Category Archives: Russia

Baba Yaga is Back, and She’s not Happy

51i9PlNNO8L._AA160_The Sweeper and the Storm
Alma T. C. Boykin
ebook short story $0.99

Alexi is back, but so is Baba Yaga. She’s a bit miffed about the way he ruined her plans in the previous story (reviewed here). This particular tale involves Alexi’s unit doing a disaster relief drill in rural Kansas in October. That’s not the season for either blizzards or tornados. But both show up.

Alexi finds that he has to stop more than just the old witch. There’s a darker power somewhere in the background. That’s where the real danger lies.

This is the second story in this series. It’s not a stand-alone, nor is everything resolved. There’s a bigger story-arc at play here. Boykin has obviously put some thought into where she’s going with her tale. In the previous story, we saw Alexi and his relationship to his Babushka. Now we see him interact with the rest of the men in his unit. We also see him struggle and overcome the situation in which he finds himself, although the resolution isn’t entirely happy.

There’s more than just Russian folklore involved. Native American elements show up as well, and I suspect that they will become more prominent with time.

Oh, and the last line made me want to read the next story in the series. I can’t wait to see how that plot line is going to develop.

Why Did the Chicken Footed House Cross the Road?

chicken feetWhen Chicken Feet Cross the Highway
Alma T. C. Boykin
ebook only $0.99

The title of this post may sound like a joke, but when Alexander Zolnerovich saw the house with chicken feet cross the interstate while he was stuck in a Denver traffic jam, he didn’t find anything funny about it.

The poor guy, an Army sergeant, is on his way to visit his grandmother in Colorado.  He’s not looking to tangle with one of the worst characters from Russian folklore.  But when he gets to his grandmother’s house and finds it deserted, he realizes he doesn’t have much choice.

I found this to be an entertaining short story.  Boykin knows Russian folklore, and it shows in the story’s structure.  I don’t know much Russian folklore myself, but I know enough to follow most of the references here.

A modern, and less capable writer, would have a soldier come storming in, guns blazing, to rescue to the old woman.  Not so here.  Alex takes his time, listens to his grandmother’s cat (Ivan the Purrable), uses his wits, and basically enters a Russian folktale, where he ends up doing chores for Baba Yaga.  Only he doesn’t do them exactly as he’s told.  This was in many ways the most enjoyable part of the story.  In many folktales and fairy tales, the flow of time isn’t…I guess you could say isn’t linear.  Simple tasks take hours.  Events that should take great amounts of time pass quickly.  Something like that happens in the second part of the story.  It added a deliciously weird tone to things.

This is the first work by Boykin that I’ve read.  She  has a number of books out, and based on internal clues, I suspect this isn’t the first tale of Alex Zolnerovich.

Oh, and to answer to the question, why did the chicken footed house cross the road?  You’ll have to read the story to find out.

She Takes After Her Parents More Than Her Brother Does

The Third Section
Jasper Kent
Pyr Books
Trade Paper, 479 p., $17.95

Okay, I know what I want for Christmas.  A time machine.  That way I can go forward in time and pick up copies of the next two volumes of the Danilov Chronicles and read them.  Now.  Because I don’t want to wait.  Jasper Kent says on his website that the next two books won’t be out until 2013 (provisional title, The People’s Will) and 2014 (provisional title The Last Oprichnik).  The world could end before then (like next year, maybe?), and then what would I do?

Oh, well, nothing much I can do about publication schedules.  Instead let me encourage you to start reading this series if you haven’t already.  Each book is different than the last, but if Kent continues to maintain the quality he has so far, this series will be greater than the sum of its parts.

And if you haven’t read either of the preceding books, Twelve and Thirteen Years Later, reviewed here and here, this review will contain spoilers for those two but not The Third Section.

In the earlier books in this series, we saw a lot of vampire hunting. While there’s some in this book, with Kent again coming up with some clever ways to dispatch the undead, the focus here is more on intrigue.  Do you remember how Shakespeare would create the most convoluted plots where the characters would misinterpret words or events or deliberately mislead each other?  And how those misunderstandings added to the tension and suspense?  In The Third Section Jasper Kent has crafted a web of misunderstanding and deliberate deceit of Shakespearean proportions.  Do you remember how Shakespeare used this trick in both his tragedies and his comedies?  Jasper Kent hasn’t written a comedy.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Crimean War and takes place over about a year and a half, roughly.  There are three viewpoint characters.

