The Winter Queen
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If Pushkin Had Written Mysteries . . .
by Richard Lourie
JUST back from Moscow, I can attest to Boris Akunin's wild popularity with Russian readers. The stacks of his detective novels on sidewalk vendors' tables melted away before my eyes. On the Metro's long, slanting escalators, every 12th face was masked by the distinctive black-and-white covers of his books. In fact, Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili (cause enough for a nom de plume) and who previously translated Japanese literature for a living, has said of the origins of his own career: ''I decided to write the kind of detective novel that respectable ladies wouldn't be ashamed to read in the Metro.'' (His wife, a covert fan of the genre, used to cover hers in brown paper.)
The secret of Akunin's success is timing. The Russians have always lacked a middle -- a middle ground in politics, a middle class, a middlebrow form of literature. The lack of a stabilizing center has made for some dramatic oscillations in their history, but these days they have had it with drama and color, preferring to experiment, at least for now, with such exotic notions as making money and leading normal lives. This includes reading for distraction and entertainment instead of for ''the truth'' as once promised by both the regime and the underground. Also, for a variety of reasons, Russians are interested in reconnecting with the prerevolutionary past, whose image was so distorted by Soviet propaganda.
Akunin's novels fill all these needs. They are set in a Russia ruled by czars and written in a tongue-in-cheek 19th-century style. Each chapter is subtitled (the first, for example, is one ''in which an account is rendered of a certain cynical escapade'') and the detective at the center of the story is referred to as ''our hero,'' devices that readers will find either amusing or annoying, depending on their taste.
Aside from these tics, Akunin's prose is clean and swift, pausing only to set a scene with a few well-chosen details before resuming the hairpin curves of the action. If Pushkin had tried his hand at detective fiction, it might have turned out something like this. In fact, the narrative's combination of impulsive passion and cool ratiocination, with its touches of self-mockery and the demonic, suggests the early years of the 19th century rather than the period in which the novel takes place. (''The Winter Queen'' is set in fin-de-siècle Russia, according to a press release, and in 1876 according to the author.)
''Our hero'' is Erast Petrovich Fandorin -- young, handsome, athletic, versed in foreign languages and Eastern breathing techniques. The only son of a good family whose fortunes took a disastrous turn, now orphaned and without funds or social position, he has decided to make his career in the police, where his supervisor doesn't see much of a future for him -- not least because the mere sight of a slit throat can turn him green. But that, like nearly everything else, proves to be an illusion in this tale where the loyal turn perfidious, while the perfidious prove unsuspectedly loyal.
The action opens on a day in mid-May that ''combined the freshness of spring with the warmth of summer.'' Russia has only a few years left before the assassination of Czar Alexander II begins the dark slide to war and revolution. Society's rebellious Robespierres, a police official explains, are already ''weary of educating the peasants -- a job so long and tedious that an entire lifetime is not time enough. The bomb, the dagger and the revolver are far more interesting. I am expecting large-scale bloodshed in the very near future.''
But the bloodshed that opens this tale -- and launches Fandorin's career -- could not be less revolutionary. A rich young man has killed himself in Moscow's Alexander Gardens, having spun a single cartridge in a revolver's chamber, pulled the trigger and lost at a game said to have been thought up in the Klondike gold fields and therefore called American roulette. (As a bon vivant remarks, it's ''a shame the Americans thought of it before we did.'') The suicide note ostensibly explains the young man's motive: ''Your world nauseates me, and that, truly, is quite reason enough.'' He has left his fortune to Baroness Margaret Astair, a British educator famed for her world-wide organization of progressive orphanages, which will shift the action for a time to England.
To Fandorin's supervisor, the case presents no interest apart from the question of why the new generation holds life so cheap that it has made even suicide a fashion. Fandorin, who is both intuitive and deductive, senses that there's more to this death than meets the eye. ''There's some kind of mystery here, I swear there is! . . . Yes, that's it precisely, a mystery!'' Fandorin's hunch leads him into a maze of beauty, danger and deception where he encounters Amalia Bezhetskaya (''a veritable Cleopatra with a dense mane of hair and immense black eyes, her long neck set in a haughty curve and a slight hint of cruelty evident in the willful line of her mouth'') and a mysterious organization named after the fallen angel Azazel (the title of the book in the original Russian), each of whose members is ''a knight of the new humanity'' in competition with the political activists, whose ''bloody revolution . . . will set mankind back by several centuries.''
Akunin is quite adept at the three-card monte of plot manipulation. When an ally suddenly turns enemy, blindsiding hero and reader, precipitous action is bound to ensue. Fandorin is frequently in extreme peril, in cliffhangers that are both stylized and exciting -- if only our hero could reach the derringer hidden in his boot. . . .
Akunin keeps a delicate balance between archly toying with the conventions of the genre and employing them to create that mixture of curiosity and anxiety known as suspense. That spell can be broken if the reader is too often reminded that he is reading a book; then the illusion of life loses its fullness and becomes like one character's ''dark silhouette against the window,'' which ''looked as if it had been cut out with scissors and pasted on gray paper.''
