17th October 2014
I received this novel directly from the author, in exchange for an honest review.
The novel is set in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1825. A man discovers the corpse of a woman cradling a near-dead baby in her frozen arms in a clearing in the forest. As he scoops the babe up, a parchment falls out of its shawl with a name on it scrawled in blood: Romulus. A ghostly wolf watches on, and ominously follows the man.
Fourteen years later, in a town called Aryk, a young schoolboy called Viktor unwittingly witnesses a public hanging of a man in the Town Square; the condemned man’s seemingly minor crime being in possession of a playing card. Viktor has nightmares about this incident every night, and of the mysterious graffiti riddles which cover the town’s alleyways, called Brass Art.
Aryk has three laws: no playing cards, no graffiti and no firearms. Viktor’s questions about the playing cards are hushed by his family; it’s a cursed subject. There is some deep secret in the town connected to playing cards, which has a strong emotional grip on the adult residents, and Viktor makes it his personal goal to find out what that is.
Re-enter, Romulus; a mysterious and rebellious “boy of the forest”, as Viktor’s classmates brand him. Upon showing Viktor that he is in possession of an illegal playing card, the King of Spades, Viktor becomes fascinated with Romulus, especially as he seems unaware of the layout of the town of Aryk, but can draw incredibly detailed maps of the forest. Viktor follows him into the forest one day upon a dare from his classmates, and in getting lost, Viktor stumbles into the part of the forest Romulus said to avoid.
Romulus and his wolf guardian save Viktor’s life from a ferocious bear attack, and the two form a pact as blood brothers, vowing to solve the mystery by discovering the history of the playing cards, as well as that of Romulus’ veiled past. Romulus does indeed live in the forest, and shows Viktor his den, filled with a number of homemade explosives and projectile weapons, which they may well need if they are to solve the secret of the playing cards. The quest will test the limit of Viktor and Romulus’ friendship, and they will risk their lives and those that they love, in trying to get the answers they seek.
Through meeting a group of gypsies called The Crossbones Clan, the duo are led to their camp called Kasta Way, and hints are dropped to Viktor and Romulus of a document which may answer a lot of their questions, called The Silent Deal. This key to the mystery may lie inside the reputedly haunted Staryi Castle, where Molotov, the owner of the town rules Aryk upon the orders of a legendary figure called The Leopard. Molotov walks the fine line between following The Leopard's orders and protecting his citizens, though a dangerous race against time begins when news emerges that the King of Spades card has been sighted in Aryk.
This novel was one of the most enjoyable reads I have had in a while, with a blistering pace, some really heart-stopping moments and wonderful settings. It is refreshing to have a novel set in a small town in Russia, far from the metropolis’ of 19th century Europe, and I experienced a genuine thrill as the mystery of the playing cards was revealed.
Levi Stack is a writer to keep an eye on; he has a strong ability to weave a plot around legends, puzzles, fear and seemingly everyday objects in the way few other contemporaries can, save perhaps Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is high praise as I am a huge fan of his also. It was very easy to picture each scene, as Stack has a real knack of putting the reader there with his descriptions and dialogue, as if the reader were a third member of the blood-brotherhood themself.
The two lead male characters are a great duo, with just enough mystique surrounding Romulus to keep the relationship fresh throughout. The main antagonists, The Leopard and General Ulfrik, are truly terrifying; each scene featuring these two sends chills up the spine. The Masqueraiders – sent out to enforce the three laws upon the local populace - also add a sinister element to the novel, with their Venetian carnival masks (which I have always found creepy) and taste for brutality.
I am extremely excited that there is a sequel to this novel, as there were a few unanswered questions from the novel, though the novel can probably be read as a standalone book. It will be interesting to learn what comes next for Romulus and Viktor, and I hope to see more from the supporting cast such as the girls, Charlotta and Evenova, next time around.
Rating: 5/5 stars