Sunday, 16 January 2011

Thirteen Years Later: Jasper Kent

It's been a year since I tried to kickstart this thing back into action by making a point of blogging all the books I read. The exercise began with Jasper Kent's Twelve and here I am a year later trying to string together some useful reflections on its sequel.

In fact I've been terrible about the book blogging. I managed to be reasonably committed to the movie reviews, but some of the books I've read this year have been things I just didn't want to think about after I'd finished them. I've probably written down thoughts on less than half the books I've read this year gone out, and I'm not sure what this year will be like. But there's a certain appealing symmetry to trying to keep the show on the road with the sequel to the book which got me working at it again.

Twelve had it easy in a way, because people who don't know much about history have still heard of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. So the deeper historical background could be left to the reader to fill in around the narrative. Thirteen Years Later is set in the run-up to and aftermath of the December 1825 abortive revolt against the succession of Tsar Nikolai to Tsar Alexander. And I'd never really heard of that, so you can imagine how much background exposition was needed to get it all into context for the reader. There are probably, right now, more people in the world who've heard of the Decemberists as a musical combo than a revolutionary movement. Certainly Google thinks so; I just put that in as a search phrase and the first page of results had only one reference to the luckless Russians.

Kent's actually a lot more ambitious than I initially gave him credit for. These two books are just part of what he's now referring to as the Danilov quintet, heaven help us. It's an interesting idea. Vampires live forever, so sustained conflict with them would be a generational exercise for mere mortals. So we've had the retreat from Moscow, and the Decemberists and the next stop looks like being Crimea. I have to hope that when we get to that stop, we won't have to worry about vampire Florence Nightingale. The fourth and fifth books; well, one of them has to have the revolution in it, and given the way that Kent's putting the Romanov dynasty front and centre in the master plot, I'm inclined to think that will be the fifth book, leaving me mulling over where in time the fourth book will pull its inspiration from. If I had to guess, I'd pick the Russo-Turkish war, simply because it will fit in with some of the existing threads quite well.

Kent's switched from the first person narration of the first book to third person for this book, which allows him to split the action up among the main players. Probably the biggest drawback to that approach is that it lets him bring back a key villain from the first book, and having been tempted to do that, he gives that villain an insane amount of work to do. Kent handles the introduction of the return quite well, letting things pile up nicely, but by the end of the book, with the villain enmeshed in almost every strand of Danilov's life, I found myself asking how on earth the bad guy would have had the time and energy to pull off all the different things he was doing. Kent tries to take some of the sting out of it by having the villain admit that it was more a matter of doing things which looked amusing and working out the payoff much later, but in fact that just makes it worse. If his mind really worked like that, he'd be doing hundreds of other mean minded things as well, and well, mortal life's too short.

Kent's master plot involves a standoff between the Romanovs and a vampiric big bad who stalks each succeeding generation. This already gives him a villain who stays in place from one book to the next, pitched against a family who'll stay in place from one book to the next. I think he's concluded that the Danilovs also need their own personal nemesis, and I'm inclined to think he might be on thewrong track here, not least because of the downright Lecterification that's going on with his secondary (in the hierarchy - primary in the action) villain. But we shall see. About this time next year The Third Section will appear in paperback and I can scratch my head over whether it's keeping the show on the road.

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