In a work of this sort, translation plays an even more important role than usual. It's one thing if the author is intentionally reminding the reader that this is language, not life; quite another if the translator does so inadvertently. This is a sin not committed by Andrew Bromfield, who is developing into one of England's finest translators from the Russian. Still, he occasionally settles for the dictionary definition or the literal rendition, as when he has a Russian say ''I invite you,'' when what is meant is ''It's on me; I'm treating.''
Will Akunin's success travel? Predicting the book market is notoriously tricky, but my guess is that goodly numbers of readers will find this a saucy and insouciant tale of derringers and derring-do.
Richard Lourie is the author of ''Sakharov: A Biography.''
Published: 07 - 13 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 8
THE WINTER QUEEN
By Boris Akunin.
Translated by Andrew Bromfield.
I wanted to share the book with my Dutch fellow bookcrossers, so I started this national bookring (so: this book will not be send internationally). Participants are:
and back to me.
Een lijstje dat een lijst werd, toen ik even niet keek! :-)
Since I have no other book at hand I will start reading immediately!
Eh well, first chance I get at reading, that is ;-)
Update 13/12 Ah, this is what I love about reading... A book that keeps calling you any spare minute of the day :)
I am forwarding The Winter Queen to the next bookcrosser!
Strangely enough I am not as enthusiastic as I was before...
I thought I sent it already, but it seemed to be lost. Luckily, today, I found it (should be cleaning the house more often :( )
Besides that, it's a good book! The time-spirit and the Russian atmosphere is tangible (and what a fascinating era it was!) The plot is unpredictable, the ending provides just too little clearness to leave it to this one part of the series...
Thanks for sharing, yvonnep!
So now it's off to our 'Dutch dependance' in the South of Africa. Catch, Nrrdgrrl!
i'll bring it back with me when i visit the netherlands in a couple of weeks. thanks much for sending it across the world!
or, well, he's by and about the only one who is not. the story was quite slow to start and i feared being stuck for weeks on end in a russian quagmire of slowness. but once our hero is sent on his way to act on himself akunin piles action onto action. which is, in fact, a pity.
it might be because this is the first in a series but the plot is a bit overcrowded. a bit less of 007-imitation and a bit more of sticking to his pushkin pastiche would have done to book well. surely the ending was written for hollywood style trained readers? am i just old or is the zap generation a realistic target group for a thriller?
maybe it is indeed my being old, as the visuals to most of this book seemed quite directly copied from james bond films that i remember. the finale is tremendously over the top, aggravated strongly by the hasty ending of the prose. this is no cliffhanger, it's the end of the allocated pages.
so what did i think of it? mmm, not sure. i'm very fond of erast fandorin. i'm not much of a suspense fan - naturally that's no help. the indescrepancies in style (swaying between pushkin and george lazenby) bother me a lot. i fancy the prose, and the plot, but not the means. you know what? probably i should just read another volume of the series!
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vandaag niet gelukt, maar morgen gaat boris mee met de staatspost. die geen beste reputatie heeft, maar dat geldt vziw alleen het tempo. we houden het in de gaten!
edit: toch maar wel met postnet verstuurd, een stuk betrouwbaarder (afkloppen!).
Akunin apparently is a major best-seller in Russia at the moment. This book is the first in a series of mysteries, starring Erast Fandorin. Crime stories based in the late 19th century, probably not coincidentally the time when the major Russian authors published several classics.
A suicide seems exactly that to most bystanders and the police as well. Not to our hero, who tries to find out what happened before the suicide. He travels to London and St. Petersburg, bumps into a global conspiracy and solves the mystery, though a lot happens before he is that far.
I loved reading several Russian authors, but I am afraid that Akunin will not be in my list of writers I will follow in the future. The book never really had me on the edge of my seat, never managed to drag me into it.
Title: The winter queen
Author: Boris Akunin
Language: English (Orig.: Russian)
Year: 2003 (Orig.: 1998)
# Pages: 245 (8765)
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Een week lang had ik elke dag het boek in mijn tas mee naar mijn werk, maar lukte het me geen enkele keer om tijdens openingstijden van een postkantoor daar binnen te lopen. Gisteren dus eindelijk wel. Onderweg naar Plinius dus.
Off to Maupi as soon as I find the time to go to the post-office.
I gave this ring book priority not to hinder Frakke-Per's project to read authors from more or less unknown literary areas. And off it goes.
Binnenkort keert het terug naar huize yvonnep.
Released 16 yrs ago (12/17/2005 UTC) at
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Het boek zit in een gelige envelop, als je hem openmaakt, vind je hem direct.
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thank you motherof11 to send it
This book is on a journey for so long, it would be a waist to stop it now. This book will go in my W-bookring I'm hosting.
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I'm really looking forward to reading more of this series which I'm sure I will enjoy.
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Joining Flutterbies9 random bookbox.
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