NORYLSKA GROANS by Michael R. Fletcher and Clayton W. Snyder (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And so to the third of our final month finalist reviews, a bleak tale of torment in a tormented city. The book generated something of a split opinion amongst our judges. Do you need to enjoy something to like it?
Michael R Fletcher and Clayton W Snyder
with the weight of her crimes. In a city where winter reigns amid the fires of industry and war, soot and snow conspire to conceal centuries of death and deception.
and the weight of a leaden sky threatens to crush her people. Katyushka Leonova, desperate to restore her family name, takes a job with Norylska’s brutal police force. To support his family, Genndy Antonov finds bloody work with a local crime syndicate.
with the weight of her dead. As bodies fall, the two discover a foul truth hidden beneath layers of deception and violence: Come the thaw, what was buried will be revealed.
OK – I have to declare I am, besides being a sucker for feisty female protagonists fighting against the odds, also invariably mesmerized by memory magic. Last Memoria was a personal favourite from last year. Blackstone Heart – with its protagonist’s fragmentary memories and interrogation of how far we are who we remember ourselves to be also appealed. So the magic system in Norylaska Groans with its focus on memories stored and borrowed, of shared – or invaded – head spaces, and of horrible blank outs of lost times, was really playing my kind of music from the off. (One has to also mention this seems to echo the plot theme used in the Ben Stiller film Severance though to different effect)
As far as other initial impressions are concerned, the cover has a nice almost abstract Blade Runner style cityscape to it and the production and editing are professionally done. The prose is colourful with lots of nice lines, but there are also some similes and passages that misfired for me. This led to some passages feeling overwritten with the prose drawing attention to itself, yet not conveying the pithy kind of image that the reader expects at such times.
I often struggle with grimdark, I need a bit of lightness in the books I read, but there were aspects of this one that I did enjoy. The magic system was fresh to me – I haven’t seen anything similar before, and the prose was enjoyable to read. I did find some of the descriptions of various acts of violence to be too much though. For me, it was a lot of unnecessary detail and repetitiveness in the descriptions. I also wasn’t super keen on the cover – it’s a bit too busy for my tastes.
I like this grim cover with the choice of imperfect font sort of bleeding in places. The cityscape in the background and the man in a cloak next to a liquor bottle with the red hues all over definitely screams crime noir to me. There is a small map of the Norylska city limits in the front of the book, and the choice of font for chapter headers resembles that on the cover. The space inside out is well used on the physical copy, though I find the font size on the back blurb a little too large.
This cover is an eye-catcher, but the novel sucks you right in with its sharp prose. I didn’t find any editing issues with it and enjoyed the overall cutting and cunning dialogues as they were. The landscape and setting drew me in as well and Chapter One hooked me like a good prologue in the unique setting of the fleshracks slaughter house. The freezing city of Norylska is lit on fire by gritty sharp prose and I dug it.
I’m a little torn on this cover. I think it really conveys the feel of the book, and it certainly has a quality to it. I do find it a little busy. The more important part is what’s inside, and from the first page I was impressed by the prose. It flows well and Fletcher and Snyder do an excellent job of really communicating the ambiance and–frankly–brutality of the titular city of Norylska. Like Belle, for me grimdark is not a favorite genre. I attempted to soldier on as much as a I could, but ended up DNFing around 40%. You should not consider that an indictment of the book, however. If you love grimdark, and especially grimdark with plenty of gore, you’re going to enjoy this one I think.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
We get alternating chapters of two protagonists, both in relationships whose flaws and fractures they don’t yet see – Kat with her gaslighting not-even-a-fiance boyfriend Fyodor and Gen with his pregnant and perennially disappointed wife Irina. While Kat finds herself sucked from the secretarial pool into genuine and dangerous police work, Gen – the unemployed veteran – drifts in the opposite direction towards organised crime.
I found Kat’s story more engaging than Gen’s both in her personal journey and in the way she interacted with the complex magic and social systems. In Kat the novum of a world where memories can be borrowed, shared, or lost, where you could become addicted to “being” someone else – all seemed to reach their apotheosis. Gen’s story arc – while well written – was a less subtle catalogue of violence and despair.
I won’t lie, I was ready for Kat to do a murder on her horrible boyfriend, and I’m really disappointed that didn’t happen. Like Theo, I found Kat’s story much more interesting, although I wish she could have found her strength and confidence without the memory stones, and it felt a little squicky to me that it was only through taking on the memories of a man, and implied masculine traits, that she could stand up for herself.
I found myself connecting with Gen’s storyline less, and without the confidence that things could get better for him, I did find myself skimming some of his chapters. That said, I did appreciate that his POV gave some excellent context to the wider world and gives the reader access to necessary information that would otherwise be unavailable if Kat was the sole POV character.
