Russia in Fiction has reviewed nearly a hundred books set in Russia, and read hundreds more. Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is the first novel we have reviewed that is set in Rus’, as opposed to the modern state of Russia. It takes us also into a genre not so far covered here —that of historical fantasy— and from the point of view of the many fans of that genre, this is a high quality entry point.
The Bear and the Nightingale made the shortlist for several awards of the ‘first novel’ and ‘best new writer’ type, and the Winternight trilogy which it launched was also a finalist in the Best Series category of the Hugo Awards, given annually for works of science fiction or fantasy.
Katherine Arden sets her work in medieval Russia. More specifically, in mid-14th century Muscovy — a time of boyars and peasants, of hierarchy and hardship, of paganism and Russian Orthodoxy.
Russia in Fiction’s previous review was of Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney’s 700-page thriller about Russia invading Ukraine. Given the current war scares, it seemed appropriate.
We follow up our review of Command Authority by reviewing a book that in almost every way has nothing in common with a blockbusting Clancy techno-thriller. In almost every way but one in this case, and the commonality is that Letters from Yelena is partly set in Donetsk and in Russia.
Only today President Putin recognised the Donetsk Peoples Republic, in eastern Ukraine, as an independent state. When Guy Mankowski’s Letters from Yelena was published, a decade ago, there was scarcely a hint that this region was on the brink of years of fighting that would lead up to today’s unfolding crisis.
But even if the novel had been written now, we doubt that any of these nationalist, military, geo-political questions would feature much, if at all, in Letters from Yelena. This is no international thriller, but rather a deeply personal and psychological story of one woman’s inner emotional torment. Its structure consists of an interior monologue in the mind of the eponymous heroine.
Russia is about to invade Ukraine. Or so the warnings from the UK, the United States, and various other western governments have been telling us for the past couple of months.
Whilst normal practice would be for analogous war fiction to appear after the event, Russia in Fiction has a fascination with those authors who wrote Russian history before it happened. (See our reviews of, for example, The Fall of the Russian Empire and The Red Fox).
Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney wrote about a Russian invasion of Ukraine back in 2013, before even Crimea had been incorporated into the Russian Federation. Command Authority spotted that possibility in advance. But now, in 2022, the novel’s plot seems potentially prescient once more.
A beautifully written allegorical fantasy in novella form, Glen Hirshberg takes Thomas, a middle-aged German on the cusp of fatherhood, on a short trip back to the city where he spent his wilder younger student days in the early 1990s. That city is St Petersburg. A city that itself has changed from those wilder days into a far more settled state.
So Freedom is Space for the Spirit is an allegory of life stages, looking back to the open fields of youth as the responsibility of parenthood approaches? And of the new Russia beginning to establish itself more securely after its chaotic early years?
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.
Red Plenty is a beautiful departure from the standard depictions of the Soviet Union in English-language fiction. Francis Spufford’s novel takes the reader not just to Russia in the years of Khrushchevian optimism, but into the heads of a succession of superbly drawn characters who experience those days from their different perspectives.
Front and centre are bright young believers in the Communist idea that rational scientific planning, deployed with intelligence and determined good will, represented a transformative step forward for humankind. We are not talking dull one-dimensional ideologues loaded down with notions of superpower competition, but bright individuals, excited to be alive at that time in a place where the dream of plenty seemed within reach.
once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest people in the world. For a short while it even looked —and not just to Nikita Khrushchev— as if the story might be coming true … This book is about that moment.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.