Twelve by Jasper Kent
Published by Transworld Publishers/Bantam, January 2009.
480 pages (ARC Copy received)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
You know, I’m not sure exactly what the overlap of readers between the Fantasy genre and historical novels is, but I’m sure there’s a lot. Often one of the attractions of the Fantasy novel, for me at any rate, is that submergence into an ancient world, an older world. This can also work with historical novels, too. Bernard Cornwell seems to have struck a chord in our Forums at SFFWorld with his novels of Arthur Pendragon, Stonehenge, Vikings and (most recently) Agincourt. Further back, there’s T.H. White and Rosemary Sutcliffe. And more recently the slipstreaming of Regency England with ancient magic has given rise to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, not to mention Naomi Novik’s merging of Napoleonic England with dragons, Temeraire.
To this then we can now add this rendering of events in Napoleonic Russia. Here, within a historic timeframe, we have a tale of Russian soldiers and vampires.
The book is impeccably set within a real historical time frame. In June 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia with an overwhelmingly large number of well-resourced French troops. Various battles ensue, such as the infamous Battle of Borodino, and the French rapidly take over Russian towns and cities. With the invasion of Saint Petersburg imminent, and Moscow soon to follow, the story then begins its fictional narrative.
Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov is part of an elite Russian force whose job is to slow down or halt the French encroachment by any means necessary. His covert group enlists a band of twelve men, the Oprichniki, whose reputation for getting difficult jobs done precedes them. Harrying the French in their invasion of Moscow, as the Russian army retreats, the twelve are terrifyingly proficient. Aleksei, in his dealings with them, becomes suspicious of their work, uncovers their dark background and their true purpose, and realises that their intent is not as patriotic as at first believed.
To this historical tapestry is then interwoven a rich and relatively untapped Russian culture. There are folktales, such as that of the voordalak, and historical and social references that ooze realism, yet the tale is easily followed by those, such as me, with little more than a passing knowledge of Napoleonic or Russian history. There is a rich cultural history here, which is all too often ignored in genre circles.
It is not a historical novel in the sense that it mainly deals with the timescale of a historical campaign, though the events of Napoleon’s campaign are a clear backdrop to the events that take place within the novel. We read this tale on the edge of great events – the massacre at the Battle of Borodino, the burning of Moscow, the invasion and retreat of the Napoleonic army. However, it is a tale usually on the periphery.
Most of the proceedings take place within a much more focused perspective, based around events in Moscow. Though there are battles, the main thrust of the novel is firmly based around Aleksei as the horrific scenario unfolds. In fact, more of the novel occurs in brothels rather than in widescreen battle, as Aleksei confides his fears to, and falls in love with, the courtesan Domnikiia.
While the telling of major events may not be as prevalent as some might like, such a grounding in reality makes this horrific tale all the more satisfying. Furthermore, this is perhaps in keeping with many Russian writers, such as Tolstoy, whose tales such as War and Peace echo the times of change, but are more of the impact of events on the individual in those situations.
The novel’s style, as written from the point of view of Aleksei, is generally appropriate (with the odd anachronism) – slightly old-fashioned but not too daunting. Though there are Russian references, it did not put me off. Indeed, set amongst the derelict ruins of an abandoned city it was valuable in creating that all important sense of reality that is essential for the horror to work. The horror is, to some extent, more personal and more troubling because of this mundanity, as the terror, when it happens, is very effective. It reads as if it were the progeny of Tolstoy or Pasternak, with a Stokerian twist.
The pace is fairly slow at the start, as we engage with the characters and the situation. At just over the midpoint of the book, about 270 pages in, the book breaks into a change in pace. The second part of the novel deals with Aleksei’s hunting of the Oprichniki, realising that the only solution is to systematically execute the un-dead twelve. It is faster and as perhaps we should expect, alternately exciting and horrifying by turns.
The ending is historically accurate, involving the French army’s retreat over the Berezina River in November 1812, to escape the Russian winter and return to France. The ‘scorched earth’ strategy employed by the Russians had worn down the invaders: According to Wikipedia, the French losses in the campaign were atrocious, about 570,000 in total, whilst in comparison the Russians lost a smaller yet still significant 150,000 in battle, not to mention hundreds of thousands of civilians.
In this setting there is an exciting, if a little unlikely, dénouement. My feeling at the end was a little disappointing in that paradoxically there were some aspects that were too-conveniently concluded, whilst many other aspects were left unresolved. The final showdown is a little too convenient. Aleksei, in a blatant case of ‘being able to have your cake and eat it’, at the end of the book has not decided between a life with his wife and son or his prostitute lover; and in that classic cliché, despite all the events of the book there is still the chance that the voordalak still live. (It may not therefore be a surprise therefore that there is a sequel planned, initially titled Thirteen Years Later.)
Despite this slight let-down at the end, in summary, the book is a very pleasing read, clearly the result of detailed historical research, and a book where the emphasis is on the telling of a thrilling tale by a writer with a love of the horrific. Think of it as Doctor Zhivago meets Bram Stoker’s Dracula in Napoleonic Russia.
Mark Yon / October 2008
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