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Book Review: The Turkish Gambit Boris Akunin

Can there be no more inspiring a sight then a brave young captain of the hussars atop his charger leading his men into battle? His uniform gleaming white in the sun as his charger ploughs a furrow in enemy ranks and his sabre reaps its deadly harvest scything from side to side, separating a head from its shoulders here, cleaving another like a melon, while flashing like God's own thunderbolt brought down upon in retribution on heathen heads, he can not fail to stir the passions and the blood of any true Russian.

Is there no sight more likely to crush the heart to see his proud body brought down by a seemingly insignificant hole in the sacred white of his tunic? The new scarlet ribbon will be his final battlefield decoration - and although it attests to his courage as surely do all the other gilding upon the white canvas of his cloth combined - is not the cost paid for its awarding too high? One among the thousands of lives spent on the empty and endless road to Constantinople; a road that is destined to be denied Holy Mother Russia by either Turkish arms or European deceit.

Why even now, the Europeans are plotting ways to take away the gains that the blood of that brave hussar paid for. After eight hundred years of living under Turkish yoke the Christian states of Romania, and Serbia were liberated and guaranteed independence, and a new principality for Bulgaria has been established. But instead of celebrating the deeds of their brothers in Christ, the duplicitous Europeans - led by the nefarious British - are even now plotting to overturn the victories their armies had failed to accomplish in crusade after crusade.
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But I see from the confusion that clouds your visage that I have jumped to the conclusion without giving you the benefit of the story that led up these events. As the full details are available for all to read in Boris Akunin's famous recounting The Turkish Gambit I will offer a truncated version here and encourage you to seek his detailed accounting at your leisure.

As is the case with all great histories this one has innocent beginnings; for what could be more innocent than the love of a woman for her betrothed? It's 1877 and all those who believe in the greater glory of Russia, be they reformers seeking rights for peasants or nobles of the court, know that their duty lies with the army fighting the infidel Turk. Young Varya Suvorova, whose heart overflows with her love of Russia and her desire to bring democracy to the people in equal measure, takes it upon herself to travel from St. Petersburg to the front so that she might rejoin her fiancee.

Disguising her womanly charms within the garb of a young man, she almost succeeds in making the journey without trouble, but fate in the shape of a dishonest guide finds her stranded, penniless in a roadside tavern of the worst sort in Romania. If not for the intervention of a mysterious young Russian she could have met with the sort of fate she had hopped her disguise would prevent. When she discovers that the mount he secures for her was won by betting her against it she is furious; a fury that is only doubled when she learns the identity of her saviour.

He is none other than Erast Fandorin, the hero of an earlier adventure recounted by our narrator in The Winter Queen where he uncovered a nefarious plot to place spies in positions of power and influence in governments around the world, a member of the special police assigned to protect the state from forces that would seek to do it harm. To Varya's way of thinking this makes him a lackey of the throne and an enemy of those like her who seek to change the system for the greater good of the people. So in spite of the fact that he saves her honour not once but twice before they have even reached her destination - she takes a decidedly frosty attitude towards the diffident young man with the stammer and prematurely white temple hair. (Those of you aware of the sad end to Erast's previous adventure, on what should have been the happiest day of his life, know full well the cause of those two slight imperfections to his appearance and manner)

While Varya is at the front in order to follow her heart, Fandorin is there to continue the hunt that started his career. The master mind behind the Turkish strategy both on the field of battle and domestically is the mysterious Anwar-enfendi, one of the spies who had infiltrated the highest reaches of government. Fandorin's mission is complicated by the fact that no one in the West knows anything about him save reputation and name; finding him might well be a task even beyond our hero's talents.
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But when Russian battle plans are first tampered with, and then betrayed Fandorin knows that there can only be one culprit responsible. When Varya's betrothed comes under suspicion and is arrested, Fandorin knows he is innocent but will have to prove it to save an innocent man's life. But he now has a willing assistant in the shape of Varya, who is desperate to free her fiancee. But is Varya, who prides herself for her intellect, willing to take advantage of her comely shape, one that has already attracted much comment and attention from the flower of Russian manhood far from home, hearth, and female companionship, in order to investigate the matter?

Already she has felt herself be torn between being flattered or insulted by the attention, and indeed has been forced to remonstrate with herself quite fiercely after each occasion that she has been the cause of a duel (one which resulted in the death of a suspect) and been mortified at finding her modern mind unable to prevent her heart from being thrilled and flattered by the attention. But who she wonders, would not be made weak at the knees from the examples of male pulchritude on display.

While Varya is lamely fending off admirers with increasingly feeble reminders of her status as a woman already spoken for, she also observes how her benefactor Fandorin conducts himself in the course of his enquires. What puzzles her most is while quite naturally she continues to loathe him as an enemy of the people, and feel nothing but the deepest of devotion for her fiancee, how is it that she looks forward to Erast's return when he is absent, and indeed is forced to restrain an urge to fling her arms around his neck upon his return from a particularly protracted absence.

As narrator of the events contained with The Turkish Gambit Boris Akunin (alias for Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) once again has proven himself not only a master raconteur with a deft hand for developing character and a devious mind for plots, but also a fine eye and ear for style and caricature. While those who populate the pages of this story at times might appear larger than life in gentle satire of 19th century Russian literature, he never once lets them descend into the pit of buffoonery. At any time one or the other of them might rise to an occasion magnificently, proving that behind what appeared to be bluster was in fact an open heart, a brave soul, or a superior intellect.

I'm sure that at some time in our lives, all of us have been touched by the romantic illusion generated by the gallant figure of a cavalry officer perched atop his rearing horse urging his troop onward into the valley of death with cannon to the left and cannon to the right. Somehow their uniforms and courage rendered them in our minds invulnerable to bullets and the gore of war. Akunin has turned that image into a human being, not letting their charm or uniform serve as a barrier to musket fire or cannonade.

The second book of the adventures of Erast Fandorin is easily as enthralling as its predecessor, and we gain a different perspective of our young hero as we see him through the eyes of another character for the first time. The cloak of sadness that he wears reminds us of his recent sorrow without once having to bring it up in detail, and offers sufficient motivation for his behaviour and his zeal in tracking down the elusive Anwar-enfendi.

The promise that was shown with the Winter Queen of a series of books that would be both fun and insightful has more than been matched its sequel The Turkish Gambit. I can't help looking forward now to the next instalment in the adventures of Erast Fandorion.

Canadian wishing to purchase a copy of The Turkish Gambit may do so directly from Random House Canada or through an online retailer like Amazon.ca

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