Monday, January 3, 2011

Review: The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin

Reviewed by Christina

Published: In Russian, as Азазель, 1998. English translation by Andrew Bromfield, 2003.

It's about: On a beautiful May afternoon in 1876, a wealthy young law student commits suicide in a Moscow public park. Greenie detective Erast Fandorin smells a rat, and with his boss' blessing, he proceeds to investigate. Fandorin gradually uncovers a complicated international conspiracy. Twists and turns ensue in this action-packed historical detective novel, the first in a series of twelve books that are hugely popular in Russia.

I thought:
[First things first: check out that beautiful cover! I LOVE the cover designs for this series' English editions.]

Since I don't read many mysteries, I wasn't sure what to expect from The Winter Queen. I don't really have a frame of reference within the detective novel genre. I read a goodreads review that calls this a "literary" mystery, and that's probably why I liked it so much. The writing (at least as Bromfield translates it) isn't flowery, but it is concisely descriptive, fast-paced, and wittily smart. The protagonist, Erast, is a pretty well-developed, dynamic, and very likeable character. He's clever, impetuous at times, a little naive, and cute: he blushes! I found him relateable, since he's so young and not a hardened genius like I imagine many detectives being. Most of the other characters are fairly one-sided, but one of my favorite things about this book was that the bad guys' motives are morally ambiguous. It's difficult to say more without giving things away, but I really liked that the #1 badun had a meaningful goal, something deeper than, say, greed or revenge.
But probably my favorite thing about The Winter Queen was the setting (Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London c. 1876) and the book's general Russianness. The "favorite excerpt" below is a good example of what I mean- that Russian combination of sweet sentimentality and light superstition. The text also has a bunch of tidbits about the Russian national personality, especially as contrasted with the English. I love that kind of thing, and I just find imperial Russia interesting.

Verdict: It's not my favorite genre, but I really enjoyed this and thought it was very well done. So stick it on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: This would make a great vacation or beach read. It's quick but still satisfyingly stimulating.

Warnings: Some non-graphic gun violence and one unexpected gruesome image.

Favorite excerpts: "Inquire of any inhabitant of Russia's first capital concerning the best time to enter into lawful wedlock, and naturally the reply one will receive is that a man who is thoroughly serious in his intentions and wishes to set his family life on a firm foundation from the very outset must certainly not marry at any other time than late September, for that is the month most ideally suited to embarking on a long and tranquil voyage across the waves of life's wide ocean. September in Moscow is sated and indolent, trimmed with gold brocade and ruddy cheeked with the maple's crimson blush, like a merchant's wife from the Zamoskvorechie district decked out in her finest. If one marries on the final Sunday of the month the sky is certain to be a translucent azure and the sun will shine with a sedate delicacy, so that the groom will not perspire in his tight starched collar and close-fitting black tailcoat, nor will the bride freeze in that gauzy, ethereal, enchanting concoction for which no appropriate name even exists."

What I'm reading next: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby