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Book Review: The Winter Queen Boris Akunin

North Americans of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have grown up with a horribly skewed impression of Russia. Years and years of indoctrination have caused us to dismiss one the oldest and most complex civilizations in history as simply the enemy without knowing or even attempting to understand its history or culture. Ever since the Western powers conspired to overthrow the popular revolution of 1918 by sending in troops to try and restore the Tsar to power, it's been an us and them situation that's only ever briefly abated.

The time it did abate was the one period in the last century when it appeared Russia was willing to bend its knee to the will of the west. But the moment the current government began to think for itself, to put its interests ahead of the interests of the West, the assault upon their character began again. Fear of the old Soviet Union shaped American foreign policy for fifty years, causing them to overthrow legitimate governments, prop up dictators, fight unpopular wars, and forge alliances that have since come back to haunt them. It's to be hoped that their reaction to the new Russian national pride won't be as extreme and they won't be as quick to judge Russia by their own standards.

But even back in the days before the Revolution, and all the crowned heads of Europe were still related to each other, Russia was considered different. Being on a different calendar, the Russian Orthodox differed by twelve days, practising another form of Christianity, and speaking a language with a different alphabet was enough to make them as alien to most Europeans as if they were from the Ottoman Empire of the Turks.
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The oddity was the result this seemed to have upon the character of the educated Russian and the nobility. Where one might have expected an outburst of fervent nationalism as a reaction, instead the trend was to emulate the trends and styles of their cousin courts. It was common practice for the educated Russian to be at least fluent in French, if not German and English as well. Even after Napoleon had attempted to expand his empire into the Motherland, capturing Moscow in the process, a knowledge of French was considered de rigour for acceptance among the sophisticated and the elite.

So the fact that Erast Fandorin, a lowly clerk in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Russian Police in the 1870's, would speak fluent French, English, and German would not be considered too out of the ordinary. If there is anything out of the ordinary about Fandorin, it's the fact that he is a character in a book written by contemporary Russian author Boris Akunin and not someone brought to life by Tolstoy, Gorky, or Checkov during the nineteenth century.

Written in Russian in 1998, and translated into English in 2004 by Andrew Bromfield, Akunin's first Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, could easily pass for the work of one of those great masters in tone and sensibility, while at the same time possessing a uniqueness of character and voice that sets it apart. Much like Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Allatriste novels set in seventeenth century Spain, The Winter Queen pokes affectionate fun at the quirks of style and the modes of expression used in his predecessors' masterpieces.

Akunin, (Boris Akunin is the pseudonym used by Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) aside from being a novelist is a translator of Japanese, a critic, and an essayist in his native Russia. Since he began publishing the detective novels that feature Erast Fandorin in the central role, he has become the most widely read author in Russia and enjoys almost legendary popularity. So far ten stories featuring the adventures of the young hero of The Winter Queen have been published in Russia, of which four have been translated into English with the fifth due out in February of 2008.

But every hero has to have his or her origins, and in the case of Erast they are of the humblest. Although born into a genteel family, his mother died during his infancy and his father had squandered the entire family fortune and his life in such timely a fashion as to leave young Erast an orphan at nineteen, forcing him to seek gainful employment instead of continuing his studies at the university like other's of his generation.

Having sat his exams for government service, and passed with flying colours, he was appointed to his current position at his own request. Our first impressions of him as a romantic, ignorant of the workings of the criminal world, is based on the opinion of his superior. While it may be accurate based on his relaxed and old fashioned view of the world, we quickly realize that it was biased and unfair when Fandorin takes the lead in investigating the mysterious public suicide of a young aristocrat.

Fandorin's worth seems to become apparent when his first boss is replaced by an official from St. Petersburg who immediately promotes our hero and lets him carry the investigation abroad when he discovers a trail that leads to England. Through chance and his own ingenuity Fandorin uncovers a web of intrigue and betrayal that leads into the highest chambers of powers in capital cities around the world.
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But will he survive long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery and uncover the true mastermind behind the deceit? Twice he has escaped death at the hands of the villains, and that was before he had even come close to pulling aside the curtain to reveal the hands controlling the levers. Who knows what lengths they will go to in order to prevent our stalwart from reaching the final stage of the investigation?

While readers who are not accustomed to the style being emulated by Akunin in The Winter Queen may be slightly nonplussed initially, once they accustom themselves to it they will find it quite enjoyable. Personally I've always had an affection for the naturalistic style of the nineteenth century, having some of the same predilections for adjectives and descriptive phrases, but I know most modern readers have grown used to terse texts that deliver just the facts at the expense of colour and may find the prose a shade of purple not quite to their liking. But I say to you persevere; put aside your prejudices and let yourself be seduced. A world of pleasure awaits you that you may never have experienced before.

Don't let memories of struggles to read War And Peace hold you back, Boris Akunin's work never descends to that level of turgid immobility. (And nobody has more then two names thank goodness - I spent the first half of War And Peace under the impression there were twice as many characters in the story as actually existed because of Tolstoy's propensity for diminutives, and even worse, second, third and even fourth names for some characters) He may have stylized his work in the manner of the nineteenth century but his pacing is pure twentieth and twenty-first, meaning the action moves along briskly and with enthusiasm.

If The Winter Garden is any indication of the type of fun that's in store from the rest of Boris Akunin's novels featuring Erest Fandorin, then there are hours of pleasure awaiting readers. He has somehow managed to balance the floweriness of nineteenth century naturalism with enough twentieth century realism to create a confection of wit and intelligence that won't set your teeth on edge with it sweetness nor purse your lips with its acridness. It's such a harmonious meeting of style and culture that it could serve as an example to many governments how seemingly disparate elements can coexist with ease.

If you live in Canada you can purchase a copy of The Winter Garden either directly from Random House Canada or from an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

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