Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Twelve by Jasper Kent

Jasper Kent’s Twelve (US, UK, Canada) combines the tragic history of the Napoleonic Wars in Russia with an Eastern European vampire tale. This approach has been received with much fanfare – dozens of glowing reviews can be found with ease, the book has already had multiple reprints and the buzz seemingly builds by the day. While I add my voice to the chorus, I hope I’m not lost in the buzz, because I think that Twelve is a very special novel – not just as an unique take on historical fiction, not just as brilliant vampire tale in a tired sub-genre, but most notably as a war novel that deserves deeper discussion than I’ve seen elsewhere and that I can provide in a simple review.

Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov is a Captain in the Russian army and member of a covert team of four thinking soldiers at work behind enemy lines to thwart the French invasion through non-traditional means. As it becomes clear that the French march cannot be halted before reaching Moscow, the group reaches out to a mysterious band of twelve mercenaries, colloquially referred to as the Oprichniki. While the reader is well aware from the beginning that the Oprichniki are in fact vampires, we follow Aleksei as he slowly comes to realize that he has enlisted the help of inhuman monsters and then sets a course for their extermination.

In other discussions of Twelve I’ve noticed emphasis on its clever emplacement of historical context and the successful use of Eastern European vampire folklore (which stands in contrast to most of the vampire fiction in circulation these days). Sadly lacking is the realization that this is a also great war novel in the same vein as classics such as For Whom the Bell Tolls, All Quite on the Western Front, and others (even Jasper Kent’s discussions seem to concentrate on the larger historical context rather than the war). Through Aleksei’s largely internal view of conflict, we see the horrors of war, the camaraderie of soldiers, the pain of being separated from one’s family, and the solace found in the arms of another woman.

The Oprichniki play an important part is the war narrative – their role eerily mirrors that of the French. The plague of their ‘invasion’ of Russia can be clearly tracked, their impact on Moscow is in its own way equally horrific, ending in a retreat from a land that ultimately beat them. It’s easy to imagine how the inhuman and horrific nature of vampires could be utilized as a window into the atrocities committed in war (and they are), but the personal war that Aleksei declares on the Oprichniki reinforces the moral complexity of a soldier at war (and even a man being unfaithful to his wife). Kent’s vision of vampires in Russia’s defense of Napoleon’s invasion creates a complex allegory that had me thinking late into the night.

The success of Twelve lies not in the refreshing tale of vampires, the intelligent integration with historical context, or even the allegoric use of vampires in a war novel, but in its central character, Aleksei. Throughout the novel, the reader only sees events through Aleksei’s eyes and memories. While at times we see the horrors of a battle and vampiric atrocities, it is the internal wanderings of Aleksei that dominate. We follow his journeys through rural Russia, through Moscow, into a brothel and his emerging love for a whore, through the love and betrayal of his comrades, longing for his family, and into battles with faceless enemies and supernatural creatures. This Russian everyman is the wonderfully realized guide through it all and the success of Twelve rests firmly on his shoulders alone.

Whether your are looking for a beautifully told historical novel, a cunning vampire tale, or a stark war novel, Twelve will satisfy. Kent embraces both genre and history, resulting in a book that defies classification and spans multiple boundaries. Early success has already lead to the expectation of more to come – the Danilov Quintet will span important events throughout 19th and early 20th Century Russia, with Thirteen Years Later coming soon. After Twelve, I can’t wait to see what Kent throws at us next. 9/10


LoopdiLou said...

I generally avoid vampire novels - but I don't think I can resist a historical fiction about the Napoleonic Wars - vampires or not!

Thanks for another great review.

ediFanoB said...

Well done Ken!

As LoopdiLou I'm not a fan of vampire novels too.
But this mix of historical fiction plus vampire is promising.

Anyway I sent a preorder for the paperback some weeks ago.


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