Friday, April 6, 2012

Review: Jasper Kent's Twelve

An interesting work, though a problematic one for me. Jasper Kent weaves a tale of the Russian military, embroiled in battle against Napoleon's Grande Armée, the arrogant narcissist at the center of the conflict, and the Oprichniki, a gang of mysterious mercenaries. There's a lot to like about this book, but there's also a lot that doesn't work very well. Let's start with the negatives, because I'd like to end the review with some well-deserved praise.

The above mentioned arrogant narcissist is Aleksei Sergeivich Danilov, an officer in the Russian army who is attached to an elite espionage and sabotage unit, consisting of himself and three other officers. A spy, in other words. Aleksei narrates the story, and his viewpoint and opinions inform our own view of the work's universe. He is also the biggest stumbling block to my recommending this work wholeheartedly, being almost aggressively unlikable. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, an enormous tool. He's not exactly a bad man, but he most certainly is not a good one; and his constant philosophizing and relentless self-obsession become, by the end of the book's 450-odd pages, very wearying.

This leads us to the book's second critical problem: the length. I am not at all opposed to very long novels, when the work has enough substance and energy to sustain itself over the length. Twelve does not. I firmly believe that Kent could have eliminated a great deal of Aleksei's endless internal monologue without damaging the integrity of the book at all. With, perhaps, fifty pages of introspection trimmed, the book would have been a much leaner, tighter and more well-defined work.

That being said, there's a lot I liked about this novel as well. Kent captures the atmosphere, language and attitudes of early 19th century Russia wonderfully. The descriptions of landscapes, cityscapes, peasantry and soldiers are all marvelous.

My favorite thing about the book was the strange mercenary company, the Oprichniki. We the readers immediately recognize their true nature, although the book's protagonists do not: they are vampires. However, these are a far cry from Anne Rice's glamorous tortured souls; and have even less in common with the whitewashed do-gooders of so much of today's vampire fiction. The Oprichniki are brutal, savage and bestial. They possess none of humanity's finer qualities, having no sense whatsoever of empathy, camaraderie or love. They are in fact almost devoid of personality (save for Iuda, their charismatic leader), having few definable traits aside from hunger, sadism and a dim, black sense of humor. The latter is perhaps best demonstrated in our initial meeting with the Oprichniki, in which they mockingly name themselves after the twelve disciples of Christ, with their "father" taking the name of Zmyeevich, the "son of the serpent." The book explores the nature of these monsters quite deeply, and this is the most satisfying aspect.

In closing, Twelve is a novel well worth reading, with a few caveats. I'd recommend it to dark fantasy and horror fans, or even to adventurous readers of military historical fiction, but probably not to lovers of the modern, de-fanged vampire.