Varvara Suvorova is making her way to the Russian front, to find her fiance who's an army cryptographer. The year is 1877 and Russia is at war with Turkey. Varvara is tricked into losing all her possessions but the enigmatic Erast Fandorin comes to her rescue, bringing her to the Russian Headquarters where she rather reluctantly accepts the role of his assistant.
I'd assumed Erast Fandorin (of whom a series of books has been written) was going to be a kind of Russian Sharpe, and that the book would be like that. And the quotes on the back tend to support that assumption, e.g. "A tale of derring-do, full of sieges, ambushes and cavalry charges" (TLS). But it wasn't like Sharpe - it wasn't full of excitement and tactical detail at all: this was more like a whodunnit type story that happened to be set in a nineteenth century battlefield. The main story is about the uncovering of a suspected spy in the Russian camp, with Fandorin as the detective character.
Perhaps, if I'd been reading this in a "whodunnit" rather than a "rippng yarn" frame of mind, I'd have enjoyed it more. But I don't really think it was that good a book. One thing that seemed quite bizarre was how much of the action took place "off-stage" as it were. Yes, there were sieges and ambushes and cavalry charges, but these felt almost incidental and were not written about in detail. In fact, the story is told pretty much entirely from Varvara's point of view, and she's cooped up in the camp most of the time so the exciting stuff is either happening in the distance, or being related by Fandorin when he comes back from an expedition to gather information.
An extreme example was the episode where Varvara is being held hostage in a windowless room, listening to a battle that's taking place outside, but not released from the room until the battle is over. In fact, if felt as if the author deliberately wrote in a way that avoided having to cover any of the action scenes - either as an exercise or in order to make some kind of point. Whatever, it made the book feel pretty dull.
The "whodunnit" side of things wasn't that great either - Fandorin uncovers the traitor, but there were so many characters that it wasn't as if you had a particular emotional tie to anyone so it wouldn't really have mattered who it was.
Something else that was interesting (and irritating) was the use of names. I think that Fandorin's full name is "Erast Petrovich Fandorin". Sometimes he's referred to as "Fandorin", sometimes "Erast", sometimes "Erast Petrovich" and sometimes "the titular counsellor". And they're all like this. Varvarva is sometimes abbreviated to "Varya", and sometimes anglicised to "Barbara". And given that there are quite a lot of characters, I was not always certain that someone new wasn't being introduced. Maybe that's just the way it's done when you're speaking Russian.
So a bit disappointing really - the books seemed to be well-reviewed, but on the evidence of this one I'm not sure exactly why. I think I probably won't be reading any more.
Completed : 24-Jun-2009