Liz Bourke Reviews The Sisters of the Crescent Empress by Leena Likitalo
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, Leena Likitalo (Tor.com Publishing 978-0-7653-9545-0, $17.99, 322pp, tp). November 2017. Cover by Anna & Elena Balbusso.
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress is the second volume in Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon duology, after this summer’s The Five Daughters of the Moon. The first book was full of promise, told in the five individual voices of five different sisters, daughters of the empress and in some fashion also daughters both of her human lovers and of the empress’s mystical god-husband, the Moon. The two eldest sisters, Celestia and Elise, were each in different ways conspiring against their mother: Elise is a radical, while Celestia, under the magical influence of Gagargi Prataslav, is merely making terrible decisions. The gagargi wants to feed human souls to his great calculating machine, and use its calculations to move people and resources more efficiently, to eliminate want at an incredible human cost. The gagargi will, of course, be in charge – the more so now in The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, since he has overthrown the former Crescent Empress and sent her daughters into internal exile.
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, unfortunately, does not consummate its promise in any truly interesting way. Finnish author Likitalo is clearly very influenced by the overthrow of the Russian Tsar, the fate of the Romanov family, and the Russian Revolution. Where the first book seemed to offer many possibilities for how this variant on the story of family and revolution might go, in The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, the story closes down in a way that recalls the gothic (except there are five women, really, and none of them are all that fascinated by the house in which they find themselves): the sisters are enclosed first in a train, guarded by soldiers, then in a house at the limits of the empire. There, in addition to the handful of soldiers that they’ve grown accustomed to, and who they believe will be reluctant to hurt them, they find that their guard also includes a captain who may well enjoy hurting people.
The house is in the far north. In winter, the weather is too brutal to permit escape. In summer, the nights are very short, which means their mystical Moon-father can’t see what happens to them, or lend them any sort of mystical strength or support. The house is also haunted by the ghosts of the late Empress’s sisters, who were exiled there for plotting against the throne in their day. Of all the sisters, Celestia is the only one who remembers them, but the youngest sister, Alina, can see and talk to them.
While Likitalo’s prose remains smooth, and the voices and characterisation of the characters are still individual and distinct, it’s hard to escape feeling that this volume lacks direction. The sisters’ increasing sense of helplessness in their confinement, and the ever-growing sense of claustrophobic closeness which infuses the narrative is atmospheric, yes: but what’s the atmosphere in service of?
The sisters hold dance practices, distrust each other’s motives, learn about each other’s betrayals, converse with the ghosts of their murdered aunts, and hide the fact that they’re conversing with ghosts from some of their other sisters. The two youngest see a witch at the bottom of the garden and believe that she has promised to help them; they see a magpie that returns to peck at the window and believe it is a sign from the witch and/or a messenger from their father indicating encouragement and support. The middle sister discovers that she can do a form of magic using their book of scriptures, and comes to terms with never getting to attend the balls she dreamed of, or kiss the boys she wanted to kiss. The second eldest sister, radical Elise, befriends their guards, learns their routines, and has arguments with the eldest sister, Celestia, about the right course of action for their country and their fate. Celestia plots and schemes for escape, to protect her younger sisters and keep them safe, and to thwart the gagargi whose power seems overwhelming. But none of these plans for escape amount to anything, and as the book goes on, it becomes impossible to avoid the realisation that we’re all marking time before the gallows or the firing squad.
With the help of her sisters and her ghost aunts, Celestia mystically marries her Moon-father-husband. This changes very little, though, as it leads up to a conclusion that resolves exactly nothing. At the end of The Sisters of the Crescent Empress, we’re left with nearly as many questions as we had at the beginning. Not least among those questions: what is the book trying to say, with its complicated family of sisters, and its world’s conflict between the now-overthrown scions of inherited religious and imperial privilege and the now-powerful formerly lowly, which we see only ever sidelong, from the perspective of an empress’s daughters – some of whom are too young to really understand that conflict at all? What argument is the book actually having?
In many ways, this is a very static novel. It doesn’t give its reader a lot of plot to focus on, and its thematic arc, its thematic argument, is buried underneath its attachment to atmosphere over substance. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable atmosphere, or that the characters aren’t interesting, or that the book itself isn’t entertaining – but ultimately its decision to prioritise style over anything meatier results in the second half of the Waning Moon duology being something of a let-down, when compared to the promise of its opening volume.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.