Part of the joy of taking part in things like the Transworld Book Group is that you can take a bit of a punt on the books you choose, without the risk of feeling that you’ve wasted your money if the book doesn’t work for you. It was with that in mind that I chose Twelve by Jasper Kent.
The novel is set in Russia in late 1812. Napoleon’s Grande Armée has scattered the Russian armies before it and is approaching Moscow. Captain Aleksei Danilov is part of a small unit of Russian officers, charged with spying on the French and trying to sabotage their efforts. It seems to be a losing battle until Aleksei’s friend and colleague, Dmitri engages twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe to assist them. The twelve claim that they can drive the French out of Russia. This seems to be implausible in the extreme but they soon prove to be more than up to the task. Aleksei becomes increasingly suspicious and gradually learns the truth. The twelve mercenaries are, in fact, voordalak, the vampires of Russian folklore. And Aleksei must try and defeat the plague he has unwittingly helped unleash on Russia.
I’m not generally a fan of vampire literature, with a couple of exceptions such as Dracula itself and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian but I was intrigued enough by the genre-bending concept of a historical novel blended with a vampire story to give it a go. And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not high literature but it is undeniably a page turner and has sufficient about it to lift it above your average pot-boiler.
As I enjoy historical fiction, I had felt that I might find the vampire elements of it either forced or unrealistic – if that word can be properly applied to something inherently unreal. In the event, Kent manages to combine the two elements well so that it doesn’t feel either like a vampire novel with a bit of historical flavour or like a historical novel with a bit of vampire action shoe-horned in to sex it up.
Part of the reason for this may be the nature of Kent’s vampires. The Oprichniki are not your Twilight teen-girl fantasy type of vampire. Nor are they the sexy version of so many urban fantasy novels. And they are most definitely not the evening dress clad, “I vant to trink your blut” type of vampire. Kent’s vampires are dirty, carrion-breathed, feral creatures who fit naturally into the corpse and disease ridden streets of defeated Moscow and the ravaged battlefields of Russia. Noone is in any danger of finding this lot cool or attractive.
Kent is also clever enough to balance plotlines so that, although Aleksei’s battle to get rid of the vampires is clearly the central line, we never lose sight of the historical aspect of the story and the need for the Russians to defeat Napoleon. In particular, I enjoyed the scenes of the Battle of Berezina and the retreat of the French as a historical story as much as for the confrontation between Aleksei and Iuda, his nemesis amongst the Oprichniki.
Kent also makes good use of the historical novel convention of focussing on the personal lives of his characters as well as their roles in the bigger picture by making the love affair between Aleksei and Dominikiia, a prostitute, a central part of the book. Having said that, although I appreciate that this is done to make Aleksei less of an unambiguously heroic figure, I couldn’t help feeling rather defensive on behalf of his wife, Marfa, in Petersburg, and his young son.
There isn’t actually a great deal of gore, with one particularly gruesome exception. Kent tends to allow his vampires to do their worst off-camera, leaving us with a few sense impressions and allowing our minds to fill in the blanks. This is very effective as it gives the few explicit scenes of horror much more impact and stops the book descending into a series of cartoon-like schlock horror vignettes, desensitising the reader.
Obviously, the book isn’t perfect. Some of the characterisation is a little wooden and, once Aleksei has uncovered the nature of the Oprichniki, there is a certain inevitability about the plot. The vampires, although obviously very powerful in their element, did seem to be a little too easy for Aleksei to dispose of. This was probably necessary, given the need for him to deal with twelve in a limited number of pages but it took something away from their stature as the bad guys. I also found myself falling a little out of sympathy with Aleksei, due to his habit of over-introspection and the fact that he seemed a little too quick to deal with the guilt feelings caused by his adultery.
I can probably sum Twelve up best, however, by saying that, on a lonely weekend away from my family on business, I kept wanting to read “just one more page” to find out how Aleksei was going to prevail and the twist at the end is both unexpected and deliciously subtle in its implications. Although I knew that there is a sequel, I had not realised until now that Twelve is the first in a planned series of five books spanning Russian history from 1812 up to the October Revolution of 1917. If the remaining books are up to the standard of this one, I am going to enjoy the quintet very much.