Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book Review | Thirteen Years Later by Jasper Kent

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"1825, Europe - and Russia - have been at peace for ten years. Bonaparte is long dead and the threat of invasion is no more. For Colonel Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, life is peaceful. Not only have the French been defeated but so have the twelve monstrous creatures he once fought alongside, and then against, ten or more years ago. His duty is still to serve and to protect his tsar, Aleksandr the First, but now the enemy is human.

"However the Tsar knows that he can never be at peace. Of course, he is aware of the uprising fermenting within the Russian army--among his supposedly loyal officers. No, what troubles him is something that threatens to bring damnation down upon him, his family and his country. The Tsar has been reminded of a promise: a promise born of blood...a promise that was broken a hundred years before.

"Now the one who was betrayed by the Romanovs has returned to exact revenge for what has been denied him. And for Aleksei, knowing this chills his very soul. For it seems the vile pestilence that once threatened all he believed in and all he held dear has returned, thirteen years later..."


The trouble with Twelve was it was slow.

Forget the fact that the cover had a vampy dude on it. Forget that any bookseller or blogger who wrote up the first volume of this projected quintet talked about the very fellows, and that the blurb made quite plain the decidedly undead nature of Twelve's antagonists: it took fully 200 at-times wearisome pages for Jasper Kent to pull back the curtain on his ambitious narrative to admit that yes, the premise was essentially vampires do the Soviet Union.

Once that was out of the way, Twelve got good. It got fun, and exciting, and if its belaboured first act had proven a bit of a chore, it served at least to acquaint one with Aleksei Danilov and his merry men - an elite band of Russian soldiers who to turn the tide of battle against Napoleon's invasion force unwittingly enlist the assistance of the Oprichniki. Which is to say, a gang of vamps. However, as his squad were picked off one by one, Aleksei came to understand the nightmarish truth of these grimly effective mercenaries, and made it his mission to repel the forces of darkness from his beloved country's borders.

Thirteen Years Later, the Oprichniki are all dead - as are Aleksei's friends and fellow soldiers. Still balancing two love lives, with his young son Dmitry no longer so young and now another offspring to consider, Aleksei has spent a decade chasing ghosts, working in the erstwhile as a double agent on behalf of Tsar Aleksandr. But now a plot to supplant the Tsar is sketched out - somehow Aleksei must intercede - just as an impossible message arrives from a former squad mate still close to Aleksei's heart... and long presumed dead.

Thirteen Years Later is a longer book than its forebear, relating a narrative more ambitious still, and I had, truth be told, high hopes for it. The end of Twelve left me with the sense that what was to come would take the baton and run with it, forgoing the dreary beginning which was surely Twelve's weakest aspect. Sadly, I tend to think Kent's decision to kill off so many of book one's heroes and villains works against him come to book two; without that backbone, the author has all the same busywork to attend to. He must come up with a whole new cast, develop between them a cadaverous new conflict, and more besides what with the events of Twelve - as well as all that's happened in the intervening time between the then of that novel and the now of Thirteen Years Later - to recount.

I say "he must." I should really say Kent feels he must, for much of the time he spends bringing the reader up to speed on the Story So Far is a real drag. And Kent misspends a lot of time in that regard. Credit where it's due: rather than infodumping en masse he opts to parcel out those nuggets of knowledge he deems relevant to the events of Thirteen Years Later over the entire first half of this overbearing sequel, and though the attempt is an admirable one, it's woefully misguided. Kent is so set on making sure we have all the facts - and I do mean all the facts - that he sacrifices the sense of momentum which propelled the latter part of Twelve. As a result, Thirteen Years Later feels slow and stuttering by comparison, only gaining the impetus to move forward in the very late-game, and by then, it feels too little too late.

Which isn't to say I'll be giving up on this series. When Jasper Kent's on, he's on, and though his throwback storytelling technique might prove an acquired taste for some, it's one I share - and indeed delight in sharing when at last things heat up for Aleksei. It's just a shame it takes so bloody long for them to do so. They say it doesn't do to presume too much; I would add add to that, presuming too little can be equally problematic. Here's hoping lessons will have been learned come The Third Section.


Thirteen Years Later
by Jasper Kent

UK Publication: April 2010, Bantam
US Publication: February 2011, Pyr

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1 comment:

  1. So, if all of the vampires are dead, who or what is the antagonist? Is it a spoilerish secret?

    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby