Twelve by Jasper Kent

10 October, 2012

I’ve been indulging in all things Russian this summer. Correction, indulging in all things Russian without actually starting War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy which was my main priority. Well, the leaves have started falling but I’ve still got time, right? For this month’s book group I chose Twelve by Jasper Kent, a book I’ve been wanting to read since it was first published in 2008.

Set in 1812 as Napoleon advances towards Moscow, Kent’s first novel is about Alexei Ivanovich Danilov and his three friends, Vadim, Dmitry and Maksim, all part of an elite military task force, who invite a group of twelve Wallachian mercenaries to come and fight with them against the French. However, plague and death follow these mercenaries and soon, it becomes clear that their fighting methods are not those of an ordinary soldier. And in the cold, dark winter that is Russia, Danilov soon realises that they have invited something terrifying into their midst. For these mercenaries are no ordinary men. Nor are they even human…

How amazing does that sound? After all the romantic vampire fiction I’ve been reading over the years, it’s rather satisfying to read about them in a more original manner, a la Bram Stoker and his Dracula, where the undead stink of death and there’s nothing that would make you want to become one of the children of the night. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy all the vampire romance (I do) but it’s nice to have a change. Kent’s treatment of vampires are on a baser, more animalistic level, so fans of the love lorn vampire will be disappointed. However, I think he did show how terrifying they are in his novel albeit in an overdramatic way. The twelve mercenaries all have pseudonyms of the twelve apostles which adds a sense of religious outrage to their actions. Of them all, Iuda is the most frightening (and probably the most good looking with his long blond hair. Ahem.)

Kent’s grasp of Russian military history during this period seems pretty solid (I’m no expert but I didn’t notice any glaring slips) and his prose flowed smoothly. There were a few modern phrases that jarred a little but I think he was trying to keep all the dialogue contemporary although sometimes it didn’t fit in with the period. The Russia that is described in Twelve is one that we are familiar with if we’ve read any Russian literature or seen film adaptations; the bitter cold, the never ending snow, the horror and trauma of towns under siege, and it’s pretty superb. This was a pretty good thriller over all with some interesting twists along the way.

However, there were a few things that really got up my nose. The first is the character of Danilov. I liked him a lot but I found him confused and conflicted. Maybe that was meant to be, the conflict endangering Russia mirrored within himself. And yet, for an enlightened man, a married soldier, who likes to argue about politics and philosophy and who is widely travelled, his reasoning and decisions often smacked of a schoolboy.

I don’t know about you but I also find this whole romanticisation of prostitutes and brothels perplexing. Yes, I understand that soldiers, married or not and throughout the ages, frequent brothels. What I don’t get is how an enlightened man such as Danilov can fall in love with the prostitute Dominikiia who doesn’t seem to have much going for her apart from her beauty or her tragic past. She seemed pretty happy with being a prossie which is hardly realistic (I know, and there are vampires in this novel too!) Danilov loves his wife Marfa and son Dmitry, or so he says to himself, but I’m not convinced. And he says he loves Dominikiia but I’m not convinced about that either. It just seemed as though he was enacting this nihilistic drama that is Danilov’s Life and that Kent was constructing these relationships because it is what is expected of a soldier like Danilov.

OK, I sound cruel here, but I rather like Danilov and his thoughts just really annoyed me. It’s as though he was trying to be deep but couldn’t escape his superficiality. Witness his treatment of his friend Maks; he’s supposed to be his dearest friend, and yet in his moment of need, he dismisses him in seconds without even thinking about their friendship, history, loyalty, etc. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted.

So although Twelve is well written and a good thriller and I really liked the inclusion of the vampires, there were some aspects that really annoyed me. This is a personal thing but I really wish we could all move away from rose-tinted views of prostitution. I also would have liked to get to know Danilov’s friends better. Vadim, Dmitry and Maksim all sounded like they had stories to tell.

Twelve is the first novel in the Danilov Quintet. I already have a copy of Thirteen Years Later , the second book, just to see how Danilov has matured and I really hope he has!

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.