We follow two main characters in this novel. Gen, a plant worker from the Filth of the city renders fat from the great taiga beasts. This is the first hint of a Russian alternate history reference for the setting of the story. Gen has a baby on the way and is hoping for a promotion after many years of working the fleshracks.
Kat, the second main character, is a secretary and supports a mainly worthless boyfriend while they live in poverty. She is approached to work on a special project outside the filthy district she lives in, and it isn’t secretarial. What starts as an intimidating work proposition, turns into a big secret that changes her completely.
By the time these two main characters meet, a lot of the political environment has been set up while sufficiently keeping up with their backstories in alternating POV’s.
I was taken by both characters equally at first. They are likable, hard-working individuals, but I think Kat was given a greater stage towards the second half of the novel. That was just fine with me, I enjoyed their developments well and connected with them greatly.
I found both main characters interesting, though like the others I found Kat’s story more intriguing in its details. We are introduced to Gen as he is working in a plant stripping fat from giant beasts and the despair and hopelessness and brutality of the world is on full display as a fellow plant worker ends up pulled into one of the chopping machines and, well, chopped. It’s gruesome, certainly, but it also does a good job of setting the tone for what to expect as the story continues.
Katyushka, as Belle mentions, has a horrible live-in boyfriend. But she gets a fortuitous offer for a new position and this ends up driving her part of the story forward (though, unfortunately, it doesn’t result in her driving over her boyfriend). It is through Kat’s eyes that we get to learn more about the magic and there is enough there that is so intriguing that I really liked it.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
It is implicit in the nature of the story, with memories tangled and disordered, that the plot is going to be a bit of a confusing and disordered weave – hard for characters and reader to follow alike. There is a mystery within it, there is betrayal, and I was happy enough to read on and see what those dilemmas did to the characters. However, there were some illogicalities of plot and action that didn’t make immediate sense to me, in particular we came across a room full of people sleeping – and I still don’t know why they were sleeping. Still, the story’s action filled pace, and fast switching perspectives swept me along fast enough that I didn’t feel a need to probe too deeply into finding or resolving any plot holes.
I’m glad I’m not the only one confused about the room full of sleeping people!
Overall, I enjoyed the plot, especially following the threads in Kat’s POV. While sometimes the memory flashbacks were confusing, it did fit with how the memory stones worked and so I understand why it was like that, even if I wasn’t a fan of it. There were some aspects I felt could have been fleshed out more, especially around Lazarev’s motivations.
The thing I struggled with the most was the depiction of violence throughout the book – and it’s something that bothers me about grimdark in general. Sometimes the descriptions feel gratuitous to me, and there were several violent incidents that were referred to in detail each time they came up. They were uncomfortable and off-putting – as they were intended to be! – but that didn’t work for me at all.
Kat’s and Gen’s stories are told in alternating POV’s and focus firstly very separately on their dilemmas and so forth. Eventually, they merge, and the plot becomes very speedy. Add some motivational factors and betrayal by other characters, count in the memory shifts when the characters step into other roles, and you are left with a few trails to keep track of. I found that the some of the moments were overshadowing the overall course of the idea at times, but I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the intensity of them. It definitely keeps you turning those pages!
I agree with what everyone has said, the memories and flashbacks can be quite confusing. But it also fits really well with the story and the magic and the world, so I don’t know that I want to complain about that, per se. I was definitely interested in the plot and, in a less brutal world, that probably would have been enough to keep me reading. There are some mystery or perhaps crime thriller elements to this that were also fun.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Worldbuilding is a strength of the book. The Russian aesthetic to the naming conventions is accentuated by grim poverty of the city of Norlyska. There is a Dostoevsky touch in its contemplation of crime, guilt and punishment. As I said before, the magic system really appeals to me – the sense of using memory stones and trait stones to clothe yourself in knowledge, confidence and skills borrowed from someone else. The notion of being a different person at work to how we are at home, may resonate with many people, but in Noralyska Groans, this concept is made wonderfully disorientatingly real.
This is however, a world of extreme violence. The authors slice open the city’s stinking underbelly, bury themselves elbows deep in its viscera, and strew the bloody evidence across the page. Which is by way of saying there are many graphic descriptions of violence and torture. In The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch has his characters drowned in barrels of horse piss, or lacerated into a bloody ruin by having a bag of ground glass massaged over their head. However, Fletcher and Snyder stretch the envelope of creative violence further. I wouldn’t class it as gratuitous, but it does make for some grim and uncomfortable reading.
I did enjoy the worldbuilding in this book. The attention to detail in crafting the world is evident, and right from page one there was a really clear feeling to the various parts of Norylska. Sometimes I wish the writing was less evocative, because it is a truly horrible place.
The magic system was the standout for me. It was really interesting to explore how different combinations of memories and traits could change a person, but the part that really intrigued me was how removing the stones not only removed the personality traits and the previous bearer’s memories, but also the current wearer’s memories. Seeing Kat make plans to better her personal life (including leaving her abusive boyfriend), and then having no memory of those plans, was heart breaking.