First, the lady, Tamara Valentinovna Komarova, daughter of Alexsei and Domnikiia.  She’s in her early 30s, has lost her husband and children, and is now working for the Third Section, also known as the Tsar’s secret police.  She’s just returned to Moscow from Saint Petersburg and is given an undercover assignment, running a brothel.  The same brothel where her mother met her father.  One of the prostitutes is named Raisa, and she helped Iuda escape from Chufut Kalye in 1825.  One of the others is about to be murdered in a manner similar to a murder that occurred in the same building in 1812.

The man in the secret police Tamara directly answers to is named Yudin, but like some of Tolkien’s characters, he’s known by other names.  Richard Cain.  Vasiliy Makarov.  Iuda.

Dmitry Alexseivich Danilov is a captain in the army, helping defend Sevastopol on the Black Sea.  When the book opens, he’s about to get an unwelcome visit from some “friends” of his father’s.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot.  I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises.  And there are plot twists aplenty, almost all the way to the last page.

So rather than ruin the pleasure of experiencing the twists, let’s talk about how Kent handles the characters.  This is the first time we’ve seen things from Iuda’s point of view, although he got considerable stage time in Thirteen Years Later.  Kent does a good job of showing us Iuda’s motives while not turning him into a sympathetic character.  Instead, we have a deeper understanding of how evil he truly is and how he was a monster long before he became a vampire.  Yudin, as he’s referred to here, is a master of manipulation, deceit, and betrayal.  There were times I was reminded of Hannibal Lector, the way he pulled strings.

As a result of losing her husband and children, Tamara has become obsessed with the idea that she has a set of parents who are her true parents and the parents she’s grown up with are deceiving her.  This is a common fantasy of small children who are unhappy with some aspect of their home lives, but it’s not typically an idea entertained by a grown woman.  In this case, though, we know it’s correct.  Alexsei and Domnikiia left Tamara in the care of the Komarovs when they were exiled to Siberia at the end of Thirteen Years Later.

Finally, there’s Dmitry, who will turn fifty before the book is over.  In Thirteen Years Later, he was incensed that his father was betraying his mother by having an affair with, and a child by, Domnikiia.  The years have mellowed him somewhat, or at least caused him to understand his father’s motivation and forgive him.  Dmitry is his father’s son, especially after he returns injured from the war and his behavior in many ways follows down the same paths as Alexsei’s.  Ultimately Dmitry proves that he isn’t the man his father was, and in some surprising ways.

The contrast between Tamara and Dmitry is fascinating.  Both of them end up following in their father’s footsteps, and in Tamara’s case, her mother’s as well.  Dmitry is an officer in the cavalry, although he is only a major and hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as his father did by his early forties.  Tamara is both an agent for the Tsar and a prostitute.  It’s this contrast that the title of this review refers to.  Tamara excels at both her parents’ professions, secret agent and prostitute, while Dmitry is neither the decorated soldier his father was nor the accomplished vampire hunter.  How the children end up fulfilling their parents’ legacies, or fail to, is what makes this book such a gripping read. 

Of course, there’s another character, one who doesn’t take an active part in the events, but who nevertheless casts a long shadow over them, and whose influence on the events and people is almost palpable at times.  Alexsei Ivanovich Danilov.  This was another aspect of the novel that I found so captivating, how Alexsei’s actions from decades before had such an influence and how small details from the earlier books took on greater significance. 

With this latest installment of the Danilov Chronicles, Jasper Kent adds to the depth of the series and sets up the conflicts in the remaining two.  This series is a generational story of a family, their successes and failures, and there are still two books to go.  Family history affects multiple generations.  That’s certainly proving to be the case with this series. 

Like I said in the opening paragraph, I can’t wait for the rest.

Regarding a Movie About a Barbarian Seeking to Avenge the Murder of His Family

I saw a movie over the Labor Day weekend.  It might be of interest to some of you.  The movie was filmed somewhere in Eastern Europe, and the scenery, particularly of the mountains, is gorgeous.

