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Monday, December 29, 2008

“Twelve” by Jasper Kent (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official Jasper Kent Website
Order “Twelve
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Read Reviews via SFF World

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jasper Kent owns a degree in Natural Sciences from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. For almost twenty years he has worked as a software engineer and has co-written several musicals including The Promised Land and Remember! Remember!. “Twelve” is his first published novel with a sequel, “Thirteen Years Later”, already commissioned by Transworld.

ABOUT TWELVE: The voordalak are a creature of legend, tales of which have terrified Russian children for generations. But for Captain Aleksei Ivanonvich Danilov—a child of more enlightened times—it is a legend that has long been forgotten. Besides, in the autumn of 1812, he faces a more tangible enemy—the Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte.

City after city has fallen to the advancing French, and now it seems that only a miracle will keep them from Moscow itself. In desperation, Aleksei and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki—a group of twelve mercenaries from the furthest reaches of Christian Europe—who claim that they can turn the tide of the war. It seems an idle boast, but the Russians soon discover that the Oprichniki are indeed quite capable of fulfilling their promise.

Unnerved by the fact that so few can accomplish so much, Aleksei remembers those childhood stories of the voordalak. And as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these twelve strangers, he realizes that they’ve unleashed a nightmare in their midst…

CLASSIFICATION: Set in 1812 during the French invasion of Russia—specifically the Battle of Borodino, the capture and fires of Moscow, the retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Berezina—with the primary antagonists being vampires, “Twelve” is much like the book describes itself . . . a vibrant blend of detailed historical fiction and heart-stopping supernatural horror. Myself, I was reminded of a cross between a Bernard Cornwell novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and “Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire”…

FORMAT/INFO:Twelve” is 480 pages long divided over two Parts, thirty-two Roman-numbered chapters, and a Russian Folk Tale as the Prologue. Also includes a map and an Author’s Note. Narration is in the first-person exclusively via Aleksei Ivanonvich Danilov. Story is self-contained and comes to a very satisfying conclusion, but “Twelve” is envisioned as the “first in a quintet (The Danilov Quintet) of novels which span Russian history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” with a sequel, “Thirteen Years Later” (Working Title), currently under development.

January 1, 2009 marks the Trade Paperback Publication of “Twelve” via
Bantam Press UK. Cover designed by Paul Young. NOTE: The second cover below was the original design which I personally like :)

ANALYSIS: I love vampire stories, but as I’ve mentioned before, the concept has started to lose its novelty because it’s just the same ideas being used over and over. Which is why I was instantly attracted to Jasper Kent’sTwelve”, a book billed as “the First Napoleonic Historical Vampire Novel”. Simply put, using a war as the backdrop for a vampire tale was a brilliant idea. In fact, I wonder why it hasn’t been done more often. After all, wartime is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ever thirsting vampire and is just full of material for an author to work with :)

Yet, as I’ve commented on many times before, an interesting hook can only take a novel so far without the proper execution. This is what makes “Twelve” so special. Because while it was the hook that first reeled me in, it was Jasper’s wonderful writing and storytelling that kept me glued to the novel until its very last page…

Jasper’s writing impressed me for a number of reasons, but most impressive of all was the characterization, specifically of the main protagonist, Aleksei Ivanonvich Danilov. Now with a first-person narrative, one would expect to get a little more insight into a character than they would from a third-person narrative, but Jasper takes it a step further, establishing everything from Aleksei’s personality and his fears & desires to the different levels of friendship he has developed with Maks, Dmitry and Vadim to the love that he feels for his wife and child as well as the prostitute Domnikiia, and much more. The end result is a fully realized, three-dimensional character that readers can care about, root for and connect with emotionally. One of my favorite traits about Aleksei was his wonderful similes/metaphors:

Horses and victuals that had been moved away from the road during the French advance had surged back in after their retreat, as though Napoleon were Moses leading his army of Israelites across the Red Seas, except that what was drawn away in advance of him and returned behind would have brought life, not death to his army.”

In addition to the characterization, the worldbuilding was topnotch, effortlessly transporting the reader back to the Napoleonic Wars when France was invading Russia. History buffs in particular will be thrilled by the amount of detail that Jasper has packed into the novel, especially the way he weaves the main storyline with actual historical events like the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s capture and occupation of Moscow, the fires and the French army's retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Berezina. It should be noted however, that even though the book takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and that Aleksei and his friends are Russian soldiers, “Twelve” is not your typical war novel. Part of the reason is because Aleksei, Maks, Dmitry and Vadim specialize in espionage and fight the war through subterfuge, but it’s also because of the vampire storyline which dominates about half of the novel.

