The Gathering Storm is the first in the KATERINA TRILOGY by Robin Bridges. The trilogy blends historical fiction with the paranormal, and is set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the late 19th century.
Bridges immerses us in an evocative setting. The pageantry of the Russian court is combined with that hard-to-describe fairy tale mood. Even though we see through the eyes of a heroine who doesn’t really like all the pageantry, we are swept away into a world that is elegant but filled with dark secrets.
Katerina has an innate talent for necromancy, and is sought after by a family of evil witches and vampires who want to use her ability for their own ends. In addition, she’s a debutante of noble blood and is supposed to be looking for a husband in the social whirl of the court. She also has an interest in medicine and dreams of becoming a doctor — something unusual but no longer unheard of in her time. Any one of these plot threads could make a good novel. Any two of them could make an interestingly complex novel. All three of them start to feel a little “kitchen sink.” There simply isn’t enough page space to do justice to all three of these ideas at once.
I’m also not in love with the way Katerina’s intelligence is presented. She has the variety of fantasy-heroine intelligence that seems to come bundled with a disdain for dresses and parties, and this is something of a cliché. It doesn’t help that she describes her beloved medical books as “dry” in her own narration. Sure, everybody else might think they’re dry, but why would she think that when this is her passion? It reads as trying too hard to set her apart from the other young women in the novel, who read fiction — which Katerina also disdains. Meanwhile, she exhibits a lack of intellectual curiosity about the most urgent subject on her plate, her magical talent. When given a book that could help her harness her powers, she refuses to look at it until her cousin finds it and points out something useful in it.
Back to the kitchen-sink feel, this is exacerbated when we abruptly learn that a large portion of the Russian court is composed of faeries, and that this is a well-known fact. It seems like overkill since (at least so far) it’s not needed for the plot to work, and it’s introduced in a jarring fashion. One moment we think we’re in a “hidden magic” novel where the real history will play out the way we know it and the supernatural elements will work behind the scenes. The next moment, we’re in an “open magic” story that might not follow the real history at all.
That said, while the openness of the magic appears abruptly, it may turn out to be a positive for the series. It opens up a wider range of plot possibilities, because now Bridges need not limit herself to what really happened. For example, people who died young in real life need not do so in the fictional universe.
I was often frustrated with The Gathering Storm, but found the setting fascinating and beautiful, and am curious about how Bridges will proceed with her interweaving of history and magic. I will probably read book two, The Unfailing Light, but won’t rush to get it.