Wow, just finished Twelve by Jasper Kent. My last book of 2011 and what a great book to end with! I will say that this book will probably not be to everyone’s liking (if you’re a bit squeamish) but I thought it was really good.
Twelve is a blend of historical fiction and supernatural chiller/horror. Personally I found it veered more towards horror than chiller as there is quite a bit of blood and gore plus some rather unsavoury scenes that would probably put some readers off. The setting is Russia, the year 1812. Napoleon is invading Russia with his Grande Armee. Four comrades in arms adopt drastic measures to try and help combat this foe but what they have actually invited amongst their midst is not everything that it at first seems.
This story is told by Aleksei, in the style of a memoir almost and brings to us the creatures from old peasant tales. Monsters whispered about behind closed doors as a warning – creatures from folklore known as the Voordalak or as they are known in this story – Oprichniki. The Oprichniki have been enlisted to work undercover causing chaos and mayhem – I suppost a little like the resistance or underground movement – except in this case there are only 12 of them so exactly how much chaos they can cause you would think would be minimal – except of course that not everything is as it seems. I’m not going to go to much further into the plot other than to say the mercenaries that Alexsei and his friends have sought help from could prove more deadly than they suspect (I don’t think I’m giving anything away by admitting that the Oprichniki are actually vampires – but this is a fact of which Alexsei and his comrades are ignorant).
What I like about this book – the writing is really good. The author displays a really good knowledge of this particular period of history and provides enough background to place you firmly in the throes of Russia during war and also later during the harshness of winter! I found the historical aspects really interesting and the fact that it was Russian history felt like a welcome change in setting and, the other bonus with the writing is that it didn’t feel too modern which I find a bit distracting when reading a historical novel – I want to feel something for the era I’m reading about and be able to picture it. So, obviously I liked the writing and the historical aspects.
In terms of the characters the story really focuses on two – Alexei and Iuda. Interestingly, the protagonist Alexsei is not exactly an endearing sort of chap – which at first I found a bit of a struggle as you do spend quite a bit of time in his head – he’s quite selfish he certainly isn’t loyal (n some respects that is) and those are two of his better-lesser characteristics! But, in spite of this he is aware of his shortcomings and does have quite a bit of internal conflict over them. Also, whilst saying Alexsei is is not endearing I will point out that I didn’t hate or dislike him – I was just sometimes a bit surprised by his thoughts and actions. Then we have Iuda who is a totally horrible character and is supposed to be so. He has no conscience whatsoever and is ruthless in the extreme – it also seems that he has the measure of Alexei to a certain extent which does give him an edge in terms of causing damage.
But, what I liked about this story the most, was the different levels that you can read into it. Throughout the novel we read about monsters but I think the author clearly wants you to think about the different levels of monstrosity. Here we are confronted with 12 monsters – and they really are pretty horrible. These are the good old fashioned monsters of bygone stories not as portrayed in more contemporary novels, flesh eating and blood sucking with no thought about the loss of life – and yet, by comparison with the wars raging around them they actually caused very little death. The wars that the Oprichniki use to hide their natures behind are no less horrible and cause far more human casualty. Then we have Alexei, okay, I’m not saying he’s a monster but when we look at Alexei he certainly isn’t perfect is he? He’s married with a child and yet carrying on an affair with a prostitue over which he has no regret or guilt about whatsoever, he readily admits that he wants no responsibility for her, he is turned on by her apparent wounds received at the hands of one of his own friends and also he’s a bit of a voyeur! Okay, so he’s not a monster because of those things and he does have the grace to at least ponder on them, but he is the good guy in this story!! Iuda is horrible – but he never pretends to be otherwise, he doesn’t cover himself with a veneer of respectability in the way what Alexei does – he is monstrous. So, different levels of monster is what I was thinking. Bit of a tangent there but I couldn’t help thinking about it particularly as Alexsie was racing around the country and witnessing the horrors of war around him.
In terms of criticism. Well, I don’t particularly find this a problem but worth mentioning – this is a long novel, with a lot of internal reflection so if you want your action all bam bam bam then this may not be for you. Here, it’s more bam, make a cup of tea, bam. But, I don’t mind that personally, just acknowledging it’s annoyance for some. Also, I didn’t think that the Oprichniki were as formidable as they seemed. But having said that I think the author was trying to get back to a more old fashioned type of vampire (with no real supernatural abilities), can live for ever (providing they’re not staked!), must avoid sunlight, sleeps underground, etc. And, finally, I would have liked a bit more hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising creepiness. I’m not denying that there is horror in spades but I like that neck tingling thing that makes you break from reading because you feel like someone is watching you!
All that being said I thought this was a really good book and I will definitely continue with the rest. Not meant as a comparison to the novels themselves but it puts me very much in mind of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – because of the monsters, Elizabeth Kostovo’s Historian (especially in terms of length) and an element of the Hitchhiker thrown in for good measure (purely for the nastiness)!
I think that if you want something a bit different combining a good tale of treachery and vengeance combined with a good historical novel, well written then this could be for you.