Story-wise, “Twelve” starts off a little slow with the author focused on establishing the setting, the character of Aleksei, his relationship with Maks, Dmitry, Vadim and Domnikiia; the strangeness of the Oprichniki, and so forth. In fact, the vampires aren’t even revealed as such until about 200 pages into the novel. What’s interesting about this though is that the reader knows that the Oprichniki are vampires, so it’s fun to catch all of the little clues that reveal the Oprichniki’s true nature. Plus, there’s plenty to keep the reader entertained including war espionage, the love story between Aleksei and Domnikiia, a traitor amongst Aleksei’s friends, etc. After the Oprichniki are revealed as vampires, “Twelve” starts to venture into more traditional horror territory with Aleksei intent on destroying the Oprichniki, but Jasper does have a few tricks up his sleeve including a couple of unexpected twists—which are easy to figure out if you pay attention—and an engaging game of cat & mouse...

As far as the vampires, Jasper relies mainly on recognizable lore such as the Oprichniki’s increased strength, speed and recuperative abilities; their need for blood; their Wallachian roots; and being susceptible to sunlight, a stake through the heart, and decapitation. Crosses and churches don’t affect the Oprichniki however, and they cannot change into bats, wolves or mist. For the most part though, Jasper’s vampires are of the time-honored variety, although the author does explore the Oprichniki philosophically and psychologically, and also uses vampires as a stark contrast to mankind who are still the world’s worst monsters…

CONCLUSION: Jasper Kent’sTwelve” may fall in the category of historical fiction and vampire horror, but labels are only a small part of the picture. To put it simply, “Twelve” is magnificently written and told, with great characters and villains, a vivid setting, and a haunting story, all of which makes Jasper Kent’s debut one of the best books of the year…


ediFanoB said...

This is not the first review I read about this book.
Your review is excellent because it confirms why this book is on my list for 2009.

Mihai A. said...

Robert, very nice review as always :)
I just received this book too and I am looking forward to read it :)

Harry Markov said...

Boy, how I missed reading your reviews. "Twelve" sounds spectacular; an intricate and solid book, which is an undefined hybrid with something for everyone from war novel fans, to deapth of character loving people and a bit of that unknown/paranormal/the edge of darkness/unexplained bit.

Robert said...

Hopefully it won't be the last review you read of "Twelve" either ediFanoB! The book is superb and I really hope it catches on with readers and bloggers :)

Mihai, I'm glad you got a copy of the book and I hope you enjoy it!

Thanks Harry! I actually have a number of reviews coming out in January :)

Anonymous said...

That is good to hear indeed.

My copy of Twelve is already under way from amazon UK. I wonder what he will be doing with the sequels. Thought about an interview Robert?

Anonymous said...

must second daydreams comments Rob and say i miss your regular reviewing :(

but! it makes the ones we get a little more special ahhh! ;)

ok, but seriously, TWelve sounds pretty wicked and after that review i can't wait till it hits shelves here in Canada.

Take care man, and Happy New Years to you and the fam!

Robert said...

Calibander, I would love to do an interview, but I just don't have the time. Maybe one of my writers will be interested?

Thanks Reanimnated! Happy New Years to you and yours as well :D

Mark said...

This book sounds great! Will be buying,shame the only the version i can buy from Amazon isn't published for a few months.

Fat Boy Mark said...

Finished reading this last night. Great book, really enjoyed it. The relationship between Dominikiia and Aleksei was done really well and I had the same sick feeling in my stomach that Aleksei must have had when he was watching her through her window.

Anonymous said...

This book is absolutely terrible. I hated the main protagonist and was rooting for the enemy by the end. His self righteous always right attitude irritated me. He was just as morally wrong, and humans are just as brutal as vampires if not more. Not to mention how everything conveniently went his way. He would trap himself in stupid situations with his arrogance but yet still come out victorious, that was annoying.
i also hated how the author just seemed to ramble on about pointless things almost to just past time. The most annoying part is that the main protagonist had no real personal repercussion for his moral or illogical actions. the book ended with him having everything he wanted. i refuse to read any other books from this writer, this book left me so annoyed.


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