ARC Review: Whitley: Web of Frost

Book Cover
title: Web of Frost
author: Lindsay Smith

pages: 400
format: eARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 2/5
Genre: Fantasy
Topics: Russian characters, Antiheroes, Classism, Royalty, Rebellion, Religion, Alternate Universe

Russalka is a proud empire, frozen and vast, protected for centuries by a royal family who works miracles from the saints. But rebellion stirs in the streets, and its war-hungry neighbors threaten to invade. The young princess Katza has been tormented by visions of her bloodied hands destroying Russalka—a clear message from the saints that she must never rule. So when tragedy places her next in line to the throne, Katza fears their warnings are on the verge of coming true.

Then she meets Ravin, a mysterious young prophet with visions of his own: visions of Katza as a regal empress with unimaginable power. All she has to do seize upon the holy magic of her bloodline. But the more Ravin whispers in her ear, the more Katza begins to wonder whether he has her best interests at heart. With a revolution boiling over and war looming at the border, the greatest threat to Russalka may be Katza herself.
 

There was a lot of potential here to make a really interesting, unlikeable/messy main character, and I've seen a lot of reviews touch on it but none of them have brought up what I think is the biggest problem - Katza kind of doesn't have much to her at the start of the book.

When the story opens, she's bogged down with thoughts of all the things she isn't. Mostly, that she isn't her brother, the golden child of the family who just died. That's...pretty much the sum of her character, she's a lack of traits and whines about them. We don't get to really connect with her and find out her own, personal thoughts or goals or morals. (But mostly that last one, the morals.) So when characters start to reassure her that she's "strong," I'm left going "but why? and how? and maybe show?" When the villain of the piece manipulates her, it doesn't have any weight to me, because Katza is just such a blank slate that it doesn't even feel like manipulation. We don't even get much in the way of history for Katza, as no part of the story ever comments on her past, her childhood, her connections to the people around her, or any acts she might have committed in her entire 17ish years of life. She might as well be a magical clone that was created yesterday for all the interpersonal weight she has.

So when she starts doing brutal and desperate things while being manipulated...there's no emotional payoff for that. It's just tedious. I can see what the book wanted to do, and on a conceptual level it's really interesting. I like the exploration of power going on here, I like way Katza continually justifies things to herself while taking progressively more extreme steps. I just...don't feel invested in it.

Added to the problem of Katza is the fact that all of this manipulation going on by the books main bad guy is very, very obvious from the start, so the book drags on while waiting for our viewpoint character to catch up. I think the villain was supposed to be kinda grey/quasi, and thus cause tension through a 'is he really bad, or is he really that bad' tension, but I wasn't sold at any point. He was just bad from the start.

Last thing I want to talk about is the magic system, which is tied up very thoroughly with Russalka's religion. People call on the 'saints' for 'blessings' that take the form of magical happenings, and the royal family can call on all the saints and thus all the different kinds of magic. Throughout the story we find out that the saints aren't really necessary, some people can just access magic directly. Which is cool...until you think about the rest of the world. Because there's a rather pervasive feeling that this magic system is treated the same way religion would be in our world, with people in the book going so far as to talk about how they 'don't believe in the saints,' and a character from another country having a whole different religion. And...okay, but once praying can cause very visible insta-healing or make a whole bay freeze in the middle of summer, doesn't that kind of fuck the notion of not believing? Can other religions access this magic, but in a different way? Do they just not have magic? It's implied that the saints religion is just a tool for accessing the power, but then shouldn't people from other countries also be able to access it? Is Russalka blocking other countries from access? Are other countries mad about this? I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS.

When will fantasies stop writing in tangible proof of their religions and then failing to change how those religions are handled?

Sigh, anyway. The setting is fun, and it's very interesting on a conceptual level, but the minute you step down from that over-arching view, there's just too many unanswered questions and missing pieces.

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