Reed’s Recommendation Corner: The Sins on Their Bones by Laura R. Samotin

Dimitri Alexeyev is a man without a plan. He’s wallowing in his failures, including his husband’s takeover of his country (Novo-Svitsevo). His most devoted followers are in exile with him and together they must figure out how to stop someone with more power, more money, and perhaps, a bit of immortality. It’s a queer, Jewish fantasy with a touch of mysticism, a touch of romance, and a touch of trauma. Welcome to The Sins on Their Bones by Laura R. Samotin.

I keep finding more and more in this cover that I like - skulls, guns, keys, cages… it just keeps going.

The story flips back and forth between Dimitri, Alexey (his husband), and Vasily. They are a study in contrast. Dimitri is hopelessly in love, still, with the man who ultimately betrayed him. He hides himself from the people who care about them, as they continue to find ways to infiltrate the kingdom without being caught. Vasily, Dimitri’s sometimes lover and his spymaster, decides that he should infiltrate the palace on his own, risking everything to find a way to make things right. Alexey is a man on a mission, still in love with Dimitri, but in a way that is possessive and hurtful (to say the least). Vasily loves Dimitri, and is willing to do anything to see him back on the throne, with a smile on his face, and truly happy. 

There are no ways in which Alexey is redeemable. As the story goes on, you find out that he has molded Dimitri, forced him into a shape with manipulation (and his hands, as necessary), to make him the Tzar that he thinks should be. Dimitri wants to change the world for the better, to help his people, and to leave his kingdom a better place than it was. Alexey wants to rule with an iron fist, to make people afraid, and to garner as much power as he can through controlling people through fear (and a bit of demonic magic).

Vasily has his own trauma, although it isn’t as relevant to the story beyond his relationship with Dimitri and how much he understands how he feels. He loves Dimitri and stayed close to him, keeping his spirits up when Alexey was especially brutal, working to keep the kingdom safe. He becomes Dimitri’s lover on his terms, even though he wants Dimitri to see him.

There have been so many fantasy stories that take place in Western European inspired settings that it is inspiring to find stories that, to put it bluntly, don’t. I’ve talked about this before briefly, when I was reviewing The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo, which is a historical fantasy taking place in Manchuria. Here, the setting is completely fantastical, in an Eastern European style setting reminiscent of countries like Poland and Romania. Not only that, but it incorporates some of the Jewish Mysticism that has been lost to time, particularly some of the folklore tied to the Ashkenazi tribe (of which your humble cryptid is considered a part). Interestingly, Judaism went through its own period of enlightenment where a lot of the magic and folklore was stripped away, which I found out after reading the acknowledgements and doing some research on my own. 

Not only is there that touch of Jewish mysticism, this story is very queer, and not in a “queer is weird” kind of way. The Tzar… THE TZAR is married to a member of the same sex, and no one looks askance at them (although some do worry about the next in line to rule).  While trauma is a part of this story, it’s not the trauma of being queer. I’m so excited to see this normalized in mainstream fantasy and science fiction. Knowing that we are slowly breaking the mainstream model makes me really happy.

The trauma in this story is heartbreaking in how well it is written. I feel like, at least in part, that the writing is personal, either from the author or someone they are close to. It hurt me to read as someone who has had similar experiences with a loved one, but it was also wonderful to see how the relationship between Dimitri and Vasily develops into something beautiful. 

I recommend this novel who people who love queer fantasy and are interested in stories with Jewish elements. I also recommend that you read the acknowledgements, and check out some of the recommended reading that the author provides. 

And now, when the last page is turned, and the book is finally closed, I shall be here with another recommendation, should you need it.