmly believes that he’s in the right, and that all of his actions are being taken to protect his country. It was definitely difficult to get so in the headspace of someone who I really disliked, but I hope it’s worth it for the reader!

6. How did your background in political science and military strategy help (or hinder) your writing of TSTB?

I like to think that my background in political science helped to bring a certain level of realism to the political dimensions of the book, as well as the portrayal of war and its aftermath. It was definitely useful being able to rely on my research background as well when delving into academic texts on Jewish myth and mysticism, which formed the basis of the book’s magic system.

7. You have created a world where queerness is accepted and really, just is. I love that! What influenced this decision, and did you encounter any obstacles in crafting this worldview?

As a queer writer, I wanted to give queer readers a space where they felt at home. I wanted to portray the kind of normalcy that I want to see in our world—where queerness is unquestioned, and where people have varied identities and ways of expressing themselves and it’s not even seen as something worth acknowledging because open queerness is so commonplace. I didn’t encounter any obstacles in crafting the worldview, because with fantasy, if you can imagine it, you can create it—and I hope that act of imagining is a powerful one for those who wish our world mirrored this kind of attitude.

8. Are there any other themes you’re exploring in TSTB?

I wanted to portray a realistic view of mental health struggles based on my own experience. Dimitri suffers from severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and it was important to me to show that his journey towards healing isn’t linear, and that he only gets there with a lot of support, medication, and self-acceptance. It’s very much not a “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative like you’d see in a lot of fantasy, and that was important to me—I wanted to show how mental illness can be something you deal with and which is always there, but which you can learn to live with and work around.

9. How do you deal with writer’s block, or what do you do for inspiration?

When I get writer’s block, it’s almost always because I made a wrong turn somewhere in the draft, and it’s my brain trying to get me to go back and fix it. So I go back to the last place I felt inspired by the book and then try to make a different decision about how to move forward.

For inspiration, I read a lot. I also love going on long walks while listening to the playlists I curate for each book. And the other tactic that never fails to inspire me is talking to my writer friends about my current books, because those conversations always spark so many great ideas.

10. What books are you loving right now?

I recently read When Among Crows by Victoria Roth and could not get enough of it – it’s a gorgeously vivid novella set in a Chicago divided between humans and creatures from Polish folklore. I will also always recommend Frances White’s Voyage of the Damned for fans of queer found family, murder mysteries, and amazing banter. In the realm of upcoming books, I recommend that everyone who loves high-stakes political intrigue and killer romance look out for Ben Alderson’s Realm of Fey series, which is going to be re-released by Angry Robot starting later this year.

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Lyndsie Clark

Hi! I’m Lyndsie! Writer. Artist. Linguist. Swordfighter. Cosplayer. Model. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, the only child of hippie parents. As a bored extrovert, I spent a lot of time in my imagination. Encouraged from an early age to write stories, I immersed myself in fantastical realms and completed my first novel at 15 years old. I have learned much since then writing more epic fantasy and dipping my toe into modern science fiction. Nowadays, my creativity has taken a darker turn as I explore dystopian worlds and post-apocalyptic futures. My cyberpunk series, The Savant Uprising, is currently in progress. I am in the process of submitting the first book, In Memoriam, for publication. I love cats, the sun, and my crazy life. Come join me on this adventure!

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