Set in an alternate Russia the novel tells the tale of Investigator Vissarion Lom who is summoned by the head of the secret police to Mirgorod (the capital) in order to catch a notorious terrorist; a “home grown” insurgent who has been eluding the state and undermining their totalitarian regime. Being an “outsider” with a sliver of angel stone embedded in his head, Lom is seen as the perfect choice to confront this menace.
This is a state that has been worn down by an endless, brutal war and Lom quickly discovers that it’s also a country more corrupt that he could have imagined: a hidden world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.
What follows is an incredibly rich, rewarding novel that has an amazing feeling of depth. The use of an alternative noir-tinged Russia complete with the authoritarian, iron-fisted and deeply corrupt bureaucracy works brilliantly with the plodding world-weary gumshoe narrative and bleak, angel-wrought alternative world. It’s the first time I’ve read anything approaching “soviet noir” and it’s a perfect fit – the immersion is absolute, carried forward by the rich quality to the prose that borders on the poetic in places.
I was reminded of China Mieville’s linguistic style on occasion – especially his The City & The City, along with that of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama however what mostly sprang to mind was one of my favourite novels – The Man in the High Castle – even the ending seemed to be somewhat of a salute to that classic.
The pace is set just about right, achieving a nice balance between world-building and story development and this is assisted by short chapters and changing perspectives. The book is very easy to read, like Mieville and Tidhar the narrative feels very much within the literary style that just happens to feature elements of science fiction; fallen Angels providing a solid sense of the alien are at war with the forests and reality itself seems to rebel against this violent invasion. The action sequences are dramatic and are assisted by the gritty realism that pervades the novel, the creation of tension at these times is almost tangible. It is important to remember that this is the start of a series though otherwise you could be a bit shocked by the abrupt ending – which is doubtless very effective as a draw to read the next.
I absolutely love this book, it’s got everything you could hope for in a classic (and yes it does feel like a classic), literary allusions, a dynamic narrative that works on many different levels and a well structured story that keeps moving forward and keeps you guessing. A gritty noir-tinged feel and characters that appear to have a life of their own all combined into a novel That’s completely unique – I cannot recommend this highly enough.
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