I couldn’t agree more with Theo on this. I have read a few Russian thriller type novels and am drawn to the concept of crime, guilt and punishment. I’m also a sucker for the underdog type novel with a bit of that noir feel.
The idea of memory stones was a cool concept for characters to slip into certain roles in the day and be someone different at night. It changes the characters overall with time, but there are limitations to these stones too. One can see how valuable these memories are and the destruction or misuse thereof can create. Of course, that’s what it is all about!
The setting and overall tone of this novel was sharp and provocative with a brutal feel. The violence in this book is high and can make you cringe. Most of it just keeps you at the edge of your seat and the tensions are palpable. A few lines felt sexist. It didn’t bother me but it may do others.
The worldbuilding here is very, very good. I found the magic interesting and, as Scarlett and Theo mention, the musings on crime and guilt fit very well within this world. The magic is also very intriguing. The idea that you can sort of take on traits and memories from someone else, perhaps in some way literally be someone else, is fascinating. The cost to do so is also intriguing and it makes the entire novel one that is very unique.
Of course, the world building is also–for me–where things just got difficult to read. Not that the world building is done poorly, but that it’s such a brutal world. Some of this is down to the gruesome details of death and gore that can seem at times to be gratuitous. But it’s also down to the world itself, the hopelessness of the vast majority of people we encounter. This is all to be expected in grimdark, and Norylska Groans makes no bones about its identity as a grimdark novel. But for me, it all quickly became too much. I often read fantasy to escape from a world that seems all too often hopeless and grim.
Quotations that resonated with you
The prose has lots of excellent lines and – like other finalists whose stories dwell with the poor and oppressed it has some – it makes some observations of contemporary relevance.
“Neither the militslya nor the people care if you fail. It is neither the job of the institutions of the state nor that of your fellow comrades to support you.” (Libertarianism in its purest form!)
Or when describing executed corpses hanging on a gibbet
“A sign had been tacked to the base; the words sketched out in black paint. SEDITION it read. It should have said POOR.”
There are some places where the prose runs away with itself into the odd overwritten simile for example “Guilt and self-loathing hung from the tails of the emotion like twin corpses” but there are many lines of sharp simplicity.
“He glanced at her, flashing a crooked, apologetic thing that was probably supposed to be a smile.”
“This new Lazarev intrigued her. He wore his body differently from the man she knew.”
The prose was a real standout for me, even if I didn’t always like the content! There were a lot of well-crafted sentences, and this was one of my favourites:
“The wind cut through his coat like teeth of ice as he trod the streets, however, so he forgave the vodka its trespass in exchange for false warmth.”
There were so many great lines in this one, but I was also really drawn to the italic little excerpts that explained much behind the stones magic and history. Like this:
“What is stored in stone can be accessed by anyone touching it. Back-alley veneficum buy or steal pleasant memories and useful personality traits from the desperate to sell to the powerful and hawk cheap stones to the poor. Bravery. Inventiveness Compasssion….”
“A red dream. Cut from flesh and bone, bathed in blood from the grinder until its skin is raw and pink. Shadows, a coven. A sisterhood. The Night Witches. They moved through the battlefield like smoke, and where they passed, men fell like chaff blown from a field.“
There is a lot to like in the prose. This gem, I think, does an excellent job in just a few sentences of evoking the feel of the world:
“Each breath plumed before her like a tiny cloud. The ancient wood floor, shellacked in varnish, grumbled and creaked with each step. Norylska groans. She first heard those words from a retired soldier, days before father brought them north.”
There is an uncompromising grimness to Norlyska Groans, that draws the reader in nonetheless. Parts of it are uncomfortable to read. The characters are at best grey, and at times plunge into much darker actions and motivations, as though possessed by personal or borrowed demons. But the setting and the magic system are both fascinating, while the protagonists make a compelling pair striving for control not just of their destinies, but of their own personalities.
I don’t think I can say I enjoyed this book overall, but there are definitely aspects I appreciated, especially the magic system. Someone who enjoys grimdark will more than likely love reading it, it’s just not a genre for me.
This is not like your epic fantasy with beautiful hillsides and dragons and swordfights and magic. No, this is grim, gritty, dirty, desperate, palpable, gory, bloody, greedy and shocking. The setting and the magic are a great combination and the character’s hardships and change over time well developed. This may not be for everyone, but with that said, there are intriguing passages and dialogues to be found. I definitely enjoyed it!
This book was definitely not for me, as it was–as Theo puts it–uncompromising in its grimness. There is a desperation to the character and world that is heartrending and shocking all at once. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, quite the opposite, but as I’ve said before, I think fans of grimdark will find plenty to enjoy.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||7|