I really wanted to like The Ranger of Marzanna, but unfortunately, due to its simplistic writing and unbelievable characters and dialogue, I barely made it to the 50% mark of the book. And I actually wanted to stop reading at 8%. Though The Ranger of Marzanna has some great ideas, namely surrounding its Ranger, Sonya, and the goddess of death she serves, as well as two siblings on opposite sides of religion and war, there simply isn’t enough complexity in the characters or the world to make it worth a read.
“It was said that with each ‘gift’ of the Lady, a Ranger became less human, both in body and in mind.”
Not too surprisingly, my favorite part of the novel pertains to Sonya, who decorates the gorgeous cover. Sonya is one of the last Rangers of Marzanna. In ancient times, there were many more rangers, who were well-known, revered and respected. Recently, they defended the Izomoroz people from the invading empire and when they failed to prevent the invasion, were exterminated and the worship of their goddess, Lady Marzanna, outlawed. Sonya, of course, grows up under the tutelage of one of the last rangers (who just so happens to work for her father), learning how to hunt, give thanks to the Ranger’s goddess of death, commune with horses, and also to fight in battles extremely well. But there’s a catch, Sonya must give up parts of her humanity in service to her goddess of death, Lady Marzanna, whether she wants to or not. I think this is a really interesting concept, but sadly, like the rest of the book, it isn’t pulled off well.
Sonya is portrayed to be a free-thinking, clever, independent, feminist character. She’s not a typical heroine. The novel makes sure to tell readers in a cringeworthy scene where she discusses premarital sex with her friend, that she’s not a virgin. In fact, she acts confused by the whole marriage and no premarital sex thing that is prevalent in her world in attempt to blatantly demonstrate that she’s not like other women who let society dictate their sexual pleasure. Upon reading this, all I could think was that it was very clearly a man writing this scene in which Sonya asks her virgin male friend who is interested in her why he doesn’t believe in premarital sex as they cuddle together for warmth in the tundra. It's quite the choice to make Sonya's sexual history a topic when we know so little about the character's background and she has so little development.
The rest of the time, when the novel isn’t overly concerned with her sexual history, Sonya slaughters men without a second-thought, and fights for what she believes in without any second thoughts. But she’s not very likable or convincing--having virtually no worries--and seems to be good at literally everything. Everyone who meets her immediately likes her, despite the fact that she has no trouble murdering people or serving a goddess of death. I also thought it very odd that her father, who was willing to die in order to prevent his son, Sebastian from using his magical powers and being drafted into the military, was okay with his daughter becoming a member of an outlawed sect, when most women are doing typical things like sewing, dancing, or reading. It didn’t make any sense to me. Neither did her supposed famous Ranger bond with her horse, Peppercorn, which only amounts to her talking to her horse and treating her more like a dog or cat than livestock or transportation. What a huge letdown this supposed “bond” was for my inner horse-lover. (If you want to read a fantasy novel with decent bonds between horses and their riders, check out the Green Rider series by Kristen Britain instead).
But what was worse than any of this, is Sebastian and the rest of the family being completely unaffected by their father’s death, which happens immediately in the novel. There is no time to get to know the family, their lifestyle, their backgrounds, their personalities or anything. In the blink of an eye, Sebastian’s father is murdered by the Empire’s soldiers and taken to their capital city. Sebastian waits maybe two whole seconds before enlisting in the army of the man who ordered his father killed for keeping their son from enlisting in the armed services. We are told repeatedly that Sebastian’s mother is grieving, and she actually tells us that she feels like she lost a limb with her husband’s death, but she immediately buys new dresses, takes up a lover and her old noble maiden name, and begins scheming politically. So what we are shown is very different from what the author tells the reader, creating a very baffling and ubiquitous disconnect in his story that grows frustrating from the very beginning of The Ranger of Marzanna.
“‘Oho!’ Velikhov sat up. ‘A quest, is it? Perilous adventure? Travel to distant and dangerous lands?’”
