I read this twice; that’s a first. I’d not read a novel I was reviewing twice before. (Sorry Louise, I didn’t mean to be late sending in this review, Katharine made me do it.) You can infer from that where this review will end up. This is a big book. In size (377 pages!), in scale, in themes, in ambition. It’s a slow book, unravelling patiently around deep detail, but so efficiently that it was only (!) 377 pages long. I feel that in less craftful hands this could’ve been a thousand; it feels like I’ve travelled a thousand pages.
It reminds me of no-one so much as Alan Garner, and I love Alan Garner. It’s grounded in convincing locations and mundane interactions. In great emotions and fierce dilemmas – and then the Other intrudes, and it’s an Other that feels properly not around here. There’s an unfamiliarity to the supernatural elements that’s alien, that’s true to its Siberian roots.
This is a Russian novel. It’s fairly convincingly written as if it were an English translation from Russian. There’s that slight awkwardness to it. The landscape is huge and oppressive; a thing to be endured, not won over. The setting is a Siberian labour camp in the closing years of Stalinism. Everything is about survival, about seeing the next day.
Our hero is Lina. She and her mother, Katya, are prisoners. Katya engineers Lina’s escape so that she might find her grandmother on the outside, in Moscow, and not die in the camp as her uncle and grandfather have done. The opening quarter of the book covers the same kind of ground as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and could be a bit dreary for the less dedicated reader were it not that it is so involving: the characters are good, their lives are sharp, the text is evocative.
The second quarter brings in the excitement of the escape, the perils of being on the run, the kind of treachery and paranoia you might expect in Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s the segment that begins bringing in sorcerous weird forces… We pass into the second half of the book and Lina and her friend and co-escapee Bogdan are pitted against the witch Svetlana and her army of spirits, who is intrigued with Lina, and whom Lina and Bogdan must elude in trying to get to Moscow.
I very much want to avoid spoilers. Sufficient to say the result is a world, no, let’s say World, that is complete unto itself and alive, with depth and breadth as well-realised and fresh as Tolkien or Moorcock or Le Guin must have seemed when they were stretching out what fantasy could do. It’s not a rehashed blend of tropes masquerading as something new.
I am very impressed.
All the elements of the plot come to satisfying conclusions. All the twists are twisty. Nothing is simplistic. There is even a softly-achieved change of pace after the plot climax that means the last part of the book isn’t a rush for the door, but a thing in and of itself.
I don’t know that this is a book that’ll be immediately very successful, but I think this is a book that will still be being a success in decades’ time, when this year’s bestsellers are clogging up charity shops. I think it’s in with a decent shout of being a trend-setter that inspires copyists. I think it’s got enough skill and hook in its opening pages to get most readers through their doubts as to whether they want to read 377 pages of Siberian prison camp, and I would point any child with a Year 5 or better reading ability in its direction.
I love it. But then I think you guessed that in the first paragraph.