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.
Predictable we may be, but Russian in Fiction couldn’t resist reviewing in succession two books with identical titles.
Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules (2008) is a very different sort of thriller from Robert Moss’s Moscow Rules (1985), in terms of both aspects of Russia in Fiction’s reviewing template.
Russia in Fiction asks two things about the books we review. What is the novel like? And how does it portray Russia? For the former, Daniel Silva is a doyen of the novel-a-year, same central character, same formula series. For the latter, when Silva deals with Russia, he tends to the straight down the line, big bad Russia approach; not uncommon at all amongst Western thriller writers, and a useful marker of how Russia has been popularly perceived at particular points of time.
And if this brief opening summary makes it sound like Russia in Fiction doesn’t think much of Daniel Silva’s writing, then we want to correct that misperception immediately.
Part one of this review is here
Part two of this review is here
A Patriot in Berlin makes an early attempt to explore what the collapse of Communism in 1989-91 means. Is it the failure of a Marxist ideal and the triumph of capitalism? Is it the replacement of internationalism by old-fashioned nationalism? Is it the persistence of religious faith in the face of empty atheism?
Part one of this review is here
Part three of this review is here
A Patriot in Berlin has some of the archetypal features of books set shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. To the fore is the presence of those ex-KGB and military types deeply concerned at the loss of Soviet power, and with it their own power. The list of novels built on similar concerns in the 1990s is long (immediately springing to mind are Tim Sebastian’s Saviours Gate, and Tony Cape’s The Last Defector).
Having elements of a formula does not make a novel formulaic, nor does dealing with common themes make it derivative. A Patriot in Berlin has striking elements of its own. It is set in post-unification Berlin in 1992-93 and is based around plans for an exhibition of Russian art forbidden in the Soviet years.
Read has a gift for encapsulating the uncertainty of these years; an uncertainty which Russia in Fiction remembers well from life in Moscow during that period.
Reading A Quiet End, DeMille’s 2015 novel with a vaguely Russian theme, sent me back to his 1988 thriller The Charm School. A very different, and frankly better, book.
The Charm School is brilliant, both as a thriller and for its knowledge of Russia and the Soviet Union —plenty of details about Soviet life, some great settings in Moscow and beyond, and a plot that is never predictable.
Le Carré books stand out from the crowd. They are atypical in the world of thrillers, and Russia-related thrillers. Not for them the fast-moving plot-based story packed with clichéd characters. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the finest Russia-related espionage novel ever written. (The Honourable Schoolboy runs it very close, but has little to do with Russia). Whether it is a thriller is a different question. It represents rather the thriller as literature.
Our Kind of Traitor has of course the main Le Carré traits, but, like several of his later books, it is a slighter work than his greatest novels.