Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review: 'The Secret History of Moscow' by Ekaterina Sedia

Book Review: The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

In 90s Moscow, Galina, who has experienced visions in the past, sees her younger sister, Masha, transform into a jackdaw and fly away. There's a spate of missing people all likely to have followed suit. In a quest to see what is happening, Fyodor, a homeless street artist; Yakov a cop and Galina jump into Moscow's 'Underground' - a fantastic world of folklore and Russian history.

If you're thinking American Gods and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, then you've hit the bullseye.

Sedia's prose is quite beautiful and she uses sensory imagery to dazzling effect. Having said that, a bit of fine tuning by the editor may have made this a better piece as on the odd occasion the writing, impressive as it is, jars unintentionally.

It seems to me that Sedia is attempting to convey Russia's compelling but often tragic past to the reading world. She succeeds in painting a vivid picture of both the Russia of the nineties and of the Russia past, right back to folklore times. Invading Mongol-Tartars; early Greek and Scandinavian influences; the idea of Byzantium enduring with Moscow reigning as the Third Rome; Tsarist Russia; Communist Russia; and Post-Communist Russia are all touched on in The Secret History of Moscow.

There are, however, some annoying techniques. Character sketches are used throughout (not unusual in Russian literature) rather than the usual back-story being integrated into the the text. This slows the pace, although I'll admit to being hooked by the tale of Fyodor and Oksana (an attractive gypsy lady). These back story narratives are giant flag posts waving the reader to the different classes and issues in Russia; they could have been interwoven far more subtly.

A similar thing occurs with historical info-drops, but then again it is hard to imagine Sedia's novel functioning without them - readers unfamiliar with Russia would have required some clarity.

Galina (apart from the ending) and Yakov do not seem to develop as much as I'd anticipated and Sedia's dialogue wasn't nearly as convincing here as her prose. It often acts as an uncomfortable insert to tog the story along. Dialogue needs to do more than just that – I’m a firm believer in Janet Burroway’s idea that effective dialogue requires a dual purpose (A Guide to Narrative Craft) .

As for the plot, it lacks some bite and, despite the elegant descriptive prose, seems adolescent at times. The underground landscape appears forced and fairytalish, and the story falls into place a little too late and a little too conveniently. Moreover, there is not enough tension in the novel's central part. Events provide wonder rather than doing more by adding to plot tension. For instance, Yakov meets his long deceased grandfather but it does not progress much further beyond discovering his own grandfather's back-story.

Despite all the before criticism, I'd like to congratulate Ekaterina Sedia on a sound second novel. There are parts that I truly enjoyed and she's certainly a talented writer with a bright future. After reading A Secret History of Moscow I would not be averse to reading her shorter work for a better feel and while the novel, The Alchemy of Stone is not on my immediate reading list, it may well find a place on those shelves in the future. Ekaterina is one of those genre readers with a literary bend and that's the type of genre fiction I like so I hope she enjoys a successful career.

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