Twelve by Jasper Kent
Review by Floresiensis
The voordalak - a creature of legend; tales of which have terrified Russian children for generations. But for Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov - a child of more enlightened times - it is a legend that has long been forgotten. Besides, in the autumn of 1812, he faces a more tangible enemy - the Grand Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte.
City after city has fallen to the advancing French, and now it seems that only a miracle will keep them from Moscow itself. In desperation, Aleksei and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki - a group of twelve mercenaries from the furthest reaches of Christian Europe, who claim that they can turn the tide of the war. It seems an idle boast, but the Russians soon discover that the Oprichniki are indeed quite capable of fulfilling their promise.
Unnerved by the fact that so few can accomplish so much, Aleksei remembers those childhood stories of the voordalak. And as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these twelve strangers, he realizes that they've unleashed a nightmare in their midst...
Twelve offers the best of three worlds; the wonder that is history combined with the boundless scope of fantasy and the timeless allure of folklore. Jasper Kent has chosen the year 1812 and Napoleon’s doomed invasion of Russia as the backdrop for a story that is, to quote the back-cover, the first ever Napoleonic historical vampire novel. But the big questions are… Does this work? What happens when history, fantasy and folklore collide? Firstly, yes, this unique format does work as the author’s meticulous research and attention to detail really shine through. Secondly, we discover that the three genres unite perfectly to create a rich, detailed and enjoyable book that is, for want of a better phrase, a real “page-turner”.
“And, as is so often the case in these stories, it was a young boy, of about ten, who first noticed. There was silence because there was no birdsong. After the merchant’s creatures had done their work, there was not a single bird left alive anywhere in the town of Uryupin.
Nor did any ever return.”
Prologue – A Russian Folk Tale
The prologue features a fascinating recounting of a Russian folk tale and from there the story unfolds into a linear narrative dotted with flashbacks providing further insights into the lives of the characters. Twelve has six major characters, all but one of them male and all very, very human. There is nothing perfect about these people; they are shown warts and all, in the first person, from the perspective of Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov. Danilov is a flawed but mostly decent man who embarks on a journey both mental and physical, suffering hardship, self-loathing, love and loss within the realistic and vibrant setting of Russia and in particular, Moscow.
An unforgettable part of the book described the horrors faced by the retreating French army during the winter of 1812:
“But as I headed towards Orsha, those tell-tale signs that I had seen on the carcasses of horses now became evident on the bodies of men. As the last horses died, so one food supply dried up. The living, who had already learned how to extract something nourishing from the body of a horse, had switched to applying the same skills to the bodies of their fellow men. Starvation had led to cannibalism. As with the horses, it would have begun with violation of the bodies of those who were already dead. It would not have gone on to killing men for their meat – surely.”
Jasper Kent shows admirable restraint when it comes to the gruesome; there are moments in the book that genuinely make you squirm uncomfortably but it is the scarcity that makes them so effective. If an author dishes out the gore from page one then the reader becomes desensitised and the horrific becomes mundane. The author has an obvious passion for the subjects within his story and he has created an effortless and enjoyable read. The average reader will not possess a wide knowledge of Russian history and Twelve will lead to them carrying out further research on this most fascinating of countries. I personally would have liked for there to have been more tension and for the book to have ended rather differently but there can no denying that Twelve is a great read and a breath of fresh air to more than one genre. Twelve is an educational, entertaining and dark historical fantasy novel.
Anne Kragelund deserves a special mention for the cover design – it is simply stunning.
Dave from Birmingham, England
Competently written but uninspiring. I found little horror (and less fantasy) in it, but some well used gore. Overall it felt bland and workman-like, but at least it was easy to read.
Ade from Birmingham, England
A great story, not my normal read but fantastic. The only thing I found fault with was the ending; but one of my top ten books.
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