The Sins on Their Bones

  • Review
By – May 6, 2024

The Sins on Their Bones by Lau­ra Samotin is the lat­est addi­tion to an expand­ing genre of fan­ta­sy that draws on the his­to­ry of the Russ­ian Empire. Recent­ly, Jew­ish authors have shown that what Eng­lish speak­ers con­sid­er East­ern Euro­pean” folk­lore includes not only Chris­t­ian and pre-Chris­t­ian Slav­ic mytholo­gies, but also the Jew­ish folk­lore of the Pale of Set­tle­ment. Some of these authors include Leigh Bar­dugo (the Grisha series), Ava Reid (The Wolf and the Woods­man), Aden Poly­doros (Bone Weaver) and Alli­son Epstein (Let the Dead Bury the Dead). They all write dark fan­ta­sy in which Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish char­ac­ters con­tend with both super­nat­ur­al forces and the forces of history. 

Fans of these works will be at home with Samotin’s debut. The sto­ry begins in the after­math of a cri­sis both per­son­al and polit­i­cal: Tzar Dimitry’s hus­band, Alex­ey, has used dark mag­ic to achieve immor­tal­i­ty and take over the throne, plung­ing the coun­try into chaos and civ­il war. Though Dim­it­ry is shown as a pro­gres­sive monarch, his reign has been marred by his own naivete and the more astute Alexey’s desire for total con­trol. After their breakup, Dim­it­ry strug­gles to find the where­with­al he needs to take respon­si­bil­i­ty, while the out­ward­ly ruth­less Alex­ey is plagued by the knowl­edge that the love he gave up is irreplaceable. 

This is a world in which the Ashke­nazi and Slav­ic cul­tures of the Russ­ian Empire have been col­lapsed into one fan­ta­sy cul­ture (the cap­i­tal city is called Rav-Mikhail­burg, rather than St. Peters­burg; the vocab­u­lary is a mix of Russ­ian and Hebrew; and Alex­ey gains pow­er through a Rasputin-esque cor­rup­tion of kab­bal­is­tic mys­ti­cism). But the real pur­pose of the set­ting is to pro­vide a height­ened aes­thet­ic back­drop for the tor­ment­ed romance between two men with fun­da­men­tal­ly incom­pat­i­ble goals. Pol­i­tics and the super­nat­ur­al act as dark metaphors for the dynam­ics of domes­tic vio­lence, as if Dim­it­ry and Alex­ey are actors on stage and the civ­il war is a strug­gle between their wrestling shad­ows, cast giant on the wall. As one char­ac­ter observes, Lov­ing some­one and pos­sess­ing them are so alike, and yet worlds apart.”

As a debut, The Sins on Their Bones has a cou­ple of ele­ments that a more expe­ri­enced writer might have tight­ened up — char­ac­ters’ moti­va­tions are some­times stat­ed explic­it­ly where they could be left implic­it. How­ev­er, this will hard­ly be a dis­trac­tion for read­ers who want to soak in hun­dreds of pages of dark, roman­tic angst. 

Sacha Lamb is the author of Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist When the Angels Left the Old Coun­try. Their next nov­el, The For­bid­den Book, is com­ing this fall from Levine Queri­do. Sacha can be found on Insta­gram at

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