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Twelve by Jasper Kent

01/11/2009. Contributed by Vikki Green

Buy Twelve in the USA - or Buy Twelve in the UK

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pub: Bantam Press/Transworld. 480 page hardback. Price: (UK). ISBN: 978-0-59306-064-3.

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Jasper Kent's 'Twelve' mingles two of my greatest passions, the Napoleonic Wars and Russia. I couldn't wait to find out what the mixture of the volcanic events of 1812 and vampires would be like. The story begins as Napoleon's Grande Armee is advancing to Moscow from Smolensk in the summer of 1812. In Moscow, Captain Aleksei Ivanovitch Danilov rendezvous with his three friends and comrades, Maks, Dmitry and Vadim. They are irregular officers whose purpose is to harry the enemy from behind their lines and they are about to resume their work. From their conversations, they are efficient in their work and experienced, but they are in Moscow waiting for allies to aid them in bringing the fight to the French.

These are people Dmitry encountered during the Russian Campaign against the Turks in Wallachia some years previously. He has christened them the Oprichniki, after Ivan the Terrible's terrifying secret police. The atmosphere of desperation in Moscow is conjured well here, Dmity's action in inviting the Oprichniki was born of that mood of desperation. An interesting sub-plot is introduced in Aleskei's affair with a prostitute Domnikiia during the lull before Napoleon reaches Moscow. This affair takes on a deeper significance as the story progresses. During this time, the rumours of a plague moving up the Don River from Tula are becoming insistent and match the time it takes Zmyeevich and his twelve Oprichniki to reach Moscow. Aleksei notes the facts as the story progresses and slowly puts them together, too slowly to prevent some horrific events.

When the four Russians meet the Oprichniki, all but Dmitry are wary of them. Dmitry obviously knows more than he's telling. At this time, Aleksei dismisses his own misgivings much to his chagrin later on. When the story finally comes out he is horrified. The Oprichniki are all curiously without personality, apart from Iuda. The sixteen embark on their mission to harry the French in the run up to Borodino, splitting into groups of four. One Russian and three Oprichniki. Aleskei gradually becomes more and more uneasy with his three, their disregard of orders and their disappearances. Gradually, it dawns on him what they actually are and his war becomes personal against them rather than the greater conflict against Napoleon.

'Twelve' is an unusual mixture, a Napoleonic War story set around the events of summer 1812 and the winter of 1812/13 and vampires or voordalakii. It covers the huge tapestry of Borodino, the French occupation of Moscow and their disastrous retreat to the Berezina over that winter. The background research, evocation of the whole period and the occupied city are beautifully rendered. It called to mind some of the relevant passages in 'War And Peace' and diaries of the time. The main characters are depicted accurately and sympathetically. Particularly at a time when educated Russian society was being pulled in so many directions between the concepts of the Enlightenment and the ancient institutions of serfdom and autocracy. The conflict in Aleksei's soul over this dichotomy in the Russia of the time is totally believable, particularly when he is brought face to face with something straight out of the stories his grandmother told him. It brings all of his enlightened education into question as everything he thought unreal and make-believe is revealed as concrete horrific reality.

Iuda is a charismatic and quite horrific antagonist, he is unlike the other eleven Oprichniki in that he has a mind of his own and is very inventive with it. His monstrous nature is highlighted even further when his true self is revealed during the course of the action.

I couldn't put it down. The pace is moderate with bursts of action and some quite horrific brutality. All the action is narrated by Aleksei in first person, as such he is something of an unreliable narrator as the realisation of what the Oprichiniki are comes upon the reader a lot faster than it does on Aleksei. The moderate pace serves to enhance the story and deepens the characters and the events in which they are embroiled. It also gives a sense of authenticity to the narration as it feels so much in tune with the kind of writing found in letters, memoirs and diaries of the time.

I can't wait for the next volume, due in January 2010, 'Thirteen Years Later', to see what occurs next as the ending to 'Twelve' was left wide open. Quite brilliant.

Vikki Green

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