Review | Norylska Groans – Michael R. Fletcher & Clayton W. Snyder

About the Book

Norylska Groans…

with the weight of her crimes. In a city where winter reigns amid the fires of industry and war, soot and snow conspire to conceal centuries of death and deception.

Norylska Groans…

and the weight of a leaden sky threatens to crush her people. Katyushka Leonova, desperate to restore her family name, takes a job with Norylska’s brutal police force. To support his family, Genndy Antonov finds bloody work with a local crime syndicate. 

Norylska Groans…

with the weight of her dead. As bodies fall, the two discover a foul truth hidden beneath layers of deception and violence: Come the thaw, what was buried will be revealed. 

Published on May 10, 2021
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Norylska Groans was a book I was delighted to work on. I love working on all of Fletcher’s stuff, and I know Snyder well enough to know I’d love working on something he wrote. The idea of the two of them working together really pleased me. I thought they’d probably complement each other style-wise quite well, and I wasn’t wrong. 

This book was basically made for me for several reasons. First, I’m a bit of a Russian history geek so any book based on that region of the world instantly appeals to me. I love it. Especially if it’s so well-crafted I can immediately tell what it’s based on. Secondly, I enjoy dark character-driven journeys. Furthermore, I love magic systems that are a good balance of risk and reward, and friends, this book had one of my favorite magic systems I’ve run across in a long time.

Norilsk is Russia’s northernmost city. I highly advise you to go look up documentaries on this place on Youtube because it’s fascinating (again, I totally geek out over stuff like this). The city itself relies heavily on mining for its existence, and is one of the most polluted cities in Russia. As you can see from the title of the book, and the name of this city, one uses the other largely for its fantasy inspiration. 

And the authors do quite well bringing this place to life. The city itself is clearly based on the real world location, but under Fletcher and Snyder’s careful ministrations, it becomes a city that is purely its own animal, reliant on itself for its existence. In fact, the city is so real, it feels like a place I could visit (though I don’t want to, to be honest). The streets come to life, as do the people who live there. It is messy, and cold, and steeped in misery, and yet despite all that, the city itself determinedly persists, existing in a climate that seems nearly impossible to live in, in a world that is too brutal, raw, and messy to lead to any real happiness or satisfaction. 

I could feel the dirt, the cold, in my bones as I read. It became part of me.

Factory work, war, tsars and industry haunt the periphery of this book, some more present and prevalent than others, though all of them play a role in making Norylska what it is, and the personal price paid for these things is, at times, high. Flashbacks of war, of brutal times, pepper this novel, not only showing the agony of what some people must endure, but also give tantalizing hints of the wider world, while showing just how actions and consequences can fracture a person’s psyche, and shatter their soul.

This isn’t a book about happy people making choices. Right away, readers will be thrust into the lives of two protagonists, each of whom has been tarnished and dinged by their own lives. Each of whom, are scarred. Genndy Antonov, an ex-soldier from the war, struggles with a mixing and merging of past horrors and current dark deeds. Finding himself steeped in organized crime, he seems to lose a bit more of himself in each paragraph. The slow bleeding away of this man was fascinating to watch, and while his hopes and desires are burning embers lighting the horizon of his life, they gradually move further and further out of reach. He is forced to make impossible decisions, in impossible situations, and finds himself capable of terrible things. 

What makes him different than most other grimdark slumlords I’ve read about was how divided he was between his yearning for family, happiness, security, and the things he has been forced to do in his past, and is forced to do in his present. The authors never shy away from showing not just how torn he is, but how personally painful that rupture within himself actually is. 

On the other side, we’ve got Katyushka Leonova, a woman who likewise is tarnished, dinged, and a bit lost though in different way. In a bad relationship, poor, and desperate, she ends up taking a job she thinks will be one thing, and ends up being another entirely. Soon, she’s steeped in a situation she can’t understand, and doesn’t really want to be part of. Her life changes in unpredictable ways, and the physical and emotional toll on her are likewise not glossed over, or prettied up.

It’s this staggering realism, the messy complexities of both the city and the people who inhabit it that make Norylska Groans so damn addictive. Here, we are not just thrust into a dark world, but we live it. We see characters who have already been irreversibly marked by the simple act of surviving this long in this place, slowly fray, crack and shatter. The pressure is enormous, the action is nonstop, the slow slide from one dark well to another is so agonizingly detailed, it is impossible to ignore, to not feel. 

The magic system, as I’ve mentioned above, is one of my favorites I’ve come across in a while. It’s both subtle and extremely powerful. Dealing with something as fundamental as personality and memory, this magic system has the capabilities to alter the bedrock of a person’s personhood, and it can be flipped on and off like a light. Once I understood the magic system, and the ramifications of something like this, both for good and ill, I was basically obsessed. A good magic system needs to have an even balance of positives and negatives, and the ones the authors thought of here were nothing short of genius, and fit so well in a world this complex, real, and gritty. 

I’m afraid to say more about it lest I spoil the book for others. Suffice it to say, it’s amazing. Trust me. 

So, where does this leave us? 

Norylska Groans is a book that hits you like a sucker punch to your solar plexus. Then, it sort of wraps one fist around your throat and one around your heart and squeezes just enough to make you pay attention. It’s uncomfortable, dark, and more real than real. Reader, this book hurts, but it’s the kind of pain I just couldn’t get enough of. 

Absolutely brilliant. 

5/5 stars