Book Review: The Ranger of Marzanna by Jon Skovron - the first book in a new fantasy series based on Eastern European folktales

Book Review: The Ranger of Marzanna by Jon Skovron

Title: The Ranger of Marzanna

Author: Jon Skovron

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: April 21, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: After his father is murdered by imperial Aureumian soldiers, Sebastian and his mother are taken to Gogoleth where he is persuaded to join the Aureumian army stationed in his homeland of Izmoroz. As an elemental wizard, the Aureumian commander sees him as vastly useful as they anticipate a Spring invasion by the Uaine. Despite being half Izmorozian and half Aureumian, Sebastian’s loyalties become aligned to the Aureumians. But Sebastian has an older sister, one of the last remaining Rangers of Marzanna who protect Izmoroz, Sonya, who will do everything in her power to liberate her homeland as she serves a goddess of death. Even if it means allying herself with an enemy nation.

I quite enjoy stories about siblings, both when they’re at odds with each other and when they work together, so I was intrigued by this book. I was also really curious about who, exactly, Sonya was intent on recruiting, as well as how a confrontation between brother and sister would go. This turned out to be not exactly what I had expected, but was different in a way I really liked.

The Characters: A Charming Main Cast

I found the characters to be interesting and quite representative of their respective culture, which really helped to showcase the world building. At the same time, things seemed a little too easy for them. Their decisions were quick, their actions were decisive, there was little stewing around about what to do. It felt more like they were being pulled along by the story.

However, I was charmed by most of the main cast. Despite the fact that they just embodied their cultures, they were fun and meshed well with each other. I did love that, at the end, so many of them were revealed as having ulterior motives, indicating there’s more to them than what was presented at first. I look forward to what the next book has to offer about them and their schemes and machinations.

I most enjoyed Sonya, Jorge, and Blaine, who represented 3 different cultures. Their differences were fun to see as they interacted and became friends. I think the only thing that bothered me about them was the romantic undertones to their relationships with each other. It felt unnecessary and distracting, and a bit out of place. But Sonya was a lot of fun. She always seemed good-natured and in high spirits, even in serious situations. I also found her unique speech pattern to be refreshing and just as much fun as her. Jorge was adorable as his religion holds him to strict rules. He did seem a bit prudish, but it somehow just made him more charming. Blaine was interesting and almost as fun as Sonya. We don’t get to know him quite as well, but I got the feeling there might not have been much more to get to know about him. He seemed to be refreshingly upfront, and a typical brash young warrior.

As for Sebastian and his intended Galina, an Izmorozian noblewoman in Gogoleth, I understood their relationship completely, but felt my heart aligning more with Galina. Just as Sebastian and Sonya became divided over their loyalties, so too did this young couple, though I was surprised by the turns it took. While I was charmed by Galina’s bookish nature and quiet intelligence, I quickly came to be equally un-charmed by Sebastian. He just seemed young and impressionable, which made him a blind follower in every area of his life. He never seemed to stop and think about anything other than himself and his magic. I do hope that he grows up in the next book as there were signs of uncertainty in his path, but I’m afraid he might be eternally young, stupid, and angry.

The Setting: Based on Eastern European Folktales

The last fantasy I read was very typically Eurocentric, so, I expected more of the same from this one as the book description didn’t indicate anything otherwise. In a way, I was right, but I was thrilled it was also quite different. The author is of Polish descent and several reviews note the book is based on Polish and Russian folklore. I definitely got a strong War and Peace vibe from this book, especially reading about the nobility’s mannerisms and speech patterns. I found it delightful, charming, and quite different from a lot of the fantasy I have read over the years.

When the story opens, there’s a great deal of snow mentioned. At first, I was a little confused because I’m used to things like trees, dirt, and little to no snow. But then I started to get an Eastern European vibe and it all finally made sense. I very much enjoyed immersing myself in Izmoroz. It seems too snowy and cold for my tastes, but I could easily imagine the small villages and towns as well as Gogoleth. It was both charming and depressing, especially as the vast divide between life in Gogoleth and the small villages was starkly apparent. I even found the tundra to be quite interesting!

This book introduced not only an interesting world in terms of setting where most of it is snowy instead of woodsy (though there’s a fair amount of woods), but also in culture. I really liked that it reminded me of War and Peace, especially in terms of the high society in Gogoleth. It felt a little stilted and formal at first, but, once I acclimated, I found I really enjoyed it and loved being immersed in this world.

I’d like to also mention that the Uaine have a very Celtic feel to them in terms of their speech patterns and their society. I found them to be quite boisterous and a complete counterpoint to the more stuffy Izmorozians. As I really enjoy all things Celtic, I loved that this book brought together my enjoyment of that culture as well as my fondness for War and Peace.

The Plot: Always Moving, Sometimes at a Gallop

I loved that this story moved along at a very nice clip. It never seemed to lag, but did seem to leap at times. There were gaps that the reader is left to fill in based on prior information as well as what happened after. I didn’t find it too troubling, but the jumps and then the lack of ever really mentioning it again were a little puzzling. It almost felt as though chunks of this story had been cut out and the edges not quite seamlessly sewn together.

Still, I found myself unwilling to put this book down. The author knew just when to end a chapter and when to switch viewpoints. It definitely kept me reading to find out how everyone’s plans would turn out and how the clash between the siblings would go. I wouldn’t call this fast-paced, but it did move along at a good canter.

The one thing that bothered me was the violence and goriness. Of course, it did involve someone serving a death goddess, so it made sense, but it was a little too gross for me. At the same time, I have read worse, and recently, but I was taken aback by just how peppered throughout the book it was. Still, it could have been worse, though it did help to highlight a bit of Izmorozian and Ranger culture.

I really enjoyed the story of siblings being on opposite sides, though there was still some feeling of love between them. It wasn’t as heart-wrenching as I would have liked, but it provided enough for me to feel like they were siblings. I liked that the story followed them equally and really showed how different their paths were as well as how they progressed to where they were when they came face to face after quite some time apart.

Overall: Never Boring

This book has plenty of fun characters and interesting cultures. It moves at a good pace that never seemed to bore me. There were hints of broader intentions and some intrigue, but I felt it was more focused on the action than the subtleties. Still, it was a good introduction to the series and I have high hopes for the next book.

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Thank you to Angela Man from Orbit for a free e-ARC. All opinions expressed are my own.

Check out more of my book reviews by heading to the Bookshelf.

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