The storyline goes something like this.  There’s this young boy in a tribal village and these raiders swoop down and kill everyone, except this boy, who is the only one to survive.  He watches his friends and family killed.  The leader of the raiders takes a sword that the boy’s father has made.

After he grows up, the boy, now a mighty fighter, goes looking for the man who killed his family.  To pass the time until he finds him, he has a hobby of freeing slaves.  Eventually he finds the man who killed his family.  This man now has a grotesque mask and he’s seeking a particular young woman who is descended from a line of kings.  He needs her blood perform this ritual in which he raises this dark sorceress or goddess or something.  The barbarian is protecting her, but she gets kidnapped by the villain.  There’s a final fight in a citadel and the villain has the princess chained in a spread eagle position to perform the ritual, and there’s this fight on this bridge over a chasm, and…

…and the name of this barbarian…just in case you were wondering,…it isn’t “Conan”.

The name of the movie isn’t Conan the Barbarian, either. The movie I’m talking about is Wolfhound, and in spite of the way I used the common plot elements to make it sound like the recent Conan movie, there’s not much similarity between the two.  Wolfhound is a far superior film.  Not perfect by any means, but far superior.

It’s a Russian film, and stars Aleksandr Bukharov in the title role.  It also stars Oksana Akinshina as Princess Knesinka Helen.  I didn’t catch all the names of the characters, and the credits aren’t in English on my copy, so I’ll not try to list the entire cast.  They’re listed here and here if you’re interested.

And before we go any further, let me state that I am not, repeat, NOT saying that anyone associated with Conan the Barbarian (2011) plagiarized Wolfhound in any way, nor do I mean to imply such.

Rather, my point is what two different production companies can do with similar source material.  I took the common plot elements from the two movies to use in the lead-in for this post.  There are some major differences that bear mentioning.  Wolfhound’s companions actually do something useful.  (His name, which is the only one he has, comes from the fact that the man he’s hunting has a wolf’s head tattooed on the back of his hand.)  The magic is often understated and subtle, and in contrast to the magic in Conan, used for healing. There are gods and godesses (as near as I could figure out) directly helping Wolfhound, with the primary goddess encouraging him in a path of love and forgiveness at one point.  At least I think so.  Not something you would see in a Conan story.

The movie, the version I have at any rate, had English dialogue overdubbed.  It was perfectly understandable most of the time.  Unfortunately, the sound track overpowered the dialogue in a few places.  Since everyone else in the house was trying to sleep, there was a limit to how loud I could turn the sound up, and as a result I missed a few bits of dialogue here and there.  I’m not sure who the woman (goddess perhaps?) who appears more than once to give Wolfhound aid and advice actually is.  But like I said, this is a Russian movie, and her identity might have been obvious to the original audience.  It wasn’t hard to figure out her part in the story, though. 

The comparisons to Conan are pretty depressing. There is more action, more (and better) fighting, more philosophy, more romance, and more story in Wolfhound than in Conan.  In fact, the only thing Conan had more of was bare breasts. 

As I said, Wolfhound is not without a few flaws.  Several of the fight scenes were choppy and poorly edited.  Wolfhound has a pet bat which gets directly involved in the fighting at the end, something I found to be ridiculous.  There’s scene when the princess’s party rescues a woman accused of witchcraft or something along those lines which was a bit over the top.  The movie is based on a Russian novel, and from what little I’ve been able to discover, the film and the book don’t have a lot in common.  Some things seem to be universal in the film world.

But even with the flaws, it’s a much better film than Conan.  The special effects are good; not great, but good.  The story hangs together better.  The characters don’t, for the most part, act in illogical or inconsistent ways.  They grow and change, but their motivations are understandable. 

And it’s definitely a Russian movie.  Sacrifice and fate are concepts that are addressed more than once.  The outlook is bleaker and more fatalistic in places than even the darkest US film.  For instance, the city of Galirad, home of Princess Knesinka Helen, lies under a curse and breaking the curse comes to play a large role in the story.  The city is cold and overcast, even though it’s summer.  As the Princess leaves for her wedding to a nobleman, the contrast between the city the meadow outside the walls is striking.  It makes the motivation for what some of the characters do later understandable.

