Divided between the two leads, the plot of Norylska Groans alternates between chapters from each point of view. For the most part, their stories, although linked, occur independently of each other. Their paths do cross occasionally, giving an opportunity to view the same events and the opposing character from their unique perspectives.
Katyushka starts off as close to an innocent as the book contains. Press-ganged into service as Norylska’s first female militsioner, she is soon given a personalized set of Veneficum stones designed to give her the skills and knowledge required for the job. Unfortunately for her, the stones also confer some desires she would rather not acknowledge and memories of being tortured to death.
The central idea of skills and memories being preserved in stones tends to be explored more in her chapters. As mentioned, there are both pros and cons to wearing them. They can allow characters to be more confident, to know sections of the city they’ve never visited, and how to defend themselves when necessary. The trade-off is two-fold though. The stones only function when in direct contact with the wearer’s skin, making them a potential vulnerability as well as an asset. And, at least for memory stones, any new memory formed while the stones are worn is gone as soon as the stones are removed. Which leaves Kat at a loss on how to account for how she now spends her days.
Gen, meanwhile, spends the bulk of the novel on the other side of the law. During a post-firing drinking session, his involvement in a random bar fight brings him to the attention of a senior member of the Shkut family, one of the more powerful of Norylska’s rival criminal organizations. Desperate to provide for his wife, Irina, & their unborn child and, despite her objections, Gen sees no other options available than to take work from them. Soon, with his former soldierly skills enhanced with illegal stones, Gen finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the family’s plans, much to the chagrin of Irina.
Although the story never strays beyond the titular city, Gen’s memories often give glimpses of the world beyond, usually relating to the war that he only barely survived. It was refreshing to have a novel set in a more Slavic/Russian environment, rather than the more typical western European set dressing, and the descriptions of the choking industrial areas, the constant cold, and the sense of danger make it all too easy to believe in.
The tone is almost unrelentingly grim from the start with violence never far away, as evidenced by a gruesome slaughterhouse accident in the opening chapter. This may well be a negative for a number of potential readers but, for those who like their grimdark jet black, there’s every chance they’ll appreciate Norylska Groans. I would certainly not be averse to reading more set in this world.
8 out of 10 Dyrkovichs