Bantam U.K., 2009
Jasper Kent’s Twelve represents yet another of my “I-hate-the-UK-for-making-me-import-books” purchases since thet title, as far as I know, lacks a U.S. release date but the premise was so damned cool that I couldn’t resist. It is 1812 and Napoleon is well on his way into Russia. Our story inolves a group of four soldiers a “special” squad (sabetours and spies) who hire a mercenary band of 12 men called the Oprichniki to aid in harrying Napoleon’s forces. The mercenaries are disturbingly effective and, over the course of the campaign, their dark nature soon comes to light. Our intrepid hero Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov (Lyosha) must make a choice between loyalty to his country and loyalty to the entire human race.
I suppose I should say that during my undergraduate studies I took a course on the Napoleonic Wars. During my studies then I found Napoleon’s desperate march across Russion so late in the year an absolutely fascinating example of true military blunder by a man who so relatively few over the course of his reign. Even more stunning than the Napoleon’s (over)reach onto Russian soil was the Russian’s own desperate defense of their country. From the bloody battle of Borodino to the abadonment of Moscow and it’s subsquent firing (historical consensus says it was deliberate) it is an engaging revelation of resilience against overwhelming odds. For my final paper in the class I spent some time going through translations of soldier’s memoirs of the campaign and, especially the final retreat that occured more or less during the heart of Russian winter. Stories of men freezing to death, of the forced march back along batte lines already depleted of resources, the desperate river crossings and a trail of dead that left an army that started at close to 500,000 men at a mere fraction of it’s strength. It is defeat that was costly for the Russian but devestating for Napoleon who, up until that point, had been nigh on unstoppable.
If the above sounds dark and grim than you are absolutely correct and it is a tone that Kent nails perfectly. Futhermore, setting a tale of inhuman horror in the midst of human one is a fascinating approach that lends an air of desperation and some added tension to an already dire situation. In truth Twelve has as much in common with a standard historical novel than that of a horror novel. In a truly splendid blend of the two genre Kent manages to use the horror of war and the horror of the inhuman other (in this case literally) to explore notions of honor, humanity and, to an extent, national pride. In truth, through the use of the immortal vampire and wartime setting, Kent seems to hint at the universality of death as means of defining both life and humanity. In this instance the twelve Oprichniki neither living nor dead turn that notion on their head. Where the war bedraggled humans of Twelve fight for a cause (whether it be national pride, a loved one, or simple survival) and live and love in spite of the death and horror surrounding them, the Oprichniki derive life and lust out of the death surrounding them. It is a subtle difference but one that I think the adds to the unique horror of the vampires as feature in Twelve.
Kent’s masterful handling of historical detail is backed by his strong sense of atmosphere, crisp dialoge, and fascinating characters. The novel’s narrative is in the first person as told by Lyosha (Captain Danilov). Danilov, isn’t always a likeable character there is a muted cast to his emotional range and at time he is a much impartial observer to events as he is active particpant. It is an effect that isn’t always pleasant, and one that doesn’t always make exciting reading, but it is one that strongly suits the character as we know him: a somehwat jaded veteran whose primarily duties as a spy and soldier requires observation without action. The other members of Lyosha’s special squad: Dmitry, Maks, and Vadim are cast of a similar mold though each have their own unique twists: Maks’ intellectual leanings, Dmitry’s secretiveness, and Vadim’s quiet authority and stoicism set them apart from one other with deceptive ease. At the same time through crisp dialoge often laced with gallows humor and stark fatalism Kent manages to convey a very realistic sense of friendship and brotherhood between these characters. Of the Oprichniki there is little given to seperate them out individually, with the exception of Iouda who, by the time the novel is over, becomes a complex character whose subtle traits I kicked myself for missing. Their very lack of individuality seems to me a means to accentuate their inhuman/animalistic natures.
As much as I enjoyed the novel it isn’t without it’s flaws. The pacing is sedate at times with the beginning and and end of the novel moving at a snails pace. The novel really shines during Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow and while the pace isn’t really any faster during this part the atmospheric setting and tense cat and mouse games make for some fine reading. I was particularly frustraded at what felt to me like a huge infodump towards the end of the novel with only the barest attempt at disguising it as such. Luckily that segued into a visually dynamic and exciting climatic battle that I found frighteningly easy to visualize. Still, I found the ending slightly less than satisfying though I can think of no other way to have brought the novel to a close. Overall, Twelve is a gripping historical tale of human horror accentuated by the presence of inhuman terror. Fans of historical fiction will likely enjoy its realistic setting and heavy basis in historical fact while finding the supernatural elements subtle enough that they accentuate, rather than contrast, the realistic atmosphere. At the same time fans of vampire fiction will be engaged by what is a truly unique take on the vampire story (including an appearance by a familiar vampiric face). Unfortunatley, if you’re not from the U.K., it looks like importing is your only option.