Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels

Standard

Erast Petrovich Fandorin is a fictional 19th-century Russian detective and the hero of a series of Russian historical detective novels by Boris Akunin. A philologist, critic, essayist, and translator of Japanese, Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels have made him one of the most widely read authors in Russia.The first novel was published in Russia in 1998, and the latest was published in December 2009. More than 15 million copies of Fandorin novels have been sold as of May 2006, even though the novels were freely available from many Russian web-sites and the hard-copies were relatively expensive by Russian standards. New books in the Fandorin series typically sell over 200,000 copies in the first week alone, with an unparalleled (for mystery novels) first edition of 50,000 copies for the first books to 500,000 copies for the last. In Russia, the Fandorin series rivals The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter in popularity. The English translations of the novels have been critically acclaimed by, among others, Ruth Rendell.

Akunin describes in The Winter Queen how Erast Fandorin was orphaned at the age of nineteen. He never knew his mother, and his father died bankrupt, leaving only debts. Fandorin had to abandon his education at Moscow University and was forced to enter the police force as a clerk. Since the events in The Winter Queen take place in the spring of 1876 (when Akunin says Fandorin is twenty), this places his birth some time in the year 1856. Further hints at Fandorin’s ancestry are given in another novel, Altyn Tolobas, one of four novels set in the present day and featuring Fandorin’s grandson Nicholas, where Akunin writes of how Captain Cornelius von Dorn, a German hussar, entered Russia in ca. 1680. Erast Fandorin represents the 8th generation counting from Cornelius, the German name von Dorn having been Russified to Fandorin in the 18th century.

In The Winter Queen, Fandorin falls in love with a seventeen-year-old girl, Elizaveta, whom he meets while he is investigating his first case. On their wedding day, she was killed by a bomb in a package addressed to Fandorin himself. At the time of the explosion, Fandorin was out pursuing the person who delivered the bomb and thus miraculously escaped without physical harm. The trauma of losing his bride leads to a lifelong slight stammer in Fandorin and a premature greyness at the temples.

In The Turkish Gambit, Fandorin is charged with the capture of a Turkish spy during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Upon his return, he requests to be stationed in a remote post, and becomes second secretary to the Russian ambassador in Japan. His adventures in Japan are detailed in the second part of The Diamond Chariot and in Jade Rosary Beads. In Japan, he saves the life of the fallen yakusa Masa, who becomes his manservant as a token of gratitude. He learns martial arts, including ninjitsu, and trains in them every day with Masa. In The Death of Achilles Akunin describes how Fandorin returns to Russia, only to find his old friend General Mikhail Sobolev murdered. Fandorin enters the service of The Governor-General of Moscow, Knyaz Dolgoruki (a fictionalized version of Valdimir Dolgorukov).Fandorin rises from the rank of Collegiate Registrar to that of Collegiate Counsellor over the years 1876 to 1891 (ranks XIV and VI in the Table of Ranks, respectively).

In The State Counsellor, set in 1891, Fandorin is accused of the attempted murder of the Governor of Moscow. After he clears his name, Fandorin is offered the job of Oberpolizeimeister but declines, instead resigning from public service and becoming a private investigator. He then leaves for America, studying engineering at M.I.T., in 1895, as told in Jade Rosary Beads. In The Coronation, Fandorin returns to Russia in time to prevent an international scandal from occurring during the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896. In 1905, Fandorin protects the Trans-Siberan Railway from Japanese saboteurs during the Russo-Japanese War.

Allusions to the fate of Fandorin are made in Altyn Tolobas. Late in life Fandorin marries again and has at least one son, Alexander, who is born in exile in London in 1920, his mother having left Russia in 1919 while pregnant, which implies that Erast Fandorin died in that year in the turmoil of the Russian Civil War. Alexander’s son, Nicholas Fandorin, is born around 1960.

I stumbled on these books a couple of years ago and have religiously bought them as soon as translations have become available (my Russian being less than impressive). I’ve considered blogging on each of them, but decided to spread the good word in one all-purpose review. The Fandorin novels are set in the late 19th century, a time of great turmoil and upheaval within Russian society. Fandorin is an unusual character, encapsulating the rigorous logic and analytic method of a Holmes with a complex history and moral code that sets him apart from other fictional detectives. The historical setting demonstrates constancy and accuracy, and the plotting and narrative structure varies throughout the series. I find the novels similar in quality and style to C.J. Samson’s Mathew Shardlake series, and I heartily recommend any fan of historical mysteries to give them a go.

(Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop)

 

Advertisements

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Standard

There is a prophesy. Long ago, Albion’s greatest magician, the Raven King, wrote ominously that “two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me; the first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction.”

We are in an alternative 1806 with the same king (George III, just as mad), the same politicians; the Napoleonic War; Byron; pedantic, provincial, learned societies; gentlemen living on their estates, and (mostly) the same back history. But there is such a thing as magic and, furthermore, northern England has been under supernatural rule for centuries.

Hanoverian hegemony over the territories north of the Humber is theoretically a stewardship pending this entity’s return. The church exists as a social institution, but not as a religious one. For a couple of centuries, magic has been purely academic; there have been no successful spell-casters. But first one, then another, magician arises: a pedant called Mr Norrell, then a country gentleman called Mr Strange.