Wolfhound gives us a glimpse of what Conan could have been, what it should have been.  Sadly, I doubt anyone in Hollywood is paying attention.

I’ve included a trailer from YouTube. There are several of them, and this was the best I could find.

The American Invasion of Russia

Paul McNamee is the guest blogger today over at Home of Heroics.  His post is about the American invasion of Russia at the end of World War I.  I suspect many of you are asking, “What invasion?  I didn’t know America invaded Russia.  When and how did this happen?”  Read Paul’s post and find out. 

And don’t forget to comment.  Everyone who comments on one of this week’s posts (posted Monday, Wednesday, or Friday) will be entered in a drawing to win a limited edition copy of Rage of the Behemoth.  It’s a fantastic anthology, so comment early and comment often. 

Sins of the Fathers

Thirteen Years Later
Jasper Kent
Pyr Books, 511 p., $17.00

…He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.
                                                    Num. 14:18b (NAS)

I recently reviewed Twelve, the first book in what is being called the Danilov Quintet.  In that review, I stated that I thought Twelve was one of the best vampire novels I had read in a long time.  So the question to be addressed now is:  Does Thirteen Years Later live up to the standard of Twelve?

The answer is Yes.  With a slight caveat.  This is a different book, not simply a rehash of the previous one, and as a result needs to be evaluated by slightly different standards.  This book goes in new places, breaks new ground, and basically messes with you.  I can’t tell you exactly what that last phrase means without giving too much away.  Suffice it to say there are some unexpected twists.  Certain things both the reader and Aleksei Danilov thought were true… well, they aren’t.

I have no intention of including any spoilers from Thirteen Years Later in this review.  In a few instances I’ll use some phrases that will have deeper meaning for those who have read the book.  If I’m successful, those who haven’t read the book won’t pick up on them.  I’ll try not to give any spoilers for Twelve, but I’m writing from the assumption you’ve read the first book.  I realize that might not be the case for everyone, so I’ll try err on the side of caution as much as I can.  You have been warned.

Thirteen Years Later opens in the late summer/early fall of 1825.  Aleksei is now a colonel.  His son Dmitry is grown and preparing to go into the army.  What Dmitry really wants to do is be a piano player.  He’s good but not that good.  He knows it; his father knows it.  To make matters worse, they each are aware that the other knows Dmitry doesn’t have what it takes to be a concert pianist.  Relations between father and son are rather strained.  Not surprising since Aleksei has spent so much of Dmitry’s childhood and teenage years away on some type of mission.  As we find out, it’s not just in music career vs. military career that the men differ.  They have more fundamental differences that will have long term consequences.  Kent does a remarkable job of showing the complexity of Aleksei’s and Dmitry’s relationship, with all its mutual love, respect, distrust, anger, and tension.  The author shows Aleksei’s relationship with his son in the same depth he showed Aleksei’s relationship with his lover Domnikiia in Twelve, once again treating the relationship as a living, dynamic thing.  Too often relationships in novels tend to be static things, with little or no change through life-shaking events or over long periods of time.  All of Aleksei’s relationships are dynamic.  None of them are the same on the last page as they were on the first page.  It’s this, much more than the vampire hunting, that makes Jasper Kent’s novels so compelling.

Aleksei’s mission as the book opens is infiltrating the Northern Society, a group of would-be rebels composed of radical poets and dissatisfied army officers.  Aleksei is passing himself off as one of them in order to report back to Tsar Aleksandr the names of those who have been plotting against him.  He has also discovered his wife Marfa has taken a lover, but he doesn’t know who.  All he has is the name Vasya.

Spoiler Warning:  Skip this paragraph and the next if you haven’t read or finished Twelve. The book is divided into three parts.  In the first part, Maksim Sergeivich, Aleksei’s friend and fellow spy from the first book, is still very much on his mind.  Aleksei returns home one night to find a coded message on the walls of his house, telling him to be in a certain place at a certain time on a particular day.  There were only four men who knew the code,  Maks, Vadim, and Dmitry, the other members of Aleksei’s unit in Twelve, and they’re all dead.  The note is signed with the initial Maks used to identify himself.  The location of the meeting is where Maks died.

