REVIEW: The Ranger of Marzanna by Jon Skovron

3.5/5 stars — the solid but unremarkable start to a new fantasy series

The Ranger of Marzanna has good bones—nice messy characters, solid worldbuilding, interesting plot—but few embellishments to set it apart from other dark fantasy novels and/or novels set in a fantasy version of Russia. It has two major POV characters, two secondary POVs, and a few other minor characters who get chapters. I think it juggled a large cast and a somewhat complex timeframe well. Things I liked - Marzanna, Goddess of Winter (and death), who “gifts” followers with animal attributes in return for favors. I like how deities in this world are actually present in the world. - The book did okay on issues of gender and sexuality. It uses the single-person ’they’ without comment when a character’s gender is unknown. The deity Marzanna is also another culture’s death god, and reveals they don’t have gender aside from what’s imposed by their subjects’ assumptions. One main character is shown to be attracted to multiple genders, although he’s conflicted about the discovery; another culture views same-sex attraction as normal. There’s groundwork for a polyamorous relationship in a future book. - some of the details of the world, like Sonya noting that people in the city sleep late and apothecaries developing orange or blue teeth from tasting ingredients as they get older - Sonya, who has more complexity of character than is immediately evident. For example, she treats death/killing as inconsequential, but is still a normal older teen in some regards, like wanting to draw a mustache on a sleeping man she comes across during a covert operation. She’s also an unsympathetic female character, which I tend to enjoy. - the morally gray characters in general. Jorge, the apothecary’s apprentice, is the closest thing to a “good” character in the book; everyone else is either self-serving, easily corrupted, or has little regard for human life (or all three). It wore on my sometimes since I’m not always a fan of “grimdark” books, but for the most part I thought it was done well. - a lightly developed elemental magic system with room for expansion that involves using metal or gemstones as focal points for power and understanding the elements both scientifically and “emotionally” - themes of classism - themes of colonialism - Galina, one of the secondary POV characters—another example of a great morally gray character; I liked her sections the most because she was so smart and not above using people - there’s a protagonist who’s attracted to multiple genders, plus the groundwork of what could be a polyamorous relationship in later books Things I disliked - The prose is clunky. I wasn’t sure if this was a product of the ARC, but half a dozen clumsily phrased sentences and paragraphs I marked in my pre-release copy were still present in the final book, so I don’t think that’s the case. It’s not technical errors, just writing that’s awkward to read. - I found the worldbuilding unimaginative. There’s a lot of pseudo-Russian ambiance in the setting/world, yet words taken from actual Russian are still italicized. I feel like the fantasy-Russia setting has been done to death at this point, and nothing in this book put enough of a new spin on it to interest me. The ruling empire seems based on Italy, there’s a POV character from fake-Spain, and one of the main characters eventually allies herself with an army from fake-Ireland (or Scotland, maybe). There’s never mention of a world beyond fantasy Europe—I don’t think there was a single black person in the book, based on the way the characters were described, and the character from fake-Spain was the only dark-skinned person mentioned. The Ranger of Marzanna felt like Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy crossed with an Assassin’s Creed game. I don’t regret reading it, but I don’t think I’ll pick up the sequel(s). It may appeal to readers who enjoy villain arcs and gritty stories more than it appealed to me. Content warnings: death of a parent, war-typical violence, graphic descriptions of death/murder, body horror, torture mention, flaying (human), ritual self-harm

** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review **