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Historical Fantasy Review: The Third Section (The Danilov Quintet 03) by Jasper Kent

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Russia 1855. After forty years of peace in Europe, war rages. In the Crimea, the city of Sevastopol is besieged. In the north, Saint Petersburg is blockaded. But in Moscow there is one who needs only to sit and wait – wait for the death of an aging tsar, and for the curse upon his blood to be passed to a new generation.

As their country grows weaker, a man and a woman – unaware of the hidden ties that bind them – must come to terms with their shared legacy. In Moscow, Tamara Valentinovna Komarova uncovers a brutal murder and discovers that it not the first in a sequence of similar crimes, merely the latest, carried out by a killer who has stalked the city since 1812.

And in Sevastopol, Dmitry Alekseevich Danilov faces not only the guns of the combined armies of Britain and France, but must also make a stand against creatures that his father had thought buried beneath the earth, thirty years before.

What I liked:

The third part of the series features two main characters, the children of Aleksei Danilov, Dimitry and Tamara. They are adults now, with their own families and careers, they don’t know about each other’s existence (up to a point anyway) and their only connection is the old enemy of their papa, a man who had to turn himself into a vampire in order to save his life. He used to hide under different nicknames and now he is called Yudin. Yudin lives and breathes revenge on Aleksei and anybody close to him. As you can guess the scope of this installment is more personal and domestic, rather than told within the vast events of the military and political crises of the first two books. But this one is equally involving.

Let me tell you that Tamara is one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve ever met. The story of her adult life is being slowly unravelled throughout the narration and when you finally find out how she was turned into a prostitute, lost her husband and children and then rebouded you have to respect her. She is a woman made of steel, independent, clever, intelligent and brave – finally an appropriate opponent for the demonic psychopath turned vampire who ruined her father’s life. I really liked the way Tamara’s character was constructed and the way the author slowly unveiled her strengths. Three-dimensional doesn’t even start to cover it.

I have to admit her half-brother, Dimitry, was a less compelling character but still he managed to surprise me more than once with his choice of bedfellows. I also liked the fact that, despite his military career, deep at heart he remained a musician. However, the ending belongs completely to him – I don’t want to spoil you so I must be rather vague with my remarks but let me assure you something happened to Dimitry which I wanted to happen to his father at least one installment ago and now I am so looking forward to the next book in the series because I am curious what Dimitry will do next, what side he will pick.

When it comes to Yudin/Iuda/Vassily Makarov a.k.a. the vampire I love to hate there is a section narrated by him that describes from his point of view what Aleksei did to him in the previous novel. Shot, drowned, in an ice-bound river, he did not die the human death and he despised every moment of it. Now he pulls strings in the tsar’s intelligence bureau, known as the Third Section, continuing to plot the Zmyeevich’s Great Scheme to control the Russian throne and planning his own revenge involving Aleksei’s children and wife.

I also liked how the novel started. So often genre novels’ prologues are vexatiously silly, but this prologue is not among those.We follow a young Englishman who managed to gallop out of the Crimea’s Valley of Death. The action is taut and contained, and tells us what we will need to know later within the novel itself We are even past the pan-European defeat of the 1840’s’ revolutionary and reformist movements by the entrenched power elites.

Finally let me say that I really appreciate the ingenuity with which the author answered an old question: why nobody can see a reflection of a vampire in a mirror (not even themselves). It was clever!

What I didn’t like:

Just one carping – I admit that the ending was a bit too melodramatic for such a great story. I am not a big fan of ‘the deathbed goodbye’ scenes and here you get two of them and rather close together. It was like a dissonant note; although I understand the author wanted to get rid of the older generation in a neat manner, making the place for the new kids to come, he could have diversified it a bit.

Final verdict:

A third generation of the Danilov family is gestating. Vampires remain on Russian soil. There will be blood and I hope I will love it even more because it seems Mr. Kent’s novels are getting better and better with every installment. Now it is becoming one of my favourite vampire series. Seriously worth reading. Four stars

Previous parts of the series, reviewed here: 

Historical Fantasy Review: ‘Thirteen Years Later’ (The Danilov Quintet 02) by Jasper Kent

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Aleksandr made a silent promise to the Lord. God would deliver him — would deliver Russia — and he would make Russia into the country that the Almighty wanted it to be. He would be delivered from the destruction that wasteth at noonday, and from the pestilence that walketh in darkness — the terror by night.

1825, Europe — and Russia — have been at peace for a decade. Bonaparte is long dead and the threat of invasion is no more. For Colonel Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, life is peaceful. The French have been defeated, as have the twelve monstrous creatures he once fought alongside, and then against, all those years before. His duty is still to his tsar, Aleksandr the First, but today the enemy is merely human.
However the tsar himself knows he can never be at peace. He is well aware of the uprising fermenting within his own army, but his true fear is of something far more terrible — something that threatens to bring damnation down upon him, his family and his country. Aleksandr cannot forget a promise: a promise sealed in blood… and broken a hundred years before.

