12 Books #1: The Winter Queen

Erast Fandorin, a clerk in the Moscow Criminal Investigations Department, suspects there is more to the suicide of a wealthy youth than meets the eye. There has to be, as otherwise the mystery would be solved after 40 pages, and then what the author talk about for the remaining 200 pages? In the course of his investigation, Fandorin encounters sinister parlor games, multi-national charitable organizations, the murky Thames, enchanting women, and a fake mustache. Much is revealed, but mysteries remain.

The Winter Queen was my first selection in the 12 Books, 12 Months challenge, and as Shane suggested last night, I probably wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t committed to reading it. A few things contributed to my disinterest:

  • The Winter Queen is the first in a planned sequence of 16 Fandorin books, each exploring a different sub-genre of the detective novel. I don’t generally read mysteries – heck, I don’t generally read much fiction. As a result, I probably missed out on the subtleties of Akunin’s exploration of the genre.
  • I didn’t know anything about the concept of the sequence before I read the book, but I did know that this was one of ten currently published Fandorin novels – which, as with the James Bond movies, made it hard to be too anxious for our hero, since I knew he would return at least nine more times,
  • On a related note, I told Shane that reading The Winter Queen felt like reading an early Bond movie. (I haven’t read any of the Bond novels, so I can’t fairly make that comparison.) Of course there’s a femme fatale. Of course there’s a mysterious plot that requires travel to glamorous locations. Of course the big reveal takes place when the hero is in mortal peril, and of course you’re left wondering if the villain’s end is really what it seems. This makes more sense now that I know that this is the “conspiracy mystery” in the sequence – however this knowledge hasn’t helped me to shake my vaguely campy cloak-and-dagger impressions.
  • For a story rife with murder most foul, I felt like the author relied too much on monologue and not enough on action. The Wikipedia entry mentions that Akunin intended the Fandorin sequence to be a response to the sex-and-gore-laden detective novels of the post-Soviet era, but I feel that he went a little too far in his chaste pursuit. In this respect, it felt a little like a grown up Series of Unfortunate Events – bad things are happening, but often off-screen (or page, as it were).
  • Finally, I’m just not all that familiar with the cultural context in which the novel takes place. I read Anna Karenina at the ripe age of 13, but that was my last venture into 19th century Russia. Were I more versed in this period, I might have enjoyed the novel more. Similarly, I might have enjoyed The Winter Queen more in Akunin’s native Russian. Alas, I read it in translation, and almost completely devoid of context, both of which probably make me some kind of literary rube.

In conclusion, I think this is a perfectly worthwhile detective novel, and fans of the genre or aficionados of Russian literature might enjoy it greatly, especially if said fans are inclined to read the entire series. I, however, am neither a fan of the genre or of Russian literature, and so I will bid both farewell with this review.

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0 thoughts on “12 Books #1: The Winter Queen

  1. I’ve read this one, and another one (something about a boat?) in the series, and yeah, there’s something faintly contrived about them… I suppose I’d heard some excitement about the series, but they just seem… fairly serviceable, and the only unique thing is the continental flavor and/or that he’s russian?

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  2. Thanks for this review! I have been on the fence about reading these for a while and it’s nice to feel a little bit more informed about it.
    I think I’ll stick with Martin Cruz Smith for a while longer. There’s still quite a few of his Arkady Renko books I haven’t read.

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  3. My reaction was similar. I don’t think I would have finished it if I’d been reading it, but listening to it added suspense and I’m fairly certain I daydreamed through some of the slower parts. Murder on the Leviathan was better. Better, but not enough for me to read more Akunin. I think you’re right about the translation/context problem.

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