Everyone is different and likes and dislikes different things. Reading is no exception. One person’s all-time favorite might seem too bland or too high stakes for another. That being said, the opinions of our judges in this contest are just that, opinions. Just because we let a book go, doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It could be your next favorite, who knows?

Now that we are in the finals, we are going to be doing full reviews for each book. The books are being reviewed in no particular order, not in order of their star rating. We are just reviewing them as we finish reading them.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can learn more about the contest here.

Today we are reviewing Norylska Groans, which was Fantasy Book Critic’s semi-finalist pick for this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. You can read their review here, and see their announcement here. And you can see the finalist spreadsheet here.

Norylska Groans (cover)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.

Our Thoughts

Norylska Groans is a grimdark story set in the coldest, bleakest, part of a Russian-esque country during a harsh and brutal winter. The country has recently been to war and left its soldiers to fend for themselves, all the while pretending to be a caring and grateful government. In the worst bit of Norylska live our two main characters, each dealing with terrible living conditions and not many options to pull themselves out of the bitter cold and poverty.

Gen, a veteran of the war, is fired from his factory job and has no way to provide for his wife and unborn child. Kat is in a smothering relationship with a man who thinks nothing of her, while she thinks the world of him. The two end up in jobs they never would have dreamed of taking, but neither feels they have a choice.

In these new positions, Gen working for the mafia, and Kat working for the police force, they are both given magic stones. These stones store the traits of people and sometimes animals, increasing the abilities of the wearer. But they are also given memory stones. The memory stones store the memories of the person who wore them in the past, and steal the memories from those wearing them currently, so that when the stone is removed anything that happened while wearing it is forgotten.

Kat’s memory stone holds the secret of a murder, and investigating it has her path crossed with Gen who is working on a mystery of his own, namely how to get out of working for the mafia. All the while the town of Norylska drones on in the background making everyone miserable and making finding answers even harder. Both soot and snow cover tracks, combined they cover everything.

Our judges had mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand the writing and worldbuilding are fantastic. But most of the judges found the violence and gore to be too much for them. Some also had trouble connecting with the characters, and found the ending left a lot to be desired. Overall, if you like your grim very dark, and you enjoy a good noir-style mystery, then this might be your next favorite read. But if you like things on the brighter side, this one is probably not for you.


The writing and worldbuilding in Norylska Groans is fantastic. The town of Norylska is cold and brutal much like the people who inhabit it. You can feel the sting of snow as the words of the authors flow off the page.

The magic system is interesting and is a major part of the plot, rather than existing alongside of it like in other stories. The way the stones change the main characters for both good and bad is interesting and unique, and kept me interested till the very end.

However, this story is Grim. Dark. Its characters are in impossible situations with little to no hope of improving their lives. And even when hope appears it is more likely to make things worse than better. It is also _extremely_ gory. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but much too dark for my blood.

The ending also left me kind of disappointed. Even though every thread in the plot was tied up rather neatly, the end was sort of a letdown from the intrigue and mystery of the rest of the story.

However, if, unlike me, you like dark, grim, stories, with great writing, then you should check this out!


I’m usually a big Fletcher fan, but this one is sadly my least favorite so far. It is the grimmest of Grimdark, and while I do not mind blood and gore, this was just quite a tad over the top for me.

I absolutely loved the setting, which was almost a character of its own, and the bleakness really bled from the pages. The idea with stones giving different character traits and memories was brilliant, and the main thing keeping me intrigued.

However, I didn’t engage much with the characters, just enough to keep me reading to the end, but never really caring about any of them. The one I found most intriguing was the one already dead.

While I enjoyed the female main characters’ growth, overall the cast just wasn’t really compelling to me, and the way they just kept going with the most horrendous wounds was annoying.


I had such high expectations for Norylska Groans. That could partially account for my disappointment when I finished reading the book.

The initial sections of the book are excellent. There is this feeling of depression that pervades the story—much like those from famed Russian authors. The feeling that people are cogs in the machine, that the state is supreme, that bureaucracy supersedes all. The emotion forms the backdrop of the story—with its two protagonists.

