Thursday, June 04, 2009

Twelve – review

Author: Jasper Kent

First published: 2008

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: ‘As his face came close to mine, a sudden miasma surrounded me, the stench of his breath. I recalled years ago standing over a mass grave where the bodies of brave soldiers had been lying for many days. It was that same odour of decay and I felt the same urge to run as I had then, accompanied by an even deeper sense of dread which I could not place…’

The voordalak – a creature of legend; the tales of which have terrified Russian children for generations. But for Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov – a child of more enlightened times – it is a legend that has long been forgotten. Besides, in the autumn of 1812, he faces a more tangible enemy – the Grande Armée of Napolean Bonaparte.

City after city has fallen to the advancing French, and it now seems that only a miracle will keep them out of Moscow itself. In desperation, Aleksei and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki – a group of twelve mercenaries from the furthest reaches of Christian Europe, who claim that they can turn the tide of the war. It seems an idle boast, but the Russians soon discover that the Oprichniki are indeed quite capable of fulfilling their promise… and much more.

Unnerved by the fact that so few can accomplish so much, Alexsei remembers those childhood stories of the voordalak. And as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these twelve strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they’ve unleashed in their midst…

The Review: Twelve proved to be an unusual experience for me as I am not the biggest reader of the historical novel and what Jasper Kent has done is create a blend of the horror novel and the historical novel.

Told from the point of view of Aleksei Danilov – a member of a four man military espionage team – the fact that they are not necessarily always in the thick of fighting battles against the French but working in subterfuge and, to be frank, terror helps keep the intrigue aspects of the story in respect of the twelve voordalak running.

There was an aspect that seemed just a little off within this premise. The voordalak are portrayed as fantastic and vicious fighters, who are experts at stealth and yet when Danilov discovers them for what they are he is able to fight against them – okay he has the advantage of knowing their weaknesses but even so it seemed a little incongruous that he should be able to defeat them when an entire French camp can’t even get a lucky kill in. However this incongruity is necessary to the story.

The lore is pretty much standard, the voordalak is fairly much the atypical vampire and can be killed by beheading, the heart pierced (by wood only, it would seem) or through exposure to sunlight. The sunlight aspect is clearly not traditional, as in we are well aware that it was an invention in respect of the cinematic vampire, but is a necessary and well applied aspect within the plotting and a twist within the ending. To underline their general hardiness we later get a lovely description of a voordalak frozen solid by the Russian winter, but his eyes still moving. One thing I did like is the fact that, to be turned, the human has to be drained, fed blood (traditionally from the chest) and be willing to turn.

There is some connection with Vlad Tepes hinted within the story. The voordalak have come from Walachia, summoned by one of the spy officers, Dimitry, who first met them when he fought in that land against the Ottomans. The 12 are brought to Moscow by an old vampire named Zmyeevich – meaning son of the serpent – who does not remain with them. He wears a dragon shaped ring and, when we later hear part of the tale from Walachia it is clear that the locals think him to be a warlord from centuries past and when asked if he is four hundred he says not quite yet (which Tepes wouldn’t have been at that point). However Tepes is not mentioned directly.

Religious icons do not affect the vampires – though some newly turned react as though they do. Indeed the 12 voordalak use pseudonyms based on the 12 disciples. Their feeding habits become more and more extreme as they become bored with their diet – at first they drink blood and then, as time passes, they expand their eating to flesh as well. As more time passes, and the thrill of blood and flesh fails, they turn to torture, gaining pleasure from the agonies of their victims that spices up their meal, as it were.

An unusual setting for a genre novel and interesting because of that. The voice of Danilov is well used as he is an ordinary torn man, with doubts and fears, placed by career, training and then circumstance in a series of extraordinary situations. Kent portrayed someone who seems very human and that carries us along. The historical aspects seem detailed, but never dry. 7 out of 10.

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