Boris Akunin’s The Winter Queen is not great literature, but it is great entertainment. The first of ten novels (of a projected twelve) in the Erast Fandorin detective series, The Winter Queen is also the first of the series to be translated into English. The Winter Queen clearly shows why the immense popularity of the series in Russia has been dubbed “Erastomania”: Introducing a young hero so straight and clean he could teach Sunday school, The Winter Queen offers traditional storytelling. Despite a few dialogue-heavy sections, for the most part the story moves swiftly, with so many twists and turns in the plot and so many narrow escapes for the hero that one wants to keep turning the pages. Like a fireworks display, the book begins with a bang and ends not with one but with two bangs. Even the settings, czarist Russia and Victorian England, and the style, with long chapter headings that comment wryly on the action, entertain in an old-fashioned way.
Part of the novel’s appeal seems to be nostalgic, harking back for Russians to a simpler, albeit colorfully decadent time before communism, its sudden collapse, and the harsh reintroduction to capitalism. The setting provides some cultural and historical continuity and is a reminder that, even before communism, Russia was a great country. The novel’s characters, with their long names, are also reminiscent of Russia’s great nineteenth century literature: Akunin draws on such familiar types as the bored, dissolute student, the gambler and duelist, and the femme fatale. Place names, including numerous references to streets, also feed nostalgia, and Akunin furnishes such obligatory scenes as the rounds of Russian roulette (here called American roulette), the high-stakes gambling match, and the long train ride across Mother Russia.
Aside from references to some gruesome crimes and to orphans, Akunin does not dwell on the social ills, injustices, and suffering of the time, so prominent in nineteenth century Russian literature. Instead, from his mellowed historical perspective, he tends to depict the earlier time’s social problems humorously. For example, there is the maddening Russian bureaucracy, as seen at the novel’s beginning, in which young Fandorin’s police duties consist only of writing and rewriting routine reports. There is also czarist Russia’s obsession with rank, as seen in numerous references throughout the text and the need for an appendix, “The Table of Ranks,” listing all fourteen levels in the civil and military hierarchies, with appropriate titles. Young Fandorin’s success is marked by his rapid advancement in rank, from lowly “clerk and civil servant fourteenth class” to somewhere several rungs up.
Still another example of humor is Fandorin’s homesickness as he travels from the familiar squalor of Mother Russia to the clean cities of Western Europe. England is particularly off-putting, sending a chill up Fandorin’s spine, especially in the way people pass each other in the street without looking into each other’s faces.
Historical perspective also gives Akunin a chance to play with references to science and pseudoscience. Among the more alarming characters, for instance, is Professor Gebhardt Blank, who has been experimenting with electric shock to erase memory in animals, creating a blank brain which can be written on at will: Erast Fandorin, forcibly restrained, is scheduled to become his first human subject. Fandorin is saved on this occasion, and others, because he practices the Chandra Johnson method of controlled breathing. Other marvelous inventions that come into play include the Lord Byron corset, the telegraph, disappearing ink, exploding bullets, time...
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