Book Review: The Midnight Land Part 1

Book 1 of the Zemnian Trilogy

By E.P. Clark

This is a very original and refreshing piece of work.  If pushed, I would declare it as somewhere between Tolstoy, Tolkien and CS PartOne_TheFlight_CoverLewis.  Make of that what you will!  I don’t think this is something I would naturally gravitate towards, but I’m glad I have read it.  It’s good.

To set the scene, what we have is a fantasy world which very closely resembles Russia.  I’m going to say it is medieval Russia from the environment, but that’s really rather irrelevant – it absolutely tastes, smells, and sounds Cyrillic.  This is somewhat of a deviation from many fantasy books I have read (including mine!) which focus on Western or Far Eastern societal regimes.  Hence this is a very refreshing read.

But this is not an off-hand attempt at creating originality.  No indeed; our author has an excellent understanding of Russia, and incorporates many aspects into her world – so it tastes entirely authentic.  One particular aspect that stood out for me was the naming conventions; everyone has a range of names / titles, and it is a complex set of rules that governs what names are used when (which is why the author lays out the details at outset in an Epigraph!)  For me, I found this a bit overwhelming and found myself trying gloss over the frequent use of names in dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong.  In fact, this adds authenticity which is appreciated, but ultimately I had to read it in a way I was comfortable with.  It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the excellent concept behind the prose.

So – we have a medieval Russian landscape before us; but definitely not Russia.  What happens then?  Without giving anything (too much at least) away, the story follows a Princess (daughter of the Empress no less) as she surprisingly jumps at the chance of a long and arduous trek to the “Midnight Land” (where the sun never rises; the Arctic Circle on the Earth we know and love).  Slava, the princess, has certain abilities that she struggles with in her daily life, and this trek initially offers her a means of escape; though it ultimately also allows her to see her gifts in a new (more favourable?) light.  So it is really about Slava’s journey 1) to the Midnight Land; and 2) to understand herself.  Beyond that there is not too much in terms of weighty story to deal with, though the experience of travelling through Zem’ is intriguing in itself.  That being said, we end the book with a dose of political gunpowder, suggesting that the wider story will escalate in forthcoming books, but I would say that this only truly reveals itself in the closing stages (though you do start getting whiffs a bit earlier on).

So – with the scene set, what is to like about this book?  Apart from the refreshing perspective of course.

One of the key features of the society we look upon is that it is absolutely female dominated; and this is a really interesting perspective.  Man is considered to be a bit like a domesticated animal, which is amusing, but the way it is all worked out fits nicely and makes sense.  And this permits absorption into this alternative world.

And other aspects are also very well written.  One of the key concepts of the journey is that they head to the Midnight Land in winter – hence the concepts of morning and evening are blown away.  And this is handled very well, rightly confusing the characters and posing notable problems.  Great attention to detail.

And my third plus point is that it is very well written.  The author is a bit of a dab hand in poetry and short stories by all accounts, so this is of little surprise, but the text does have a slightly flowery feel to it – which absolutely fits the story.  I may suggest that in places there are just a few too many words, and that some sentences are too long and winding, but the prose is definitely closer to the mark than away from it.

On the flip side, were there any aspects that I would change?  Well, yes – I think there are.  My first suggestion would be that, in my view, this book is probably just a bit too long.  It’s not a “slog” by any means, but I just have the feeling that it’s perhaps heavier than it needed to be given the events that occur.

So what’s the cause of this?  I don’t think this is actually a consequence of stalled action at any point – the story moves at a constant pace; it is just perhaps a bit slow.  I think the length is therefore actually a function of the narrative and the stylistic aspects of prose, and in particular:

  • Our key character, Slava, has a tendency to reinforce facts that can be relatively easily ascertained from the events in the book.  It is nice to hear her view, but maybe she expresses it in the narrative too frequently;
  • She also has a tendency (this is more prevalent earlier on and may actually be a character trait that the author is trying to highlight before the journey – in which case I stand corrected!) to drift into streams of consciousness which are a bit awkward.  They are definitely less common later on, but they are lodged in my recollection and hence I have made this point;
  • And perhaps the literary edge to the prose tends to lengthen statements beyond their necessary length, which drags the text that little bit too far.

The only other aspect I might challenge on is the arc itself.  It feels like this is Slava’s “revelation” (if you will), and though she is a really nice character, I might like to get a bit more immersed in the deeper political intrigue.  Of course, this isn’t actually feasible because the story follows Slava and she is isolated for near enough the entire novel, but that won’t stop me expressing the view!  And this isn’t saying that there aren’t wider aspects in the book – they just don’t seem to be knitted to some grand scheme that threatens the balance.  This is all about Slava.

That being said, it (the gunpowder at the end) does mean that I am more inclined to read on, so what do I know.  And the author has kindly gifted the second volume too, so I have no excuse!

Oh, and another aspect that is really interesting is the magical interpretation – a very important consideration in fantasy.  The author has done this well and has worked within clear boundaries whilst also expanding the magical scope seamlessly.  Excellent.

So all in all a good read.  And in case this is relevant to you, I found that this book was enjoyed alongside the following soundtrack:

Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk

Maybe matching books to music should be something I do in future.  What do you think?  Leave a comment.

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