JOINT REVIEW: The Devil Lancer by Astrid Amara
Captain Elliott Parrish of Her Majesty’s 17th Lancers cavalry division finds most details about his assignment in the Crimean peninsula insufferable. Rampant cholera, missing supplies, and inept planning start the British war effort against the Russian Czar’s expansion into Turkish territory on poor footing. What should have been a swift and decisive summer victory soon drags into a harrowing winter campaign, and Elliott must rally disheartened men through sickness, battle, and starvation. But when he is assigned the additional task of spying on a fellow officer, the inscrutable Cornet Ilyas Kovakin, he finds himself disconcerted and fascinated by both the work and the man. Rumors surround Ilyas Kovakin, the half-Russian officer who reports to none in his division. People say they’ve seen snakes slithering into his tent at night, that he has another face visible only in certain light, and a penchant for violent acts carried out in darkness, alone. But the truth that Elliot soon discovers is much more dangerous then mere superstition. For Ilyas, his return to Crimea is colored with the horrors of his past. Once a mercenary, he has made a terrible mistake and inherited horrifying powers that he can barely control. He feels his hold over his humanity slipping away daily, and fears that salvation may already lay beyond him when the cheerful Captain Parrish catches his attention. Among men who hate him and superiors who covet his brutal power, Ilyas finds the young captain’s charming company almost irresistible. But Ilyas knows that the closer he is drawn to Elliot the more he will endanger them both.
Dear Astrid Amara,
Sirius: You are one of the few m/m writers whose books I will buy based on your name on the cover alone, but when I heard that the topic of your next book would be the Crimean War, I could not wait to get my hands on the ARC. I studied the Crimean war in high school, or I guess I should say I studied the Russian side of it for the most part, and I suppose because the war took place in the 19th century, Soviet historians felt it was okay to criticize the tsar as well, not just his adversaries. Basically the recollection I had from high school was that this war left its mark in history as one of the most incompetent wars ever – on all sides. The fictional book about the Crimean War which I remember the most was Leo Tolstoy’s “The Sebastopol Sketches”.
I thought your historical research was superb and the war scenes came alive on the pages – I do not mean just the battles scenes. I mean soldiers and officers dying from diseases, not just on the battlefield, and high commanders of English army being so mind bogglingly stupid and incompetent that I should have been surprised, but I really was not. If your story was purely a Crimean war historical, I would have easily given it an A. I appreciated the note at the end explaining what parts of the settings you took some small liberties with and I especially appreciated the bibliography, which I am going to peruse to see if I can find some of these books.
Kaetrin: I knew little about the Crimean War prior to reading the book but was keen to read a story in a different setting and to learn more about it. I had the sense that the detail about the war and the conditions of the winter of 1854 were accurate. I did end up looking some things up because I was confused by some of the descriptions of decisions made/not made by the officers in charge. I could understand why Elliott might not have known the answers to some of the questions he had – I’m talking here, for example, about Elliott’s complaints to superior officers about why the Lancers weren’t used to harry the retreating enemy (which was their main strength) but instead were held back in some of the early battle scenes. When I looked it up, the prevailing view seems to be that Lord Cardigan had no battle experience and therefore was a poor strategist. And it was those little finishing off bits which were missing in the book for me. I felt like I’d been told most of the story but that it hadn’t been quite completed and I found it frustrating.
Sometimes I looked things up because I felt I was missing something. Other times I looked things up because my interest was piqued. For example, I ended up doing some reading about the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. The description of the battle itself was very good and it made me want to orient myself to its wider context.
I found myself outraged that Lord Cardigan ordered the men under him not to wear their cloaks because it made them look ‘effeminate’ but then he went off to his warm yacht with his personal chef and all the comforts of home. The men he was leading (poorly) were starving and freezing and they weren’t even allowed to light a fire. The deprivations these men endured and their absolute loyalty to their sworn duty really spoke to me. And this adherence to duty was never more clear when they were ordered to charge the enemy’s guns when they were surrounded on three sides by heavy artillery. It was, literally, a suicide mission. So many died because of stupid decisions.