Dmitry comes home to find his father staring at the message.  He helps Aleksei clean the message off the walls and accompanies him to Moscow, reporting for duty a few days early.  And so Dmitry becomes involved in his father’s world.  It’s not the last time their worlds will intersect and at times collide.

And that’s pretty much all I’m going to say about plot details concerning Aleksei’s domestic relationships, except to say there are more relationships than I’ve mentioned here.  (You’re probably wondering what became of Domnikiia, aren’t you?  Read the book and find out.)  The second part of the novel involves Aleksei attempting to protect the Tsar while following up on what he learns concerning the voordalaki in the first part.  The third is when all the chickens come home to roost, and Aleksei learns it’s possible to do a job both too well and not well enough.

Twelve was written in the first person, from Aleksei’s point of view.  Thirteen Years Later is in third person with multiple viewpoints.  While I initially missed the more detailed development of Aleksei’s character, it didn’t take me long to appreciate the different approach.  Like I said, this is a different book.  The scope of the characters is expanding, as is the threat some of them represent.  Events are set in motion here that will definitely have repercussions down the years. Thirteen Years Later is more epic in scope.  Both books are very Russian in their tones and outlooks.  Especially the final chapters of TYL

And that’s what I meant by judging TYL by different standards that Twelve.  It sets out to accomplish different things.  And it succeeds.  In spades.  While different, it’s every bit as good as its predecessor.

Tsar Aleksandr I

I opened this review with a quote of a partial verse of Scripture.  That verse isn’t in the novel, but the events in the novel certainly brought it to mind.  Aleksei set events in motion in Twelve that will have consequences for his descendants for more than one generation.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Jasper Kent goes with this.

Part of the plot involves certain things Tsar Pyotr I (the Great) set in motion.  Kent, or the publilsher, or someone was kind enough to include a partial Romanov family tree.  There are four generations shown (there were roughly five generations) between Pyotr I and Aleksandr I, who is Tsar at the beginning of TYL.  There are four generations between Nikolai I, who is Tsar at the end of TYL, and Nikolai II, the last Tsar. The iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations, at least in the case of Pyotr and Aleksandr.  We still have a few Danilov generations to go, but Dmitry has already begun to experience the consequences of his father’s choices.  I suspect there are more consequences to come, and not just for Dmitry. 

This book is the second of the Danilov Quintet, meaning there are three more to go.  Kent is going to end the series with Nikolai II (make sure you watch the YouTube videos on his website since Kent discusses some of the things coming up).  I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do with Rasputin.  He will certainly have to carry the story onward with other generations of Danilovs, and by extension, Romanovs.  Aleksei is in his 40s in this book, and he’s beginning to feel his age. 

The next book, according to Kent’s website, is due out in the UK this August, but I’ve not seen a release date for the US edition.  I may have to special order it.  I have no idea when the last two are due to be published.  Just because a set of books is planned doesn’t mean they will appear in rapid succession, something fans of George R. R. Martin are painfully aware of.  No matter, I’m going to buy and read the rest of the books regardless of how long I have to wait.  These are books that stick with you.  I found myself thinking about Twelve for days after I finished it.  It’s been over 48 hours since I closed Thirteen Years Later, and I still can’t get the ending out of my mind.  It’s a rare book that has that kind of effect on me.

This one, if you can’t tell, is worth reading.

The next three books will not have 14, 15, and 16 in the titles.  Still, I’ll try to continue the theme of titling my reviews with some sort of family relationship.  Let’s see, I’ve used daughters and fathers.  In the meantime, I’m going to study Russian history.

Not Your Daughter’s Vampires

Jasper Kent
446p., $17.00

I generally avoid new offerings in the vampire genre the way vampires avoid garlic.  Not that I don’t like vampires.  I kinda do.  I just don’t like what Stephanie Meyers and her imitators have made of them.  Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer my undead to be evil.  They can be alluring to some of the characters because that adds to the danger and suspense in the tale, but as long term or safe romantic interests, no thanks.

