Saturday, 21 February 2009

Book review: Twelve


Jasper Kent

(Bantam Press, 1 January 2009)

Comparisons between Twelve by Jasper Kent and the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik are perhaps inevitable: both are set during the Napoleonic wars, and both make significant use of fantastical creatures (dragons in Novik's case, vampires in Kent's). But there the similarities end. Where the Temeraire series is generally quite lighthearted, Twelve is much darker. Where in Temeraire the reader somehow always feels slightly detached from the violence, in Twelve the violence is often brutal and far more visceral. Twelve is therefore a novel that needs to be assessed on its own terms.

The premise is simple: Napoleon's army is marching into Russia, with the intent of capturing Moscow and breaking the spirit of the Russian people. Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov is a Russian officer and a member of a four-strong secret group of saboteurs, whose sole task is to use their guile and stealth to slow the French advance. When all looks lost, Dmitri - one of Aleksei's comrades - sends an urgent request for help to the Oprichniki, a group of mercenaries from the fringes of Christian Europe. They prove hugely effective against the French...almost too effective. The more that Aleksei sees of his new allies, the more he doubts them. Eventually, he finds himself in a desperate struggle against not just the French, but an old enemy of mankind.

There's no doubting that the vampires are the star attraction of Twelve, so it was satisfying to see that Kent neatly avoided cliché. His vampires are far closer to the version found in eastern European folklore; they're not melancholy, beautiful figures in velvet jackets and frilly cuffs. Instead, they're brutal, almost primitive, killers that are devoid of any traces of humanity. They can't be reasoned with; they're relentless, efficient killing machines - a far cry from the general depiction of vampires in speculative fiction. This distinction lends a certain freshness to Twelve, which - had Kent perhaps used the more familiar stereotype - could have become stale very quickly.

As good as the vampires are, they don't steal the show from the human participants. Without some solid characterisation, Twelve could have ended up being a lopsided affair with vampires battling a host of paper-thin characters. Again, Kent avoids this pitfall by carefully developing the protagonist, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, and his relationships over the course of the novel. As cool as the vampires are, it's this strong human factor that really makes the book what it is. Aleksei's changing relationships with the prostitute Domnikiia and his comrade Dmitri - and the personal turmoil this causes him - adds some stark realism and emotional impact to the novel.

The plot itself is simple but well-constructed, building up nicely in both tension and pace. Kent manages to through a few curveballs into the mix as well, keeping the reader on their toes, and his prose is clean and accessible. Despite the setting, Kent manages to avoid getting bogged down in military detail, with just enough information given to the reader to further understanding and atmosphere.

The novel does have its flaws. Certain characters, at times, display a rather muted emotional response that I found unconvincing. For example, more than one character - when discovering the true nature of the Oprichniki - didn't seem too bothered or surprised. Sure, folktales carried far more resonance two hundred years ago than they do now, but still...I expected a bit more of an emotional response from some people. This problem extends to Aleksei as well; sometimes he seems too fearless, and on more than one occasion he makes decisions that seem utterly ludicrous (and clearly only for the sake of the plot's advancement). It's hard to go into much detail, as I don't want to spoil anything, but I also felt that he seemed rather too adept at dispatching the extent that the vampires sometimes didn't come across as fearsome as maybe they should have done. Then again, perhaps this was deliberate. I do quite like the idea of Kent's vampires being somehow more vulnerable...

I felt that at times the atmosphere of the time period didn't come through as well as it could have done (this is one area where I am happy to cross-reference with Novik - I think she does better than Kent at capturing the atmosphere of the Napoleonic era). Some snippets of language seemed a little modern, and subsequently a little jarring. I would have liked more description at times, as I had trouble picturing one or two places. Some passages did feel a little stark in terms of the prose.

Verdict: Flaws aside, Twelve is a solid, engaging novel and a promising start to the quintet that Kent has promised. There's plenty of good action, solid character development and a decent plot that manages to surprise on more than one occasion. I'm already looking forward to the next novel, Thirteen Years Later, both to see how the story progresses and to see if Kent can improve on the areas that I think could be done better.

Jasper Kent's website.


Francisco Norega said...

I had my first contact with Eastern vampires folk when I read Hohlbein's "Am Abgrund" (Die Chronik der Unsterblichen).
The Portuguese translation is poor but I loved the "new" vision of vampires. And the story is awsome!

Despite of all the faults you pointed, I think I'll read this book as soon as it gets translated to Portuguese :P

ediFanoB said...

Well done James!

Fortunately I don't need to wait for German translation.

I'll get my copy of the book in July 2009.
Look forward to read it.

Anonymous said...

sounds fascinating :)