We meet Sergei or Seryoshka when he is only four years old and his family is fleeing the Soviet Union. Sergei and two older siblings, Kolya and Anya, escape the USSR stuffed inside luggage trunks with their father. Their mother is shot in the woods but they never see if she survived or not. The psychological trauma they suffer as a result of these events has waves which ripple throughout each of their lives:
“Old hurts don’t stop hurting just because they’re old.”
They defect to Illinois thinking their mother is dead, but his whole life Sergei has held on to the belief that she is still alive and is determined to find her. His father has never taken off his wedding ring and Sergei takes this as confirmation that she is still alive. He is bullied at school for being different and is sent to a therapist where he is prescribed strong drugs which affect his personality and leave him with large gaps in his memory. The drugs enable him to visit the lake in the woods where he experiences extremely realistic dreams of his mother. He sees things that he calls “not-rats” and “not-bugs” and his world becomes more surreal and dreamlike as a result of the drugs. His best friend and roommate, Cameron, is worried about him and the “treatment” he receives at the clinic and has a sixth sense which allows him to show up right on time whenever Sergei needs him. Sergei is being drugged and manipulated by shady individuals at the clinic who are using him to discover information about the Lake. It never really becomes clear why he has complied with this treatment for so long.
“there are a lot of chess masters out there just moving pawns on a board. I was never as good at chess as my father and my sister, but I knew for damn sure I didn’t want to be a pawn.”
Boord has created some really believable characters here and they were my favourites in the book, along with Cam’s younger sister Maddie, who Sergei finds himself falling in love with.
“Two normal, ordinary Americans, caught up in this strange game of otherworldly warfare.”
The storyline on the other side of the Lake was interesting and much more like a traditional fantasy, but a little too complicated for my liking. It took quite a while for me to figure out how everything fit together. The cast of characters on the fantasy side of the Lake is enormous and their history is complicated. Added to this is the fact that certain characters have two or more names they are known by and the memory workout for the reader begins! The world is richly described with a complex history encompassing warring tribes, gods disappearing and possibly ascending to power once again, future seers, spirit guides who can only be seen by certain lineages and magic wielders who can heal and bring back people from the brink of death.
The world building is detailed and interesting - a wall separates the Miroko from the Tarani and occasionally moves and traps people crushing their limbs or killing them. Anything built by the ancient, magical Rai has a tendency to change location and new rooms sometimes appear without warning. This adds to a dreamlike quality which is already very present throughout the book, with the characters often being drugged or drinking too much.
“It wasn’t like his dreams, and it wasn’t like being awake. It was like being both of something at the same time”
“He felt like he was going to puke—not exactly in disgust, more like motion sickness. The world felt like it had turned into a bad carnival ride.”
The story burns slowly and switches between each of the groups of people over a number of chapters which meant my brain struggled to remember how the people in the different groups related to one another and I often forgot details i had learned about them between their separate chapters. Having said that it was a very compelling, imaginative and original story and I really enjoyed the burgeoning romance between Sergei and Maddie. I think writing romance is one of Boord’s strengths and I love how realistically these teenagers are written, all their insecurities brought to the surface and the strength of Cam and Sergei’s friendship is wonderful. Then when Sergei finds himself falling for Cam’s sister Maddie, someone who is surely out of bounds, his guilt-ridden angst is palpable. Maddie and Sergei are very cute together, as they try to get to know one another better without giving away their feelings.
Jisel the Healer was another favourite character of mine. Emotionally exhausted from being able to read minds and having to absorb the feelings of those around him, he is a party to much more information than everyone else and it will be interesting to see what path he takes in the future.
There are so many wonderful elements to this enormous chonk of a book (over 1300 pages) and I can only begin to touch on some of them. The ending leaves many questions unanswered and I will definitely be looking out for the sequel and reading more of Boord’s work in the meantime as I really loved her writing style.
I was sent a review copy by the author - thank you! My review is honest and my opinions are my own.