Sirius: Actually I knew little about anybody’s side of things other than Russian in that war, you know? My main recollection was that there was just so much incompetence from everybody. And even such an apparently famous event as the Charge of Light Brigade was a complete blank for me – it may have been briefly mentioned in my text books, but if it was, I did not remember it at all and also ended up looking it up. As I mentioned above, I am really going to try to read some of the books listed at the end of this novel, but what intrigued me was that Elliott was inspired by William Morris of the Light Brigade. I ended up getting a book, “Pocket Hercules,” by M.J. Trow – which I thought was pretty much a biography of William Morris, and which covered his participation in Crimean War. I am not sure anything was missing for me in the novel in terms of the depiction of Lord Cardigan or Lord Raglan. The author says at the end in the author’s note that she took some liberties with their personalities, but the decisions that they made and that are shown in the book were enough for me to call them all kinds of bad strategists and other things in my mind. M.J. Trow states that Cardigan was involved in many scandals, and in this book his constant quarrels with another commander when he should have been concentrated on the welfare of his soldiers and officers and on actual war were quite damning for me.
Kaetrin: I knew a little bit about the Charge of the Light Brigade and a very little about the Crimea because a long time ago I read a historical romance by Emma Drummond which covered that period. Of course, the Crimea has been in the news more recently as well.
Sirius: The book is not just a historical though, it has a very significant paranormal storyline and a romantic storyline – all three are connected of course, but the paranormal aspect of the story is the one I had some issues with.
As the blurb tells you, when we meet Elliott Parrish and Ilyas Kovakin, they are going to Crimea as part of the British troops, and these troops are not in the best shape. The blurb describes very well the rumors that are going around about Ilyas’ strange behavior and his abilities. Elliott is instantly intrigued by Ilyas and because he wants to determine whether Ilyas is a Russian spy or not, he takes it upon himself to spy on him, and at some point his spying is even sanctioned by his superiors.
I was intrigued by both Ilyas and Elliott and could not wait to see where the story would take me. Alas for some reason the narrative decides to take this intrigue away from me *very* early in the story. Basically the reason for Ilyas’ strange behavior and his abilities is revealed extremely early. Despite the early reveal I am going to put it under spoiler cut just to be on the safe side.
The following is from the second chapter in the story, 4% on my Kindle:
Kaetrin: Oh, that’s interesting Sirius because I had almost the opposite reaction to you. For various reasons I found this book hard to get into. I felt disoriented for a lot of the story and just when I was beginning to understand and feel “at home”, the narrative would shift – days, weeks, sometimes months ahead, and the disorientation began all over again. In relation to the paranormal aspects of the story, it was nearly halfway into the book before the full context of it is given and that was too late for me. That was important information which I wanted. Instead I was floundering a lot of the time.
Sirius: So what was revealed early in the story, what I describe in the spoiler cut, was not enough for you to feel that suspense of the paranormal storyline was lost?
Kaetrin: No – I felt there wasn’t enough information given to me early on. I was confused and groping for context until about halfway into the story.
Sirius: Of course I was not completely bored with the book. I thought it was very well done, especially how Elliott’s obsession with Ilyas in a way mirrored (only metaphorically – obviously Elliott did not wish anything evil upon him) what was happening with Ilyas.
He loved a good mystery, and the cornet was exceeding all of his expectations. Kovakin looked impatient as he waited. He didn’t pace; he remained immobile, despite the dampness of this evening.
Elliott glanced over to see how Henry fared, and noticed his friend lying on the wet forest ground, resting his head on his arm, his eyes closed.
“You all right?” Elliott whispered.
Henry cracked an eye. “Taking a nap. Wake me when he commits treason.”
