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"On 12th June 1812, Napoleon's Grande Armee forded the River Niemen and crossed the Rubicon - its invasion of Russia had begun.
"Charged with delaying the enemy's inexorable march on Moscow, a group of Russian officers summon the help of the oprichniki, a band of mercenaries from the outermost fringes of Christian Europe. As rumours of a plague travelling west from the Black Sea reach the Russians, the Oprichniki - twelve in number - arrive. Preferring to work alone, and at night, they prove brutally, shockingly effective against the French.
"But one amongst the Russians, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, is unnerved by the mercenaries' ruthlessness, and as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they've unleashed in their midst..."
Vampires, eh? After a long, dark night spent recovering their strength in the coffins they call home, the enfanged are everywhere these days. On the telly, in our books, at the cinema... if you're not a member of Team Eric or Team Jacob, what are you, exactly? Discerning, I'd say; I'm no fan of Stephanie Meyer. Nor, indeed, is Stephen King, who's on the record as asserting, somewhat comically, that "she can't write worth a darn." But then, however dubious its appeal, Twilight is far from the beginning and the end of this contemporary vampire vogue. There's The Vampire Diaries, too; 30 Days of Night and the Sookie Stackhouse books to speak of.
It's safe to say, I think, that never have vampires possessed such mainstream appeal as they do today. Whether we can thank more enlightened attitudes towards gender and sexuality or simply some attractive young actors for this upsurge in interest, there exists, in this era of widespread identity crisis, an undeniable attraction to the Transylvanian terrors Bram Stoker popularised so long ago. And if the likes of True Blood and Twilight represent vampire pop, Jasper Kent's gritty historical thriller Twelve stands to symbolise the opposite extreme of the movement: vampire punk, you might say. Or, perhaps more presciently, vampire grunge. Where the Sookie Stackhouse books are camp and sensual, Twelve is blunt and boisterous; it substitutes, too, the glittering cleanliness of Stephanie Meyer's single white vampires with blood, and dirt, and death.
Twelve is great, fun vampire fiction - some of the best I've read in ages. Certainly, I found it to be head and shoulders - and heart, har har - more mature and involving than any of the aforementioned series. Kent tells a relatively simple tale in this novel, the first of a reported quintet which will chronicle the life of Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, the philandering Russian spy from whose perspective Twelve is told. Alongside three fellow friends and officers, Aleksei is charged with beating back the French invaders Bonaparte steers ever further into the motherland - but their small-scale sabotage is no match for the countless thousands of Napoleonic soldiers marching inexorably towards Moscow. All hope is not lost, however, for when Aleksei's commander Dmitry calls upon a band of twelve mercenaries to assist the saboteurs in their underhand endeavours, unbelievably, the crimson tide of battle begins, slowly but surely, to turn. But how can so few men possibly have such a dramatic effect on so many?
Well, because they're not men, of course; the twelve are voordalak - vampiric creatures sprung from the folklore of Eastern Europe - and the plague of blood and bodies they leave in their wake is testament to their superhuman capabilities. Tellingly, 200 pages of the narrative have passed before that revelation, and though there's plenty to keep you interested in the interim, even if by some happenstance you come to Twelve unaware of its dark vampiric heart, the jig is up long before Kent finally comes clean.
Treat the first half of the novel as an opportunity to get to know Aleksei and his companions, however, and it's a misjudgment easily overlooked. Maks, Dmitry and Domnikiia are well characterised throughout, lending depth and complexity to Aleksei through the development of their relationships with him. The vampires are less noteworthy, though given that there are twelve of them, it would perhaps be asking too much for each to come into their own. That said, as their numbers are whittled down, Iuda in particular rises quickly to the top of the metaphorical food chain. He is not so clear-cut an antagonist as Aleksei's opinion of him dictates, nor quite so complex a character as Kent would have us believe, but he is nevertheless an excellent foil for Twelve's recalcitrant protagonist.
Twelve has its faults, then, but Kent is a very fine storyteller, and the narrative he has crafted goes from strength to strength, leaving me in little doubt that if Thirteen Years Later picks up where this first volume leaves off - figuratively rather than literally - it will surely be a superlative reading experience. Already, Kent's characters are memorable, his setting stark and authentic, his old-school storyteller tone absolutely spot-on. Dirty, blunt and brutal, Twelve is the ideal antidote to the trite and tiresome likes of True Blood and Twilight - and things, I would wager, can only get better.
by Jasper Kent