Sunday, 10 January 2010

Twelve; Jasper Kent

New exercise.

Try to write something about each book I read.

I could have started this by trying to write something about the books I've been reading in the last few weeks, but re-reading the Baroque Cycle is one of those things which leaves you thinking that there's nothing you can possibly add to all that Stephenson pumped into the books.

So instead I figured to start the exercise with the first book I've started and finished in the New Year.

Twelve is something I've been looking forward to reading since I first saw it in trade paperback. It seemed like such a neat idea. Vampires on Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Of course I put off buying it until it was in normal size. Nothing like re-reading Stephenson in trade paperback size to remind me of just what a pain it can be to read a book that's bigger than it needs to be. So I didn't actually buy the book till just before Christmas, and what with one thing and another I didn't start reading it until a few days ago.

It's not a book I can see myself reading again. It's not a bad book, it's just not very involving. I remember a long time ago trying to read a translation of the Gulag Archipelago and giving up because it was too flat and ugly. To this day I haven't decided whether Russian's an inherently inelegant language or whether I was reading a bad translation; I haven't been interested enough in the Gulag Archipelago to give it a second try. Now Jasper Kent wasn't writing in Russian and getting translated, so it's not same problem, it's just that reading his prose reminded me of that.

I think that Kent tripped over the problem of trying to write a narrator who's true to his time, and true to his character. Now, it's always a good idea to try to make your protagonist an everyman, because that's - to use a word I hate - relateable. The problem is that if you make him your narrator, you're stuck with the problem that your narrator's an everyman and it would ring false to have him write well. Because Alexei Danilov is supposed to a shallow and rather unreflective Russian officer (whose lack of speed on the uptake is important to the speed with which the plot unfolds), he has to write like one. Which makes for a very flat narrative.

The result is a book which moves along efficiently but unmemorably, and which doesn't draw you to re-read it. Once you've gone through the plot, you've got all you're going to get from it because there's no particular pleasure to be derived from the prose.

Which is a shame, really. The idea's a good one, and the execution is intelligent and consistent. It would have been easier to write a more engaging book. Kent set out to write a book which was anchored in its period, and he pretty much succeeded. His hero is a reasonably clever man who makes a lot of mistakes but does his best to remedy them along the way. The book unfolds in a very believable way and it's plain that there was a lot of research before he set out to write it. The vampires are tough to kill without being impossible, and the only way the hero can prevail is to pick them off piecemeal and at great personal cost. It all hangs together nicely and the characters are preoccupied with very human concerns. It ought to be a better book than it is. But I'm at a loss to figure out how it could have been made a better book without the author being false to his purpose.

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