1/09/2010. Contributed by Vikki Green
pub: Bantam Press. 542 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK), $24.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-593-06065-0.
check out websites: www.rbooks.co.uk and www.jasperkent.com
Jasper Kent's 'Thirteen Years Later', the second volume of 'The Danilov Quintet', is another brilliant evocation of early nineteenth century Russia. The subtle combination of Russian history, myth and the voordalaki is both compelling and convincing.
The book opens with Colonel Aleskei Danilov, the protagonist from 'Twelve', attending a meeting of what would later be termed the Decembrist Plot. The Decembrists were a reformist organisation dedicated to over-throwing Tzarist autocracy and replacing it with a constitutional monarchy. Its manifestos, though, indicated a combination of unrealistic idealism combined with the sort of prejudiced thinking that later led to the Purges of the 1930s.
The whole movement was born out disillusionment with Tzar Aleksander I's failure to deliver on the promise of his earlier reign. He had been a reformist Tzar and had begun measures designed to eventually end serfdom and make Russia a more open society. However, all of this was de-railed by Napoleon's invasion of 1812. After the war ended, Aleksander became more interested in religion and becoming a true Russian Tzar rather than a reformer.
However, his army had been in occupation in Paris during 1814 and several of the educated officers had come to admire the relative freedoms of French society and many wondered if the same could be achieved in Russia. Over time, their philosophical meetings gradually became a nebulous plot to overthrow the stagnant Tzarist system and replace it with a more constitutional and rational form of government.
It's against this backdrop in 1825 that the story opens with Aleksei attending meetings in his role as Aleksander's eyes and ears. Their association had begun in 1812, shortly after Aleksei's first encounter with the voordalaki and Iuda, one of the most convincing psychopaths in fiction. Aleksei's rational education and beliefs had been sorely challenged during the events of the Napoleonic invasion and the loss of his three close companions during that time had pushed him to a more solitary way of operating. He, too, is disillusioned with the stagnation in Russia but is not convinced of the validity of overthrowing the Tzar. He finds the constitution proposed by the revolutionaries does women a disservice by discounting them completely and the proposal to forcibly Russify Russia's minorities is misguided. The latter policy was enthusiastically taken up by Aleksander III and later, Stalin. Neither succeeded and served only to create resentment and ferment revolution in previously loyal peoples. Aleksei is in truth disillusioned with both sides and hopes to resolve the situation peaceably.
During 'Thirteen Years Later', his relationship with his wife is revealed as more of a friendship than one born from love. Aleskei's reaction to the discovery that she is having an affair is philosophical, after all he has a lover and child in Moscow. His son, Dmitry, finds his father difficult and remote. Dmitry is musical and has talent which he desperately wants to tap into and exploit. Aleskei, although in awe of his son's talent, has guided him into the army in order to provide a stable career. The young man is due to go to Moscow to begin his training within a few days.
All these considerations are rapidly swept aside when Aleksei arrives home after a meeting with the Tzar to find a message from a dead comrade scrawled on his study wall. He is disturbed by Dmitry, who offers his help to find the person who left the message. Dmitry soon realises there is a lot more to his father than he had originally imagined and his respect for him is increased when he believes his father is a part of the plot against the Tzar. The sequence in Moscow severely challenges Dmitry's rational view of the world as he helps his father solve the mystery of the message and encounters the voordalaki himself. Equally, Aleksei wonders how good a father he has been to his son as it becomes increasingly apparent they hardly know one another.
The chase eventually leads Aleksei to Taganrog, where Aleksander I had retreated for the winter of 1825. There he uncovers a promise broken in 1712 by Pytor I, a betrayal that came to haunt Aleksander I in 1812 and again in 1825. Aleksei is pivotal in the urgent race to save Russia from a threat greater than that posed by any human agency be it Napoleon or revolutionaries.
Jasper Kent's deep knowledge of Russia, Russian history, myth and Russians shows in the depth of the atmosphere created in the novel. Moscow, Petersburg, Taganrog and the wild Crimea all come to vivid life. Aleksei is one of the most memorable, sympathetic protagonists to appear in modern fantasy fiction. He is a complex, sympathetic and well-rounded hero with a compassionate outlook on life. Aleksander I also comes over very well indeed, his voice is authentically rendered as are his beliefs and nature. The best of the Tzars comes over as a real man with very human doubts and fears. The voordalaki are also rendered with great sympathy and very differently from those that appeared in Twelve. The subtleties of their various natures is brought out vividly. By the time Aleskei leaves the Crimea he is aware of having prevented a disaster. On his return to Moscow, he is soon embroiled in the uncertainty surrounding the ascension of Nikolai I to the throne and the Decembrist Revolt. This forms the third part of the book and leads to a bittersweet success conclusion.
'Thirteen Years Later' is a masterful blend of the quasi-Arthurian myths surrounding the death of Aleksander I, the dark myths of the taiga and steppes, the myths and mystique surrounding Pyotr I along with the uncertainty of Nikolai I's succession to the throne. The mix of myth and history is subtly and believably done. It is a story that highlights Russia's ever destructive tendency to devour her best and brightest intellects in favour of absolutism and dictatorship. The historical notes are brief and serve to give enough guidance on the events of 1825 to allow a novice to Russian history to catch the drift of the background, the detail is skilfully woven into the narrative and doesn't hinder the pace of the story telling in any way. Jasper Kent wears his learning lightly. The hint of more to come is welcome as this is a masterpiece of alternative Russian history and I'm curious to see which of Russia's many crises over the course of the nineteenth century will form the basis of the next book.
Add SFcrowsnest.com daily news updates to your own web site or blog - just cut and paste the code below...
Stephen Hunt's novels - USA