Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review: "Twelve" by Jasper Kent. Spoilers!

I came across Pyr, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Prometheus Books, at DragonCon this year.  One of the books they had available for purchase was Twelveby Jasper Kent.  I remembered seeing Pyr's booth at DragonCon some years back, with Twelve being listed as coming soon, so my curiosity was already piqued.  It looked interesting, so I bought it. Here goes the review...

Twelve tells the tale of Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, a Russian officer during the Napoleonic Wars.  He and some other officers have been assigned to operate separately from the main Russian army to cause trouble for the invading French.  When one of them takes the liberty of calling some old comrades from the war against the Turks who are very good at killing the French, everything seems peachy.

Until Danilov gets a little too curious and discovers just what manner of monsters they've allied themselves with...

The Good

*I really liked the concept.  I haven't seen a lot of historical fiction or speculative fiction set in Russia, so this was doubly interesting.

*The book is well-paced and never boring.

*The author's attention to historical detail is good.  Distances are measured in the traditional Russian measurement of verst, while the events of the book are dated using the Julian calendar, which was used in Russia at the time, rather than the Gregorian calendar, which was used in Western Europe.  He even describes the difference between Russian and Western European horseshoes, the latter of which aren't adapted for the icy conditions of the Russian winter.

*The fact that the twelve who arrive to help fight the French are vampires is not immediately revealed.  One has the chance to learn along with Danilov just what the Oprichniki--Ivan the Terrible's secret police, which our heroes name the twelve--are.

(Unless you read the blurbs on the back too closely, but I'll get to that later.)

*The Oprichniki's chief introduces them to the Russian characters before returning to Romania.  The twelve of them are all named after the Twelve Apostles, with the one named for Judas having a rather interesting trait--I'll reveal that later in the review.

*There are some very vivid descriptive bits, like a scene where Danilov witnesses the Oprichniki throwing a body out of a barn.  He describes how the body has had a good bit of flesh gnawed off and then sees the look on the dead woman's face and realized the only reason the vampires had decided to stop eating was because the victim had died. He then sees the vampires torturing and feeding on the dead woman's husband in the barn.  One of the vampires bites off some pieces of him and spits something out.  When Danilov comes in during the day to kill the vampires, he finds what the vampire spat out--the man's wedding ring.  He then subdues one vampire and tortures him for information by opening the barn door to expose him to the sun and then closing the door again to allow him to regenerate.

"The vampire was a torturer's dream.  Continuous pain could be inflicted because the body would be continually refreshed."


There's another scene where Danilov stops to think and sits on a log.  When he gets up, he disturbs the snow and reveals a silver chain.  He digs for it and finds it's a bracelet and what he thinks is a branch is actually a human hand.

"I had not been sitting on a log, but on a frozen, rigid human corpse."

Now that's a good way to end a chapter.

There's another scene where another character takes a vampire prisoner and both of them are caught in a blizzard.  The vampire ends up frozen solid and buried in a snowdrift, but cannot die.  Danilov digs the vampire up and the sun starts melting the remaining snow and ice--and igniting the vampire.  The vampire's flesh ignites, which ignites his clothing, which burns away and reveals more flesh, which is in turn ignited by the sun.  Once the fires start going on his clothes and flesh, the vicious cycle accelerates into a continual chain of combustion.

*Danilov is a realistic human being with flaws.  In this case, away from his wife for a long period, he visits a prostitute named Dominikiaa and becomes quite attached to her.  That's a realistic problem for someone to get into in a wartime situation.

The Bad

*The book jacket describes how the behavior of the twelve new arrivals reminds Danilov of the legends of the voordalak.  Given how it isn't revealed until well into the novel that the Oprichniki are in fact vampires, using the less-familiar Russian word was a good idea.  The problem is, one of the first blurbs on the back of the book calls it "good vampire-hunting fun."  I would have enjoyed the book much more if I hadn't known going in that the Oprichniki were vampires and discovered it along with Danilov.

*When Danilov cannot bring himself to kill Dominikiaa after he believes she has allowed herself to be made a vampire by Iuda, he very quickly reaches the conclusion that he would be damned if he killed her and damned if he allowed her to escape, so he decides that if he's going to go to hell anyway, he should allow Dominikiaa to make him a vampire so they could go to hell together.  I can understand his moral dilemma--he can't bring himself to kill Dominikiaa but would have any deaths vampire-Dominkiaa inflicts on his conscience--but his solution is really quite bizarre considering his hatred of the vampires.  Furthermore, this decision is made entirely too easily, in the space of about a page.  And he's really detached about it too--he even thinks this would be a chance to look back and remember his own death.

*The revelation that the vampire Iuda wasn't actually a vampire, but was in fact a human who traveled with the vampires and had deceived them into thinking he was one of them was really lame.  If he had been with the vampires for an extended period of time, one would think these creatures--who prey on humans the way we feed on lower animals--would have noticed.  That does provide a reason for him to be named after Judas, but he doesn't actually betray the vampires.  Of course, if he was a Russian-born vampire who retained loyalty to his people and opposed the Oprichniki when they began feeding on Russians as well as French, that would make him a bit more interesting...

The Verdict

An entertaining read.  8 out of 10.  The sequel, Thirteen Years Later,has been released in the United States, as has the third book in what will be a quintet, The Third Section.  Kent will continue the story all the way to the Russian Revolution, so how things turn out will be very interesting.