Friday, May 29, 2009
by Jasper Kent
Format: Paperback, 480 pages
Cover Design: Paul Young
Release Date: January 1, 2009
ISBN-10: 0- 593060644
Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov is a Russian soldier in the year 1812. Most of Europe is under the French boot and now Napoleon has invaded Russia. The Tsar has ordered the Russian army to fall back rather than meet Napoleon in a decisive battle. Aleksei’s squad, which functions as scouts and spies by seeking intelligence and often working behind the lines, decides to hire a group of twelve foreign mercenaries to help slow the French advance.
However, the mercenaries, dubbed the Oprichniki by Aleksei’s squad, are not normal men. This is quite clear from the very beginning as they kill with a brutal, ruthless, and scary efficiency. In fact, they are voordalak – the ancient Russian word for vampire. When Aleksei discovers the Oprichniki’s true nature, the battle shifts from fighting the French to eradicating an ancient nightmare now fighting in their midst.
One cool thing about the book is that the vampires are pretty realistic. They have advantages over humans, but they have weaknesses to even the balance. Another thing is that the vampires don’t actively seek to increase their numbers. Instead, they rely on those that approach them and share a willingness to give up their humanity. Hence, vampirism is as much a state of mind as a disease or even existence as a separate species.
Twelve certainly sounds like an interesting book and it’s the main reason I bought it. Unfortunately, I had a few problems with it. My main complaint is that the book did not feel like a historical novel. Other than political details, there is nothing that made me feel like I was in 19th Century Russia fighting Napoleon. Frankly, the tale could be have been set during Caesar’s conquest of Gaul or the Boxer Rebellion in China for all the importance of the setting. Truly, the book is not about the Napoleonic Wars at all but rather against the vampires and I think the story suffers for it. To put it another way: if the setting is secondary, why have a vampire story in this time period at all?
Part of the problem with this may be Kent’s prose style. The novel is written in first person narrative yet I had quite a bit of difficulty believing in Aleksei’s motivations and actions. For instance, as an officer, Aleksei has a wife and son in St. Petersburg. He also has a mistress in Moscow, yet his love for her is never convincing. Neither did I believe his “instinctive” hatred for the vampires when all his knowledge of them is from fairy tales told by his grandmother. Aleksei even goes so far as to turn against his fellow comrades. Characterization on the whole was better for the supporting cast then it ever was for the voice of the narrative. The last third of the book, exclusively about Aleksei against the vampires, was nearly a slog to read.
Twelve has a very interesting premise, unfortunately I felt the author didn’t quite pull it off. Perhaps I was expecting too much from a book with a historical setting, or maybe I was not in the right frame of mind when I read it. In any case, the book might still appeal to other readers of vampire/horror or historical fiction.