Kaetrin: I did find myself bored. When I think back to individual sections of the story, I can point to parts that I enjoyed but it didn’t feel cohesive to me. It felt choppy and disjointed. I actually took two tries to read it. Both times, the story just didn’t grab hold of me. The second time, I powered through because I had promised Sirius I’d review it with her, but otherwise I think I’d have given up. Not because it’s bad – it’s not. I just found myself confused and frustrated at lot of the time and when I wasn’t, I was waiting for some action. Much of the battle descriptions are very dry – in the manner of a report rather than a story (if that makes sense). A lot of the time, Elliott wasn’t directly involved, so I didn’t feel the immediacy of the action or that there was anything at stake (in terms of the personal story of Elliott and Ilyas). And, as I said above, these battle descriptions/decisions often had an element which felt incomplete to me.
In some ways, I felt the paranormal aspects were tacked on because most often the story with Ilyas and his brothers were quite separate from the rest of the narrative. However, in other places I thought they were seamlessly integrated into the story. For example, the great storm (which actually happened) was given a paranormal origin. That’s contrary, I know, but that’s how I felt.
Sirius: For me it was completely believable that at the time of war and death they would think first about war and second about their mutual attraction, so it made sense to me that in the first half of the book they may have thought a lot about each other but did not interact much except when forced to by their duties (whatever they both understood their duties to be). I also liked how when their relationship received some further developments, it just happened. Again, it just made sense to me because of the war.
Kaetrin: I liked the slow build of the romance but I think I missed the part where they talked and became friends and it developed into more. To me, it seemed more like a physical attraction and a shared quest (to vanquish the paranormal villains). The first time they were intimate it felt like convenience because they were both gay rather than a serious “I choose you because I like you”. By the end, I did think they had a lasting bond but I would have liked more of that shown, instead of told, in the main story.
Sirius: When the paranormal aspect actually became more action-oriented, I really liked it – now it did not matter to me that I knew what Illyas was fighting against, now I was just cheering for him and hoping he would win. Of course I liked that he had Elliott on his side as somebody who would want to help him and who clearly grew to love him. And I was very pleased with the happy ending for both of them.
Kaetrin: Yes, I felt the way in which the men get their HEA, given the time period, made sense. Although, I will say that I’d have thought Elliott would have grieved some things more than he did *she says mysteriously*.
Sirius: As an aside, the blurb states that Ilyas is half-Russian, and there are also several secondary Russian characters appearing in the book, so you will see a few Russian expressions used. I thought it was done almost perfectly – Russian expressions are used sparingly, they are translated right away, very well and very correctly. I do not know how fluent the writer is in Russian, but she clearly has a working knowledge of the language. But there was a certain choice (and it is clearly a choice, not a mistake, because every other use of the language was so awesome) which frustrated me so very much as someone for whom Russian is a first language. Every time I have read “Ilyas” I cringed. I do not understand the need to add the “S” to his first name, I really do not. Is it to show that he is only half-Russian? But even his horse is correctly called “Valentin” NOT Valentine, thank you author. His half-brother calls him “Illyushka” at some point in the book, which is one of the derivative names from Illya. I respect that the writer chooses whatever works best for the story, but this choice did not work for me at all.
Kaetrin: As a non-Russian speaker, I didn’t pick any issues with the names. I agree the Russian expressions were used well.
There were some little niggles I picked up in the book, like here:
In the gloom, he spotted few members of his regiment, and no commanding officer. He couldn’t spot Lord Cardigan anywhere.
where I felt the wording was a little… awkward – although I may have only noticed such things because I wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be.
Also, I didn’t believe Elliott would have referred to Ilyas as having a “sweet ass” – British people don’t say “ass”, they say “arse”.
I know they are very different books, but, for me, The Devil Lancer didn’t have the same engaging charm as Carol of the Bellskis did and the writing style felt very different (much drier). I liked learning more about the Crimean War and I wanted to like this book more than I did. There were parts of the story where I felt connected and engaged (I really liked Elliott’s relationship with his friend Henry, for example) but then there would be a “dry spell” where I lost interest again. It just didn’t grab me, so for the grade, I’m going with a C.
Sirius & Kaetrin