This disconnect extends to the rest of the story too. The writing is very basic. The dialogue is often very cheesy and oversimplified, with characters just stating things outright to tell the reader constantly. I cannot believe the things that came out of the characters’ mouths. To top it off, there is not much time spent on character development, world-building, or anything else--except descriptions of gore. I am still stunned by how detailed the descriptions of violence were in comparison to the rest of the novel, which almost reads like a list of soap-operatic actions happening in very quick succession. It is unbelievable to me that at one point I read that Sebastian had supposedly been in his new military home for a month. It felt like minutes. In that small amount of time, he was for some reason promoted twice, engaged, and given a battalion to order around despite having absolutely zero experience.
It certainly does not help matters that Sebastian does not have to struggle at all to use his magical powers. There is no intense training or failures, he just tries and succeeds at blowing everyone’s minds as soon as he starts trying to use the abilities he was never before even allowed to practice during his lifetime. Plus, readers have no idea how this magic even works--other than that the military slapped a diamond into Sebastian’s hands for him to use as a conduit for some reason and he is suddenly magically able to rip up the earth as a warfare technique.
“He felt at once that this was no frivolous noble, but someone who thought and felt things deeply. Perhaps even as deeply as him.”
But honestly, I do not even want to see Sebastian struggle. I do not care for him or any of the other characters. They are more archetypes than actual well-developed characters that read like what the author thinks his characters should be like, rather than fleshed out, flawed humans on paper. Unfortunately, that makes them very unbelievable and boring. It doesn’t help that what we do know about the characters is mainly just told to readers, rather than shown. And as I said before, what we are told, doesn’t even add up to what we are shown. Another example of this is being told Sebastian is a very sensitive boy, who loves reading poetry and nature, and "feels things keenly," but we never actually see him doing any of these things or taking things hard before we are told this about his character! In the beginning of the novel, we are told he thinks his sister is crazy for spending all of that time in the woods, and we never see him reading, or bonding with animals, or gardening or anything remotely like his sudden sensitive description. And we certainly don’t see him depressed or feeling guilty after his father’s death. Instead, he immediately signs up in the magical military and learns how to destroy the earth in battle. We are told this rips him up inside, but never see it--all we see is him practicing more magical destruction and getting promoted constantly, and never protesting. There’s just no continuity in the novel and it requires so much suspension of disbelief just to read it.
And though The Ranger of Marzanna promises an epic conflict between siblings, there is not really much of a conflict between them at all. At least, up until the point I read, there is only one brief disagreement between Sebastian and Sonya and a few references to Sonya thinking Sebastian was “bratty” etc., and then the two went their separate ways again, disregarding each other and their fundamental differences in beliefs. Maybe they will have a confrontation later on, but as the two siblings barely had anything to do with each other, I couldn’t picture any fight being emotional or climactic. Even with the promise of Sonya’s superhuman ranger powers and Sebastian’s magical abilities that might make a fight somewhat interesting, it just wasn’t enough to keep me going through the novel.
Neither was the very skimpy world building of The Ranger of Marzanna. It takes place in a fantasy world inspired by Eastern Europe. But the setting and culture isn’t really delved into. There isn’t anything to it other than the cold winter that the characters were already adapted to and the Russian-sounding phrases the author sprinkles in. I also feel the Eastern European phrases like “babushka” did not necessarily fit in with the name of the people--the Izomoroz--and even their goddess Marzanna. I am certainly not an authority on anything Eastern European or slavic, but the novel simply didn’t give me enough information to make the culture or setting feel real or vital to the magic, the story, or the characters. It did not make me believe in this world or become fully engrossed in it.
Ultimately, The Ranger of Marzanna is definitely not for me. When I read the description, I was picturing an epic fantasy with complex, conflicted characters on opposite sides of a war, and lots of world-building. I was picturing something more along the lines of a Brandon Sanderson novel. Sadly, though The Ranger of Marzanna has some good ideas, such as the rangers giving up their humanity for powers, the execution of these ideas wasn’t good enough to keep me reading. Combined with flat characters, cheesy dialogue, little explanation of the world and its magic systems, I couldn’t stick out the book, though I tried. Perhaps those new to the fantasy series will enjoy the novel’s faster-paced story, but those familiar with the genre will surely find it lacking.