I’m a judge for the first-ever SPSFC (Self Published Science Fiction Contest), but couldn’t help noticing the parallel SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off) contest happening. I always love finding some new indie authors and books, so I decided to read through the finalists of that contest and review them on my site. As always, let me know your own thoughts in the comments.
Norylska Groans by Michael R. Fletcher and Clayton W. Snyder
Norylska Groans is a dark steampunk fantasy centered around a mystery in a dirty city. Readers follow two main characters, Kat and Gen. Kat is finding her way with a new job in the militsiya, where she discovers that there is far more to the job than meets the eye. Gen is also finding his way in new employment, as a kind of strongman for a major gang in the city.
Norylska itself is as much a character as any of the people in the book. The city has the urban, steampunk feel of early 1900s Moscow. Snow covered with soot, filth, and brutal mob violence dominate the landscape. The authors included an interesting magic system centered around the use of stones that can contain or siphon memories and emotions. The magic system becomes increasingly important for the main plot in the book, which finds both Gen and Kat discovering more about the workings of several minor characters they encounter from different angles throughout the novel.
It was especially interesting to follow the journey of Kat, and as a reader I began to question, as Kat did, which Kat was the real one, how she’d react in different circumstances, and whether she was truly developing or being utterly manipulated. It’s a great plot, though it does take a while to ramp up. Around a third into the novel I began wondering if the plot was going somewhere, only to have it pick up rather quickly and find directions that I didn’t expect. It’s a strong central story featured here.
The book starts with an extremely violent death. The brutality doesn’t really let up at any point in the book. Many people are tortured to death in incredibly brutal ways throughout the book. The descriptions of sadistic awfulness are detailed and, at times, seem to be almost delighting in the slaughter. It got to be far more than too much for my taste, and I admit to skimming through several of these sections. I am not usually bothered by this, but the intensity and repeated fervor with which the violence was described seems over the top to the point that it began to take away some of my enjoyment of the novel. It’s hard to connect to characters who are willing to go to such extreme lengths to torment their fellow humans, so it began to impact my thoughts on the rest of the book as well.
Overall, Norylska Groans thrives on its world-building and a slow-burn plot with great payoff. The intensity of its violence will be enough to put off some readers, but those interested in dark fantasy should be rushing to read it.
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