I picked this book up on the basis of the cover.  It’s eye catching, and the blurb about the story being set against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.  This is one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and one of the best vampire books I’ve read in years.  The vampires are vile, evil, not to be trusted, and for the most part, not romantic.  They don’t glitter in sunlight, they burst into flame, and they have no romantic appeal.  Just the opposite, in fact.  In other words, these are not your daughter’s vampires.  These are the real thing.  So to speak.

The story is told from the point of Alexsei Danilov, a captain in the Russian cavalry and a member of a quartet of officers who undertake a number of covert missions.  The story opens late in the summer of 1812, when the Russian army is in full retreat before the invading French.  In a desperate attempt to slow them down, one of the four, Dmitry has invited a group of men from Wallachia to work with them behind the French lines.  Dmitry met these while fighting the Turks, although he is somewhat reticent to share any details.

The leader of the group is called Zmyeevich, which literally means “son of the serpent.”   It’s also the name of a villain in a Russian folk tale, one carried on a bench by twelve men.  Zmyeevich introduces the men with the names of the Twelve Apostles.  Then he leaves for home.  Of the men left, Iuda is the one with the most personality.  The rest are rather withdrawn and taciturn.  The four Russians nickname them the Oprichiniki, after Ivan the Terrible’s personal guards and enforcers. 

The Russians each agree to take a group of three and slip behind the French lines to wreak what havoc they can.  It doesn’t take long for Maks, the youngest of the group, and Alexsei to figure out something is wrong, very wrong.  It also doesn’t take long for the Oprichniki to insist that they work alone.  And at night.

I’ll not spoil all of the surprises, and there are plenty.  Obviously the Oprichniki are vampires, come to feed at Dmitry’s invitation, protected by the general bloodshed and chaos of war.  This is a rich, complex novel, with suprising depth and philosophy in it.  Much is made of whether or not the end justifies the means, although Kent never has his characters state it in those terms.  There is a good deal of action and bloodshed, but at its core, this is a thinking man’s vampire hunt.  And the philosophy isn’t limited to just hunting and war.  It also extends to Alexsei’s growing love for Dmonikiia, a prostitute he began frequenting because she was said to resemble Napoleon’s wife.  Theirs is a complex relationship that deals with the fact that Alexsi has a wife and son in St. Petersburg that he still loves and doesn’t want to leave.

Also, I wrote in a previous post that I found books in which the author summarizes large blocks of time passing to be dull.  There are portions of the novel in which the characters, and consequently the readers, have to wait for things to happen, whether it’s someone showing up for a meeting or wounds healing or whatever.  Kent makes those passage interesting and gives the feel that things are happening, even when there isn’t much in the way of physical action taking place.  I’ve got to go back and study how he does that.  So should some writers I could (but won’t) name.

When we finally find out how Dmitry met the Oprichniki in Wallachia, I got the impression that Zmyeevich is really Dracula.  The fictional character Dracula is believed to to have been based on the Historical Vlad III, often called Vlad the Impaler in reference to his favorite means of execution.  It’s interesting that Zmyeevich (which is a Russian name) is said to mean “son of the serpent” because Dracula can either mean Son of the Dragon or Son of the Devil.  The Devil is called both a serpent and a dragon in the Bible (Rev. 12:9).

Once Aleksei realizes that the Oprichniki are voordalaki, and that there is some truth to the stories his grandmother used to scare him with, things really get interesting.  He and the Oprichniki, led by Iuda, begin a deadly game of cat and mouse in which each side tries to be the hunter rather than the prey.  It’s at this point that a lesser writer would let the book degenerate into a stake-fest.  Instead Kent pulls out all the stops in the area of creativity.  Just because the voordalaki are undead doesn’t mean they can’t scheme.  The scenes of vampire hunting, and being hunted by vampires, which often take place simultaneously, are some of the best I’ve ever read.  They’re certainly some of the most clever.

All I will say about the ending is that there is more than one kind of victory (physical, moral, psychological), and just because you have one doesn’t mean your opponent doesn’t have one of the others.  The sequel (Thirteen Years Later) is out, and I’ll be starting it as soon as I finish the novel I’m reading.  (Both of which I’ll write about here.)  If you haven’t read Twelve, you should.