I really wanted to like this much more than I did. However, parts of the book are very been there and done that. What makes the book stand out is the use Russian folklore and setting. Arden really does have the knowledge that makes the world believable.
In fact, the best parts of the book are the ones where the heroine is growing up. These are so beautifully written, and quite frankly are the reason why the book rates three stars from me. When the book progresses to attacking the big bad, the sense of repetition of many other fantasy stories is so strong. (Please note, I am NOT accusing Arden of plaragism. It is just a been there, done that feeling as a reader). For instance, there is the whole Christianity bad, old ways good trope we have seen in so many other books. To be fair, I don’t think Arden intended for it to be read this, the heroine’s brother becomes a monk though he then leaves the action (to most likely show up in book 2 or 3), but that is what it comes to at the end of the book, especially as the heroine becomes the last bastion for the old way.
The heroine, too, is like so many heroines we see in fantasy and YA, out of place but special; thinks she isn’t pretty, but everyone else thinks she is. What Arden gets bonus points for is her depiction of a loving family. The love that the siblings feel for each other, including Irina who is the daughter of the second wife, is wonderfully shown – not told, but shown. This makes it more disappointing when the reasons for some character’s actions are simply jealousy, though the character of the stepmother gets a bit more sympathy here than in other retellings. While the book does pass the Bechdel test, it should be noted that the heroine is the expectational girl – the extra special one who is better than all the other women in the novel.
Arden writes good horses though, which makes up for the whole “lets make the names more exotic spelling” thing that she uses. (I don’t speak or read Russia, but even I recognized it for what it was. Arden admits to it in the afterword. I hate it when authors do that. It pisses me off. Usually that would get this book a two star rating, but the setting and early parts of the book are so good). I also enjoyed the complete lack of a love story for the heroine. Sadly, despite the ending, I don’t really feel any desire to read the rest of the series.