Both of them are crafted brilliantly. And while both of them are powerless, for the most part, they have different challenges. Katyushka is a young woman who has been treated as a footnote all her life. Though she comes from an educated, well-off background, she is now at a stage where money matters and her family history is inconsequential. Her fiancé manipulates her emotionally. Genndy, a veteran, and is just a penny away from poverty. He has to provide for his pregnant wife after losing his job. Katyushka thinks she will join the state security as a secretary while Genndy, left with no other choice, joins a crime family. What happens to them and how they react, forms the rest of the story.

These portions are fascinating, as I mentioned before. But the problem is the story continues with this same level of intensity and the same happenings. It is like a slow burning fuse that never really gets going. The last couple of pages is where the story becomes interesting once again, after the initial start.

It just feels like the payoff for the reader is not there. I felt like I had just finished reading act one and was left hanging.


Like some of other judges this too has been one of my least favourite Fletcher books, and though lots of overkill, one of my more favourable of Snyder.

I have a lot of empathy for the two main characters; both are forced to make decisions and choices (even if they are reluctant participants) just to survive. Genndy, a PTSD sufferer from the recent war, has to take on work just to be able to provide for his family. Though working for one of the local mafia groups may not be the wisest choice, job options are scarce in Norylska.

Katyushka is at first happy to accept her job as it brings in some extra cash she hopes will lift herself and her fiancé out of poverty. She thinks she’s going to be a typist but unfortunately the Powers That Be have other ideas. This is where the magic in the story begins: memory stones.

Memories (and attributes) of other citizens have been implanted in the stones and when someone wears them, they become the person whose memories are within stones. Kataya is made to wear stones on her first day and straight away is forced into the political maelstrom, but when she takes off the stones, she has no recollection of what she has done.

Kataya’s growth was the highlight for me. She has always tried to fit the role she is expected to play in society (even whilst her inner voice rallies against this), but finally after enduring sexist comments and innuendo, being told she is stealing men’s jobs, and her fiancé’s emotional abuse and passive aggressive put downs she finally snaps, and through some trial and error uses the stones to her advantage.

The other character in the book is the city itself. It is crafted, obese and a glutton from consuming the blood that leeches and drips through the cracks and it ‘groans’ under the weight of it all. It leaks mayhem and violence, but it is a ticking time bomb and I so want to be there when Norylska bursts.


Norylska Groans is the first book I’ve read by Clayton Snyder, but I’ve read many by Michael R. Fletcher. It’s also the most enjoyable read I’ve in some time in the grimdark subgenre. I really loved the story arc. It’s a gory tome in many respects, but the setting was well done so the violent reality didn’t feel gratuitous.

There are so many other elements, the city itself for one and the impoverishment and oppression of the working class. Norylska is a freezing and filthy city. People who die out in the cold are often not discovered till the thaw.

The main characters have their own storylines that merge gradually as their circumstances and others in power push them ever closer. Kat is fed up with an emotionally abusive fiancé and seeks independence. Gen is now jobless, penniless, and willing to take on work for some very bad people to earn a living for his wife and unborn child. I found them both relatable and well characterized.

The worldbuilding is so good, you feel the cold, the fear, the misery, and the filth of the city like a weight. The city of Norylska is a character in its own right. 

The magic system is minor in appearance but has a major impact. Memory stones allow people to commit horrible acts and see terrible things. Some stones are even imbued with animal traits. They act in different ways under their influence as the stones can also empower the traits of both man and beast within them. At the end of the day, the stones must be returned to the veneficum at the precinct, and all the memories of the day in service to the corrupt government are gone. It makes a delightful twist of politics and people alike. I’d recommend this one highly for grimdark readers.

– – –

Our judges are Amber Freeman, Jennie Ivins, Julia Kitvaria Sarene, Kartik Narayanan, Kerry Smith, and Lynn K. If you’d like to learn more about us, including our likes and dislikes, you can read about them here.

Any queries should be directed at me, Jennie Ivins, via DM on Facebook and Twitter.


By Jennie Ivins

Jennie is the Editor of Fantasy-Faction. She lives with her math loving husband and their three autistic boys (one set of twins & one singleton). In-between her online life and being a stay-at-home mom, she is writing her first fantasy series. She also enjoys photography, art, cooking, computers, science, history, and anything else shiny that happens across her field of vision. You can find her on Twitter @autumn2may.

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