A book blog about Russia in English-language fiction

Category: 2010s setting (Page 1 of 3)

Fatal Ally by Tim Sebastian (2019)

After more than two decades silence, a journalist who was once expelled from the Soviet Union has made contact. With a resurgent Russia back on the scene, his knowledge of how things used to be in Moscow could once again be useful.

But why was he so silent for so long? Can this really be the same man? And what do the things he learnt nearly 40 years ago tell us about Russia today?

You could be forgiven for thinking that these opening sentences sound like the back cover blurb for Fatal Ally. They are not. They are about its author, Tim Sebastian.

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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 Although, this in itself is no guarantee of authenticity and quality; as the late Jason Matthews’s outdated portrayals of Russia illustrated, for example in Red Sparrow.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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Death in Siberia by Alex Dryden (2011)

The Cold War is dead, but Russia’s ambitions continue to rage.

So proclaims the front cover blurb of this 2011 thriller, in a bombastic non sequitur that typifies the return of ‘big bad Russia’ to Western thriller writers’ armoury at the end of this century’s first decade.

The Cold War ended at the end of the 1980s. For a decade or more, if thriller writers wrote about Russia, they wrote of decline and gangsterism. Then as a recovering Russia reasserted itself on the international stage, it once more became the ‘other’ against which Western spies and governments fought.

Russia in Fiction reckons that this return to a portrayal of Russia in these terms can be dated to around 2010. Alex Dryden was one of the earliest authors to embrace it.

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Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy (2015) – part two

Part one of this review is here.

Billionaire Russian businessman Roman Gorsky lives a life beyond imagining in terms of material wealth. Anything he wants, he buys. In London —Chelsea to be precise— he is converting a former barracks into a super-luxurious home, designed by the world’s leading modern architect.

First person narrator Nick —like many in this novel, the young Serbian is an immigrant to international London— works in a bookshop and is commissioned by Gorsky to stock what will be ‘the best private library in Europe’.

But can money buy love and happiness? Gorsky is certainly giving that a go. Both the location of his mansion, and the content of his library, are aimed at winning over Natalia, a beautiful Russian married to Englishman Tom Summerscale.

But Gorsky is too sophisticated a book to be a simple ‘money can’t buy you everything’ morality tale.

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Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy (2015) – part one

Part two of this review is here.

Great wealth, hedonistic parties, thwarted love. A young man who lives next door to an extraordinarily wealthy figure into whose world he is drawn.

That same extraordinarily wealthy figure is seeking to win back a girl whom he had loved and lost, who lives across the way from him, but is now married to someone else.

Nick, Tom, Daisy, Jordan Baker.

Gorsky is a reimagined version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby.

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Monstrum by Donald James (1997)

Donald James was a quite brilliant thriller writer. One of Russia in Fiction’s all-time favourites; he died exactly 13 years ago today, on 28th April 2008.

The distinctive trait of his Russia-related novels was to set them in a plausible yet radical near-future. Monstrum was written during the chaotic mid-1990s in Russia. James did in novel form what many Russia-watching analysts sought to do in methodical, scenario-planning form. He took current trends and extended them.

Except Donald James’s version involves a serial killer, love affairs, and betrayal.

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The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (2014)

The Betrayers is set over a period of a couple of days, but unpacks several lifetimes of issues surrounding forgiveness, right decision-making, relationships, religious faith, the contingent nature of morality, success, and what it means to be a good person.

David Bezmozgis has excelled with this literary novel. Its physical setting is Crimea. As chance would have it, by the time of publication Russia had annexed Crimea from Ukraine, giving a certain unintended contemporaneity to The Betrayers. But the Crimea written of here is not tinged with any of its post-2014, post-reincorporation into Russia, resonance. Rather this Crimea, specifically Yalta and Simferopol, is portrayed as the run-down, faded and forgotten, former holiday haunt of the Soviet era.

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December by James Steel (2009)

Here at the Russia in Fiction blog, we are interested in how Russia is portrayed in English-language fiction. Whether that fiction is any good comes into the reviewing too of course, but the tropes and plot devices and imagery and assumptions of a remaindered thriller can still fascinate as insights into popular perceptions of Russia at any given time.

James Steel’s December serves as a great example for taking the ‘how Russia is seen’ temperature. From title and front cover blurb, at the end of this century’s first decade, that temperature is low.

A NEW COLD WAR HAS HIT EUROPE …

dECEMBER, jAMES STEEL
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