A partnership arises between these two magicians, but it is an uneasy one. Norrell is conservative, secretive, and fearful, whereas Strange is innovative and attracted to the most dangerous, wildest kind of magic. His interest in the shadowy figure of the Raven King becomes more than academic; this quest puts at peril all he holds dear, and especially the woman he loves. The Raven King, John Uskglass, moving beneath and beside the early 19th century, is attempting to set upon the throne of England a king to rival the current occupant, the befuddled George III. In order to preserve their world, and save his wife, Strange must unite with Norrell and seek to defeat the most powerful magician of all.

At just over 780 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell clicks along at such a comfortable pace that it seems, if not much shorter, just stunningly well-structured for its size and scope. In all its length there is not a single instance of padding, never an eye-glazing moment of pure, dull self-indulgence. To a degree, the story is episodic, but every event is precisely positioned in the narrative to build upon previous events and lead smoothly into upcoming ones. Rooted in two unique and memorable characters, the story just sweeps you up and carries you along, never lapsing to tired clichés nor trading in sentimentalism for its emotional depth. Clarke’s best thematic conceit is her often hilarious depiction of the politicization of magic, leading to the kinds of rivalries you always see in real-life politics, or the arts and sciences. The efforts of politicians and generals to grasp the practical applications of magic is particularly amusing:

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’ Lord Wellington nodded as if this was just as he would have expected.

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke’s magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. Clarke’s fantasy is more akin to Laurence Norfolk, Umberto Eco or a slightly touched Dickens, than a Tolkien or Peake, but it is the equal of any of those august names. Perhaps it appeals as much to the historian as to a fantasy-lover, but the humour and sheer skill of the writing must appeal to all lovers of great literature. The leisurely pace of the novel is more than made up for by the astonishingly imaginative footnotes, which are folktales, anecdotes and mini-essays that enthrall the reader as well as inform the plot.

I have always had a soft spot for the epic, the imaginative, and the nostalgic glance into the past. I have more than a soft spot for this book; it contains all these things and more, and if one is brave enough to open ignore the thick spine and heavy cover, the journey that awaits you is worth every second.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Standard

In his own words, he looks “like a murderer”, and many consider that to be the least of his crimes. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is an enigmatic figure even to those who claim to know him. Cromwell appreciates the power of silence: “It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires”. He is a reticent man by times, but eloquent when required. It is this use of half-light, half-truths, and silence that fascinates his contemporaries, that creates mystery and fear, and a sense of omnipotence and omnicompetence. Cromwell operates in a new a strange world of shadows, figures, theology and administration, which his fellow courtiers are unable to comprehend and compete.

In Wolf Hall, Mantel persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs manoeuvrer as one of the most appealing – and, in his own way, enlightened – characters of the period. Taking off from the scant evidence concerning his early life, she imagines a miserable childhood for him as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith in Putney. Already displaying toughness, intelligence and a gift for languages, he runs away to the continent as a boy of 15 or so (his date of birth isn’t known, and in the novel he doesn’t know it himself). He goes to France because: “France is where they have wars”. He learns banking in Florence, trade in Antwerp. He develops a prodigious memory, and possesses the skill to read people, and manage them. He serves Cardinal Wolsey loyally until his fall and then steps into the power vacuum. He emerges from his picaresque youth as an intimidating, witty, and resourceful man:

“Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything”.

Wolsey uses these skills as the vehicle for the dissolution of England’s great monastic orders; their houses are overdue reform and the money garnered shall pay for his new college at Oxford. Cromwell is no lover of Rome and despises the waste and sloth that he encounters. He proves an irresistible force, impermeable to the insults and jibes of his social betters and possessing the legal knowledge and intellectual flexibility to stump all objections. He is also introspective and deeply human. His heartbreak at the death of his wife and daughters in plague epidemics is movingly portrayed by Mantel.

 Indeed, it is this capacity to transmit the complexity of emotion that Cromwell contains sparingly and with subtlety that makes him such a superb and arresting narrator. Cromwell’s flashbacks are a key narrative device in the book; delivered in present-tense with a vivid, humorous retrospection, they penetrate to the core of the man in a profound fashion. Cromwell appears to be a man of stone, a particularly intangible and flexible stone granted, but certainly his face is unreadable to those who encounter him. Mantel manages to depict that ‘stonefacedness’ alongside the subterranean quicksilver of flowing thought, words, and deeds that comprise the real man.

There is something incredibly poignant about the journey of Cromwell and his fellow characters. We know that many will not survive the crises to come. The references to Wolf Hall itself throughout the book, with its’ Seymour connotations, bode ill for our hero. For a hero in fact Cromwell is. He is more a man for all seasons than the intractable martyr Thomas More, and the intellectual equal of both More and Henry VII. He is a man with sensibilities closer to our time, in a way, than to that of most of his contemporaries. Taking five years to complete, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2010, and although a sequel is in the works we may have a while to wait to be enthralled again. I have not enjoyed any book as much in quite some time, and having inflicted it upon a great number of people with success, I am as impatient as anyone!  I can only recommend it most highly to lovers of history, excellent literary fiction, and to those who wish to be transported into a different world; a world of high drama, low intrigue, and essentially human figures reborn under a supremely gifted hand.