There are two ways to tackle an historical novel. One is to stick as closely to the known facts as possible; the other is to invent. Authors like Hillary Mantell openly admit that they change history for the sake of the pace and interest in the events and characters. They are aware that life has a lot of boring bits in it that if recounted would cause the reader to put down the book and never return to it. Others such as Georgette Heyer used the background and social mores of an historical period as the setting for the story and kept out the prominent figures of the time or referred to them only in passing in the same way a contemporary person might mention the prime minister without claiming them as part of their social circle. Whichever the approach, a lot of research is necessary. Get details glaringly, or verifiably wrong and the reader will lose confidence in the writer. Overdo it and the volume can become tedious. Finding the balance is important. Largely, Kent manages to do this in this novel.
Jasper Kent’s series of Russian historical novels, the Danilov Quintet, treads a fine line between historical accuracy and invention. The late nineteenth century events surrounding the Romanov dynasty are well known even if all the intimate details of their family life are not. They can be checked. There are, though, millions of Russians of the times whose lives are undocumented. To put a slant on the familiar and introduce fantasy elements requires skill – after all, anyone can research recorded history.
The central theme to the series revolves around a pact the Tsar Aleksandr I made with a vampire who called himself Zmyeevich. By exchanging blood Alexander would become a vampire on his death, but Zmyeevich would have control of Russia. Aleksandr however decided this was a bad deal and refused to drink. As a result, Zmyeevich’s opportunity to control the destiny of Russia has been reduced to one chance in each Romanov generation. So far he has failed. He needs to be rid of the current tsar, Alexander III, if he is to get a chance. To this end he is encouraging an organization called The People’s Will which, as historians will confirm, plotted to kill the Tsar in the belief that on his death the people would rise up and get rid of the Romanovs permanently.
Just as each volume in this series deals with a generation of the Romanovs, so it parallels the generations of the Danilov family. In The People’s Will, Mihail Konstantinovich is a Danilov who is seeking revenge. His target is another vampire who calls himself Iuda.
The novel opens in 1881 with Mihail working as a military engineer at the siege of Geok Tepe overseeing the team that is undermining the city’s walls. His commanding officer, Colonel Otrepyev creates a secondary tunnel and as the walls are breached, Mihail investigates. He finds that Otrepyev has opened a chamber to find a prisoner held there for three years. This he realises is Iuda, the vampire he seeks. Unable to take his revenge at that point, Mihail follows him to St Petersburg where most of the action takes place. Here Mihail has two aims – to find and destroy Iuda and to make contact with his father, the Tsar’s brother Konstantin. To aid him in the first task, he allows himself to be recruited by The People’s Will organisation as their explosives expert. For the second, he has a token from his mother, once part of a gift Konstantin gave her.
The other main strand of the novel involves Zmyeevich and his search for an artefact known as Ascalon which he believes Iuda knows the whereabouts. Interwoven are sections which trace Iuda’s early life and his fascination for scientific enquiry, especially once he has encountered one the nature and limits of vampirism.
This is the kind of book that should appeal to a number of readers with different interests. It has the authentic ring of a well researched historical novel which is able to stick to what is known while skilfully weaving in fictional characters to add tension to the plot. It has the fantasy twists lurking in the background of the verifiable events while coming to the fore in the totally fictional sections. Be warned though that these vampires are not the dashing, irresistible figures of a lot of vampire fiction but highly dangerous predators with no morals. The downside of the book is the recounting of Iuda’s history. It doesn’t add much to the plot and only functions to add to the length of the volume. The novel would have worked perfectly well without it. Otherwise, those who have enjoyed the others in the series will find this to their liking. Anyone not familiar with the first three books do not need to seek them out first as most of the knowledge required to understand the situation is neatly tucked in.