Now the victim of the Romanovs’ betrayal has returned to demand what is his. The knowledge chills Aleksandr’s very soul. And for Aleksei, it seems the vile pestilence that once threatened all he held dear has returned, thirteen years later.

What I liked:

First let me tell you that it is rare that a second part of a series is better than the first one. Still it can happen and I am delighted to say it happened here, at least in my humble opinion. The second installment of the Danilov Quintet series is set, in accordance to the title, 13 years after the Napoleonic invasion on Russia, during the Decembrists revolt. If you need to brush up on your history as I did – In December of 1825 in St. Petersburg, a group of military officials staged a revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. These rebels were liberals who felt threatened by the new ruler’s conservative views and they wanted his brother, Konstantin, to take over the throne. They were, however, quickly defeated by the tsar’s forces. Sixty to seventy rebels died, and all that were captured were either hanged or exiled to Siberia. As a result of this revolt, Nicholas I implemented a variety of new regulations to prevent the spread of the liberal movement in Russia.

Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov once again is your guide in the shadowy world of imperial Russia’s spies and secret societies. He is accompanied by his young son, Dimitry, who, according to his father’s wishes, is about to join the Russian Army but if he were to decide he’d prefer to become a professional pianist and composer. I liked the fact that some chapters we witness through Aleksei’s eyes and some are told from the Dimitry’s point of view because it allowed the author to refresh his world build. Overall this novel is better written than the first one, with a more balanced conflict between the human and the vampire factions, more nuanced characterization and more historical background. Without spoiling you much I might say that Iuda a.k.a Richard Cain a.k.a Vassily Makarov is back again and Aleksei will have to deal with him on a definitely more intimate level than he’d ever wanted to. Iuda is a great creation and I was very glad that he returned in full force.

The mystery of the Romanov Betrayal and the Taganrog / Crimea chapters were a very interesting addition to the whole plot. Also the romantic angle of the two women in Aleksey life continues to be one of the highlights of the story so far, with additional elements/characters featuring in the background like the little daughter of Aleksei and Domnikiia, Tamara, or Aleksei’s son, who was supposed to know nothing about the illicit Moskow affair of his dear daddy but, as it often the case with children, knew rather more than less. It was really nicely ballanced.

You also meet one great vampire character, called Kyesha. I admit it was the very character I was personally waiting for while reading Twelve – a complicated baddie who defies clear-cut division lines which had ruled Aleksei’s life so far. Let me just tell me this: Aleksei will feel responsible for that particular vampire and will bond with him despite himself almost as if Kyesha was his long-lost friend.

What I didn’t like:

I know that some editors pressurize authors to make every installment of a series a more or less stand-alone book but it is not a practice which I particularly like or appreciate. When the first hundred pages (so about one fifth of the whole novel) are spent catching up from the previous part I sometimes yawn angrily and sometimes skim waiting for the real fun to happen but never think ‘gee, thanks for mentioning, good to be reminded of it, I’ve really forgotten about this or that!’. I’ve already worked out that some time had passed and usually if I like a series I read one part straight after the other (providing they are available).

I also admit I found the flow of the plot a little jerky between part’s two and three (it felt like the individual vampire story was being overly stretched out in order to fit with the historical drama.) Now something about the ending. It felt rushed, especially the outline of the Aleksei’s fate after the revolt. It seemed to me that the author wanted to get rid of the poor old Aleksei post haste in order to have his son in the third part all on his own. I wasn’t pleased by such a treatment but perhaps it paid off – I will be able to say so after reading the next installment.

Final verdict:

One of better historical fantasy series with vampires I’ve read so far – of course providing that the next book won’t be a big fat disappointment (but hey, Iuda might be featured again and I love following and hating that b*****d!). This series is a must if you’re a fan of the genre and generally a good quality entertainment even if you don’t usually read historical fantasy .

Historical Fantasy Review: ‘Twelve’ by Jasper Kent

Synopsis:

On 12th June 1812, Napoleon’s massive Grande Armee forded the River Niemen and by doing so crossed the proverbial Rubicon – the invasion of Russia had begun. In the face of superior numbers and tactics, the imperial Russian army began its fast retreat. But a handful of Russian officers – veterans of Borodino – are charged with trying to slow the enemy’s inexorable march on Moscow. Indeed, one of their number has already set the wheels of resistance in motion, having summoned the help of a band of mercenaries from the outermost fringes of Christian Europe, Wallachia. They know everything about harrassing and defeating an enemy far more powerful than you and they are highly efficient.

The mercenaries are compared to the once-feared Russian secret police – the Oprichniki – and the name sticks. As rumours of plague travelling west from the Black Sea reach the Russians, the Oprichniki – but twelve in number – arrive. Preferring to work alone, and at night, the twelve prove brutally, shockingly effective against the French. But one amongst the Russians, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, is unnerved by the Oprichniki’s ruthlessness. As he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they’ve unleashed in their midst…

What I liked:

The Napoleonic Wars, especially the disastroud and ill-guided invasion of Russia, are always a very colourful canvass for any novel; personally I like that period very much. This book didn’t disappoint me either. Although I found some minor historical errors (like the narrator speaking of Poland which officially didn’t exist at that time – just the ephemeral Grand Duchy of Warsaw, created by the Napoleon to appease the Poles and make them join his army). Ok, I know, it is not a historical novel and by the way who cares…just some weirdos like me.

