Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Book Review | Twelve by Jasper Kent

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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

UK Publication: January 2009, Bantam
US Publication: September 2010, Pyr

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  1. I've had enough of the current pop-culture rapture for Vampires and Zombies (especially the damned Zombies) that I can stand, but I could maybe make room for this. The modern incarnation of Vampires bores me to tears, but a historic take on them? Count me in for that. I think there is a ton of Eastern European myth and mysticism that is entirely overlooked by Western books and movies, and they're a helluva lot more compelling than what we're getting right now.

    One thing, though: I'm constantly stunned by the open hate for Stephanie Meyers and her books. I've never read a single word that the woman has written (though I've seen the first movie), but the fact remains that she has published a successful series of novels that were in turn adapted to a successful movie series.

    I'm playing devil's advocate here, because I am usually the type of person to observe what the masses are doing and then do the exact opposite of that. But I have to ask the question: Does the hate come from informed criticism, or is the genre fan base (mostly the fellows) simply insulted and offended by the fact that Meyers hijacked the vaulted Vampire legend and turned it into a romance that the female demographic gobbled up? Certainly we wouldn't be having this conversation if these books were not as popular as they've become.

    So, is she really that bad?

    Thanks for the review, Niall.

    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

  2. Great review as always!
    Hey Niall I really loved the posts you did on movies in 2010, it'd be great if you did those for 2011 too. I think 2011 might be a much stronger year for movies in general than 2010 was.
    Also I found a number of pure goodies from your posts like Ondine, Never let me go, Centurion, kick-ass not to mention you were the first one to bring Inception to my attention.

    I am looking forwards to the Speculative Cinema posts for 2011.

  3. Kris - In short, yes, Stephanie Meyer really is that bad. Hardly a comprehensive answer to your question, I know, but you've moved me to start in on a proper post about the very questions you raise.

    In fact both of these comments, kindly though they were, have made work for me! :/

    The Fantasizer - Yep, I've been seriously thinking about doing a run-down of what speculative cinema we have to look forward to this year. It was such a lot of work last year and I'm not sure when exactly I'll find the time, but folks have been asking after another run-down, and I don't like to disappoint, so... alright. Stay tuned!

  4. I have just picked a copy of "Twelve", and I am
    looking forward to reading it at some point in the near future. The success of "Twilight",(think of an undead version of James Dean) and "True Blood" ( a more extreme update of
    "Peyton Place") should not deter horror fans from tracking down fine books like Tim Powers' "The Stress Of Her Regard", Kelley Wildes' "Mastery" and Chris Golden's "Saints And Sinners".

    All are great variations on an old theme.

    As for Steve King, he is a far better writer than given credit for. I am not a huge fan, but Dan Brown will be dead and buried before he delivers anything in the same realms of "Pet Semetary" or "Cell".

    His short stories are always worth checking out, especially since it seems to be a artform falling into neglect....