Book Review: Boris Akunin, Pelagia and the Red Rooster

I’ve reviewed a couple of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin detective/thriller stories here before, but this is my first encounter with his other detective hero, an Orthodox nun, Sister Pelagia. The period is the same, obviously one Akunin has researched and feels at home in, the last thirty years or so of Tsarist Russia. I can imagine that present-day Russian readers feel a fascination for this period.

Fandorin is an official whose duties lead to him investigating or trying to prevent crimes, or, later, an ex-official who has retained detective interests. That a nun is a detective demands a greater leap of imagination, more actually than for England’s and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, whose pastoral duties brought him into contact with crime. One thing I noted was that for a nun, Pelagia didn’t seem very religious, in contrast to Father Brown.

The story moves between the Russian Empire and Palestine. There is a fascinating picture of pilgrims, Jewish settlers and others travelling from Russia to Palestine. I would think the picture of Palestine in that period is quite accurate, but I’m not well-qualified to say. The story begins with a double murder and revolves around attempts to kill a mysterious prophet – but Pelagia herself becomes an assassin’s target. Some of the dramatic physical action in the Fandorin stories is far-fetched, a bit like reading a transcript of a James Bond film rather than the more restrained and credible original novel. To a degree that’s true here too.

The mystery is well-maintained. Whoever wants the prophet and Pelagia dead is clearly rich and powerful – but who is it and what is the motive?

A considerable sadistic element becomes evident. Innocent and likeable characters get brutally murdered one after the other. This creates shock, but I wonder about the need for shock after shock after shock. Two characters have their eyes poked out in separate incidents. We are introduced to a nobleman who collects, amongst other things, female body parts. He’s meant to be a monster, but again I have some doubts, at least about the degree of the horror.

The ending reveals a lot more about the prophet, which I find to be sensitively and credibly done, but introduces some dubious magicality which doesn’t, for me, sit very well with the rest of the story.

Well, what do I say? Well-written; fascinating much of the time; but unlike the Fandorin books, I don’t recommend it.

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Book review: Boris Akunin, “She Lover of Death”

Another Boris Akunin crime mystery, set in Imperial Russia, this time with the year given – 1900. Erast Fandorin investigates a series of suicides linked to a society of death-lovers, but all is not, of course, as it seems and the suicides are being helped on their way by anything from suggestion to murder – but by whom?

Commenting on my first experience of the Fandorin series, I said the chief character was oddly elusive. That was written in the third person but from the points of view of just two people, Fandorin and his revolutionary adversary. Interestingly, in this book where the story is told largely by another character, I find out more about Fandorin. Why? I need to think more about that.

The book is well-written and fast-paced, both weird and credible, with surprises at the end: it’s a genuine mystery in that it sets out a puzzle with clues. The translation must have been a tough job, given that poetry plays a large role, people puzzle over the hidden significance of words and Fandorin’s Japanese servant is quoted extensively struggling with Russian pronunciation.

The setting just fourteen years from the outbreak of the First World War and seventeen from the revolution, makes one easily slip into believing the characters are real and wondering what happened to them. It makes them seem like figures on some newsreel or security film, going about their business oblivious (unlike us) of the dramatic and bloody events about to happen.

Book reviews: “And Another Thing” and “The State Counsellor”

Thanks to Hannah, whose blog I follow, for giving me the idea of blogging book reviews, though I don’t expect to blog as many as she does (she’s a university student of English, so I have an excuse).

I could post them on my blogspot blog (http://sibathehat.blogspot.com), which is meant for pretty well everything that isn’t poetry, but after all, books are literature and I mean to review mainly fiction – so here goes here.

AND ANOTHER THING by EOIN COLFER

This is a continuation of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” humorous science fiction series. Adams had left this series apparently finished and gone on to other projects, but it seems there was some discussion of a further book in the series, perhaps because the previous one had such a depressing ending. It didn’t happen because Adams died suddenly. Penguin Books got Colfer, whom I had not heard of (he’s written a successful children’s SF series) to take up the torch.

I took a while to be persuaded.  Colfer had succesfully imitated Adams’ style, but the frenetic logically counter-logical anarchic fantasy humour seemed to be lacking or laboured. Then, around the arrival of Zaphod Beeblebrox at Asgard, it took off. Weird things happened in line with a ridiculous logic and there were pieces of vivid and hilarious description. Attitudes to religion and particularly cults were revealingly lampooned (I am religious, but I have no problem with this kind of fun: of course there’s much deceit and vanity in religion, but since that’s true of everything else too, it seems no reason to reject the whole idea).

Still the jokes weren’t quite as madly inspired and I doubt if any will develop a life of their own on a level with the meaning of life being 42 or God’s message to his creation being “We apologise for the inconvenience”. In some ways, though, it was better because more serious. Satire needs deep seriousness and passionate anger, and Adams seemed to me to lack these. His passages of jokey tragedy seem a bit like toying with misery. In this territory, the gold standard is Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut saw horror mixed in with irony; Adams liked writing about it. Colfer’s book is a bit more like  a novel in that it has somewhat more human depth and sympathy.

So it was worthwhile. OK, it wasn’t Adams, but as I felt the Hitchhiker series went one book too far anyway, the last one being rather thin, I felt no inclination to denounce the false prophet.

 

THE STATE COUNSELLOR by BORIS AKUNIN

Akunin (his real name is something very long,  scrabble-hand-like and Georgian) has made a mark over here with clever, literate crime novels, but this is the first one I’ve read. It is very well written and thoughtful, a perceptive picture of Tsarist Russia about twenty years before the Revolution. Good and bad men struggle to keep the ship of state afloat against revolutionaries whose motivation is mostly very understandable. The senior detective Erast Fandorin and a revolutionary cell leader engage in a murderous dance while a shadowy third figure manipulates them. Fandorin and his foe have a lot in common, but they never share words.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did guess the identity of the third figure some way before it was revealed, but that shows I got deeply into the book. If  it has a weakness, it’s that Fandorin is an oddly shadowy figure, giving very few clues to his emotions, his political or religious beliefs if any (in a book that has plenty of politics) or even why he becomes attached to a revolutionary girl.

I shall read more Akunin.