The pace was fairly slow at the start, as the narrator focuses often on his private life and thoughts. At just over the midpoint, about 270 pages in, the book becomes faster and there was one twist at the very end which was a complete surprise to me.

Now about the voordalak (vampires). I am happy to say these are closer to the older image of a vamp so as far from your Twilight, sparkling, non-human-blood drinking, emotionally tortured vampires as a lap dog is from a wild wolf. The vampires in Twelve are also not your average paranormal romance dudes, those exceptionally handsome and lustful, picking-up-the-best-babes-and-giving-them-the-best-sex-experience-ever-for-a-sip-or-two types . They are sadistic killers and parasites, having all the compassion and subtlety of a Jack the Ripper. They must drink blood to stay alive but they are not kind to their food sources. Getting the most satisfaction from the extreme emotional states of terror and despair in their victims (even other vampires) they will plan out their hunting and then they spend hours in performing the act to heighten their own enjoyment. In other words they were truly horrible monsters which fitted well the Russia and the ugly war around them. It was also nice that the author didn’t hesitate to get back to the original themes of “Dracula”, exploring such philosophical questions as what it means to be human, how you become a monster, what it means to be a loyal friend or a traitor etc.

Now a bit about the main character and the narrator, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov. He is a complex hero, one of these flawed ones, not completely likeable to say the least of it but very real and completely honest which warmed me to him significantly. Although I admit that his moral compass was sometimes totally off he was an interesting man to follow around. Aleksei is a professional soldier and spy, thus not far away from mass murderers such as vampires. There’s a huge war going on, and people are dying like flies anyway. The survivors commit horrible attrocities out of hunger and low morals, not to mention the harsh Russian winter. It is only too natural that, despite his initial hatred towards the Oprichniki, soon enough Aleksei starts asking himself whether these monsters are really worse than your average human being.

Aleksei is married and has a young son; still, while lingering in Moskow, he enters an illicit relationship with a prostitute called Domnikiia or Dominique. Their relationship quickly exceeds the ordinary transaction turning into a proper affair or maybe even something more serious. It was funny that Dominique caught his eye because of her alleged likeness to the second wife of Napoleon, Marie Louise, the daughter of Francis I, emperor of Austria. Somehow Aleksey’s pangs of conscience, not very acute to begin with, were significantly diminishing with every death he witnessed and every enemy he killed. You might think that immoral or wrong but it was also very close to reality – especially during a war, when nobody was sure what the next day might bring. I have to admit I also appreciated the fact that Aleksei never turned into one of those annoyingly tortured heroes, being teared apart by his morality and urges. Once again, you might not like the fact that the hero had both a wife and a mistress and basically considered it ok but personally I found it in perfect accordance with that era and its often hypocritical mores.

Finally let me tell you that one of the vampires, Iuda, definitely deserved more attention that he got and I hope that he will be featured in the next installment. Why? Spoiler highlight to read: Iuda is not a actually a vampire, just a very sick human sadist who pretends to be one to indulge himself. I do wonder how he managed to dupe his vampire companions, his boss and our brave Lyosha as well.
What I didn’t like:

I grant it, the book was first published in January 2009. Still the fact that the main character for almost half of the novel tried to solve a big ‘mystery’ of Oprichniki must seem a bit silly for any reader of fantasy. Even the fact that Aleksei emphasised every now and then that he was above folk fairy tales and other such absurdities didn’t explain it well. All the clues were there from the very beginning – the novel starts with a Russian tale which immediately lets you know that there will be some paranormal elements involved. Then we are told that the creepy mercenaries came from Wallachia (Romania nowadays), leaving a trail of death in their wake, they operated only at night and slept during the day, they didn’t want any money, always a surprising thing for a mercenary, their leader called himself ‘Zmyeevich’ so a son of a serpent, an adder or a dragon…honestly when I come to think about it there were actually too many clues around to make it half a decent secret.

Also I have to add that sometimes I was rather baffled by the powers of the Oprichniki. One moment they are pronounced to be worth more than ten ordinary soldiers – very stealthy, very deadly, freakishly strong and fast. The next moment Aleksei is able to finish off two of them at the same time and we are told that, in fact, it is easy to kill a vampire, providing you are prepared and you know what to do…hmmm. Still his other comrades were never as lucky or as skilled as him although they knew what they were dealing with…

The final showdown I found a little too convenient for Aleksei as well – it was one of these blatant cases of ‘being able to have your cake and eat it’. Still knowing that there are more installment coming I can forgive it.

Final verdict:

If you like historical fiction set in the 19th century, and you have nothing against classic vampire mythology, this romp where the odds are stacked against your hero at every turn might be up your valley.I will definitely give a try to the next book in the series despite the shortcomings of the first part.

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