A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Author: Russia in Fiction (Page 1 of 11)

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek (2005)

The People’s Act of Love, once read, forms impressions in the mind. Innovative in its setting, memorable in its characters, inventive in the slow-burning complexity of its plot, and deploying language with the savage precision of a cavalryman’s sword decapitating an enemy at full charge; James Meek’s novel delves into lives lived in extremis, as its characters act and love and seek to merge the two.

What is an act of love? Selfless? But selflessness is mediated through self. People do not act alone in an abstract world, be that the abstraction of Marxist ideology or of sectarian theology. Actions affect others, whether they are as close as a spouse or as distant as nameless, unborn, future generations.

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Chameleon by Mark Burnell (2002)

Voronezh, Voronezh, Voronezh. Three reviews in a row take Russia in Fiction back there. Though this central Russian city diminishes as we progress. In Black Earth City, Voronezh is the central character. In JUDAS 62 it is the location of the origin plot. In Chameleon, the subject of this post, it is merely the site of a murder that forged the reputation of Mark Burnell’s main Russian character, the oligarch-cum-mafiya boss, Kostya Komarov.

Burnell’s wonderful Petra Reuter tetralogy was published between 1999 and 2005. Here at Russia in Fiction we have re-read them several times, and have learnt to take care when picking up the first in the series (The Rhythm Section), as it usually means reading the four book series all the way through.

The series as a whole is not specifically about Russia, but in Chameleon —the second in the series— Russia comes more to the fore, in the character of Kostya Komarov.

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JUDAS 62 by Charles Cumming (2021)

Charles Cumming is at the forefront of contemporary British thriller writers, and is on a bit of a roll at the moment. JUDAS 62 is his eleventh novel. The majority of these —with The Trinity Six being one of three exceptions— are not really Russia-in-fiction territory. But JUDAS 62 most definitely is.

‘Big bad Russia’ is back as the main enemy, and a large part of JUDAS 62 is set in the Russian city of Voronezh in 1993.

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Black Earth City: A year in the heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson (2001)

Charlotte Hobson’s account of her year as a Russian language student in Voronezh in 1991-92 is Russia in Fiction’s favourite memoir about Russia. Some time in the next few months, we will add a post here about other memoirs, but this one deserves a post all of its own.

Of course Black Earth City does not really belong on the Russia in Fiction blog, as it is not fiction; hence this post’s appearance in the ‘Editorials et al’ section and the fact that we are not counting the memoir in our path to reviewing one hundred books that portray Russia in fiction.

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A Clear Road To Archangel by Geoffrey Rose (1973)

Russia in Fiction has noted before that when you choose your reading based on whether a novel engages with Russia or not, you end up reading genres that might otherwise have passed you by.

Geoffrey Rose’s A Clear Road To Archangel sits on the edge of such a situation. It is a thriller and such are this blog’s staple diet, even as we endeavour to vary the menu with regularity. But beyond the thriller meta-genre, A Clear Road To Archangel fits into the so far neglected ‘man on the run’ sub-genre.

The book’s unnamed first person narrator is a British spy, caught up in the convulsions of revolutionary and Civil War Russia, and trying to find his way to Archangel (Arkhangelsk) in the far north. If he can get there, he is confident of rescue by British forces or their allies.

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Need To Know by Karen Cleveland (2018)

In the flurry of Russia-related thrillers published in 2018, Karen Cleveland was a new name. She is one of those ex-security service officers (in her case, CIA) who bring a degree of inside knowledge to their writing. Although, this in itself is no guarantee of authenticity and quality; as the late Jason Matthews’s outdated portrayals of Russia illustrated, for example in Red Sparrow.

The plot of Need To Know is centred around a Russian sleeper agent who lives a normal happy family life with his wife and two young children in the Washington area; a convincing and likeable young American guy, going by the name of Matt.

The original twist is that Matt’s wife, Vivian, works for the CIA, is tasked with uncovering Russian sleeper agents, and discovers that her husband is a spy.

And before anyone complains of spoilers (never a complaint that Russia in Fiction has that much truck with anyway), all of the above is the set-up. It is in the blurb, it is in the first chapter.

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The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming (2011)

‘Nobody knows more about Russia than you’ (p. 33). So Dr Sam Gaddis, the hero of Charles Cumming’s fifth novel, is told.

Part-way through The Trinity Six, Russia in Fiction was less impressed with Gaddis, being more inclined along the lines of

‘Blimey – Dr Sam Gaddis gives academics a bad name. He is so slow, as if he’s never read a thriller in his life. Every coincidence that happens, he accepts unquestioningly. He completely fails to read the situation.’

Happily Gaddis improved, and with him the novel, which is a relatively complex example of the ‘secrets from history which must never come to light’ genre.

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Motherland by G.D. Abson (2017)

G. D. (Garry) Abson’s first book is a cracking crime novel, set in contemporary St Petersburg and shaped around the character of a maverick female detective, Natalya Ivanova.

In Abson’s portrayal of Russia, for ‘maverick’, read ‘not corrupt’. Ivanova’s efforts to solve crime —in this case the disappearance of a young woman— are hindered as much by obstructive, careerist, regime-loyal colleagues as they are by the normal stuff such as lack of evidence and the deceptive nature of the criminal class.

One strap-line we have seen used for Motherland goes like this.

‘Natalya Ivanova does for St Petersburg what Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko did for Soviet-era Moscow.’

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The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (2010)

The Betrayal is not the first book reviewed on the Russia in Fiction blog that is set in Leningrad in the opening years of the 1950s. That honour goes to City of Ghosts, which is set in 1951. Helen Dunmore’s novel takes place a year later, in 1952.

In both cases, the key fact in relation to setting is that Stalin was still alive.

Before Stalin’s death in 1953, the feeling that the demise of his repressive dictatorship was long overdue was particularly keenly felt in Leningrad, a ‘hero city’ that suffered more than most during the Second World War.

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