Twelve: Jasper Kent

★★★½

The Danilov Quintet: Book I

It’s 1812 and Russia faces dark days, as Napoleon’s great army sweeps eastward, pushing all before it. Some are even beginning to wonder whether they might see the ultimate sacrilege: a French invasion of Moscow. For four daring young soldiers, resistance is the only answer. Plucked from their regiments, Vadim Fyodorovich,  Maksim Sergeivich, Dmitry Fetyukovich and our narrator Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov form a special ops unit – and are waiting for some reinforcements to join them very shortly. Dmitry has enlisted the help of a band of men with whom he fought against the Turks some years earlier, whom he nicknames the ‘Oprichniki’ after the bloodthirsty bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible. The Oprichniki certainly prove their worth, striking by night and leaving the French forces depleted and terrified – but Aleksei begins to feel that something isn’t quite right. Who are these mysterious warriors from the dark fringes of Europe? And just what kind of bargain has Dmitry Fetykovich made with them on Russia’s behalf?

I didn’t know anything about Kent’s book beforehand and I’d recommend coming to it with a similar level of ignorance. Don’t read the back: I realised afterwards that it gives away a key part of the story. I was attracted to the novel because my knowledge of Russian history remains lamentable and, although I’ve enjoyed some Russian-flavoured fantasy in recent months, I wanted to find out a bit more about what ‘really’ happened. For reasons that’ll become obvious when you read it, Kent’s book only does that to a certain extent – but it evokes the shock and fear that the Russian people felt at the advance of Napoleon. It also celebrates the admirable resistance of the Russian army and the courage of the men and women of Moscow, who found the enemy literally on their doorstep. There are flashes of War and Peace within these pages, liberally spiced with a deliciously brooding darkness. This is a world where enlightenment still wars with myth and superstition, after all – and maybe those dark old myths haven’t yet realised that they aren’t meant to exist any more.

As a protagonist, Aleksei sits comfortably on the grey-scale, neither virtuous nor wicked. He is an ordinary man, weak-willed, with a loving wife and small son in St Petersburg and a mistress in Moscow, in the form of the elegant courtesan Domnikiia (pretty much the archetypal fictional ‘tart with a heart’: the female characters are few and far between, and much less rounded than the men). Aleksei makes mistakes but is capable of flashes of almost suicidal bravery; and he’s well-educated, but not overly blessed with common sense. He’s fascinated and alarmed by the Oprichniki’s calm amorality, and by their enigma – which extends even to their names. Unwilling to give their real names, the mysterious foreigners adopt those of the twelve Apostles, and although Petyr is supposed to be their leader, it’s sharp, blond, astute Iuda who really tickles Aleksei’s interest (and dread). Of course, the reader twigs what’s going on much earlier than Aleksei and there are moments when, like someone at a pantomime, you almost feel the urge to bounce on your chair and shout, ‘It’s behind you!’ I can’t even mention some of the other books that this brought to mind, because that would give too much away, but it’s a pleasing blend of fact and fiction, set in a time of epic bloodshed and monumental hubris.

This novel works perfectly well as a standalone, but it’s the first of four (and a short story as well), and I’m curious to see how the narrative develops in future books. Have we seen the last of the Oprichniki and their bloody talents? Will Aleksei be left looking over his shoulder for a little while longer? For my next foray into Russian fiction, I should probably try to find something more truly historical, but I feel that Kent’s novel has gone some way towards filling in some of my very extensive mental blanks. And I really rather enjoyed it. I’ll read the sequels in due course, but the best thing to do for my Russian history is probably to look for more Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pushkin and Dostoevsky – what better way than to learn from those who were there?

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