Charlaine Harris’s alternative history/urban fantasy GUNNIE ROSE series shifts to a new setting in this third book in the series, The Russian Cage (2021), one that was foreshadowed by the ending of the prior book, A Longer Fall. Lizbeth Rose, who makes her living as a hired gun or “gunnie,” receives an intentionally cryptic letter from her younger half-sister, Felicia. For the past year, Felicia has been living in what once was California, Oregon and Washington but is now the Holy Russian Empire, ruled over by a young, married Tsar Alexei — certainly a better fate for him than his actual historical fate of being assassinated at age thirteen by Soviet revolutionaries. He’s surviving his hemophilia with the help of magical blood transfusions from Grigori Rasputin’s descendants, which include Felicia (in fact, Lizbeth is also a grandchild of Rasputin, though she hides that fact from the Russians, telling them that she and Felicia share a mother rather than their Russian father).
Reading between the lines of Felicia’s letter, Lisbeth realizes that her on-and-off-again lover Eli, a Russian noble as well as a gifted magician or “grigori,” has been tossed into prison for political reasons. Felicia thinks that Lizbeth can do something to bust Eli out of jail, and Lizbeth can’t wait to try. Apparently finding out that Eli’s in trouble makes Lizbeth realize that her feelings for Eli are stronger than she’s previously been willing to admit, even to herself.
A four-day train ride later, she’s in the HRE’s capital of San Diego, getting the lay of the land from Felicia, Eli’s mother Veronika, and his friend Felix (who we met in A Longer Fall). Felicia’s life is more complicated — and dangerous — than Lizbeth had imagined, giving her qualms of guilt for sending Felicia to the HRE. There’s a conspiracy to take Tsar Alexei down, and Eli and the tsar’s other supporters are in the crosshairs. Eli’s family isn’t a whole lot of help: his older stepbrothers are antagonistic to him, his younger brother Peter is an immature loose cannon, and his mother and sisters are mostly helpless (1940s-era Russian society isn’t particularly encouraging of noblewomen being tough and resourceful, unless you’re a grigori). And no one seems to have any idea what crime Eli has been charged with. But Eli’s friend Felix, though oddly antagonistic toward Lizbeth, seems anxious to help get Eli out of jail, and Felix has some particularly interesting magical powers, as well as the beginnings of a plan.
Eli’s family and friends are intriguing characters, more complex than I initially would have guessed, and Charlaine Harris does a competent job of creating a believable Russian society in exile in western America, beset by political conspiracies and plots to unseat a tsar who is viewed as weak. The tsar’s wife Caroline, a Scandinavian princess, proves surprisingly useful to Lizbeth and Felix in their efforts to bring the royals’ attention to Eli’s plight.
There are a couple of notable breakdowns in plot logic, one involving Eli’s prison guard, a woman named Hubble who is supposedly a “null,” impervious to magical spells … except she’s not, for no particularly good reason, and that seems to be simply an oversight by Harris. The other relates to a direction given by the tsar to Eli at the end, which simply didn’t make much sense from a plot perspective. It felt more like the author simply needed an excuse to move Eli in a certain direction, and perhaps that was the best reason she could come up with.
The plot of The Russian Cage takes some time to really get rolling, but the details, as they unfold, are intricate and interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, and the bloodstained climax toward the end is gripping. The dénouement in the last few chapters is far tamer, but it does provide a reasonably satisfying wind-up to the story of Lizbeth and Eli … at least for now.
The Russian Cage is a fun adventure, less weighed down by the slavery and social issues that darkened A Longer Fall, not to mention the constant references to eating and sex that bogged down the pacing of that book. The GUNNIE ROSE series is worth reading if you have an interest in Old West-flavored urban fantasy, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t entirely. You do need to start with the first book, An Easy Death, and read the series in order.