October 2008 BOTM: A Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by Hobbit, Oct 1, 2008.

  1. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    Discussion is now open on this book.

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    Mark / Hobbit
     
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2008
  2. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    I nominated this book after seeing reasonably positive comments around the traps (or blogosphere for Luke). From what I understood it seemed to fit the mould of a novel I typically find appealing, set in our world with magical or weird undercurrents. The cover quote by Neil Gaiman comparing it to Neverwhere would seem to enforce that view as well.
    Starting the book, Moscow seemed just as unfamiliar a setting as many fantasy creations: it's a city with a geography, climate and history that are alien and weird to me. Perhaps for this reason, the land underneath the city didn't seem particularly alien to me, which I'd speculate was one of its intentions. My lack of knowledge of Russian folk lore figures (not to mention history), further reduced their impact - I got the sense that I was supposed to be seeing an ecclectic, fantastic and weird group of characters and settings, but it just didn't come across that way. Koschey the Deathless was the only folk lore character I recognised (thanks to John C. Wright's Everness books) and he, like the other characters, seemed somewhat lacklustre. As a further example, the cow character, Zemun, didn't seem much like a cow at all. Apart from the odd milking and udder reference you could go through the book thinking the character was a human. The other-ness that these characters should have possessed just wasn't there.
    The other complaint I had with the novel was the protagonists from our world. Perhaps due to the unfamiliar names, I had trouble differentiating these characters, especially when they first arrived in the underworld and several more male characters were introduced - I kept having to go back and work out who I was reading about.
    Finally, I kept expecting one of the key characters to be involved in the transformation of people to birds, and a betrayal to be unearthed. When I got to the end and realised it was just the actions of more folk lore characters (who once I again I profess my ignorance of) I felt let down. I think it was a continuation in a lack of tension throughout the novel.
    There were only really two scenes that grabbed me, and both were early in the novel: The first being the childbirth/transformation scene, and the second being the puddle/door scene.

    Reading back, that's a lot of negative comments for a book I was hoping to like. Perhaps it's a reflection of a current rut I'm in regards to reading - I'm only getting through about a quarter of the books I'd normally read. In response to the comments of one character, at around the quarter way mark of this book I actually stopped reading it and picked up "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" which I read in the one afternoon. Perhaps that's a telling sign.

    So, does anyone have positive comments on the book? Any Russian members care to comment on the portrayal of life in the '90s presented in the book? The use of folk lore characters?
     
  3. Zedar

    Zedar Registered User

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    I had the exact opposite experience, Eventine. I went in expecting to hate this book, as its not the kind of thing I'd normally be interested in, but ended up absolutely loving it. The story was weird and quirky without being bizarre and incomprehensible, the characters were all *interesting* characters, with different back stories and motivations, and the descriptions of nineties Moscow were wonderfully atmospheric.

    I really enjoyed reading the small stories about each characters background in each chapter, as it gave a real feel for Russia at the time, and a better vision of why people wanted to escape into the underworld to start with. I think in the end the book felt more like it was using fantasy as a medium to describe the mood on post-Soviet russia rather than explicitly trying to tell a fantasy story. I guess in the end the book appealed to my history fanatic side (when I'm not reading fantasy/scifi novels I tend to read historical non-fiction stuff, especially European history).

    So thanks for the great nomination Eventine, even if you didn't like it :) This is what book clubs are all about isn't it? I discovered a great book I never would have otherwise read.
     
  4. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    Interesting point Zedar - a few times while reading this book (and I've lost count of how many times I've said it here), I wished my historical knowledge was stronger so I could get more value out of the book. That's partly the reason why I read the Solzhenitsyn book halfay through - to try and add some context.
     
  5. Elthyra

    Elthyra New Member

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    (First post~ I'm more of a lurker but I really wanted to post on this thread. English is not my first language, please excuse any grammar/spelling mistake =D)

    I am currently reading this book, and liking it so far. I study Russian and went to Moscow in February, and I enjoyed comparing the descriptions of the city in the beginning of the book. Except the part about tourists, now I feel stupid when I see the matryoshka I bought in Russia. I'm only on page 122, so I'll probably post again once I'm done with the book. I like how in each chapter we get a character's back story, and unlike Eventine, the names don't feel confusing to me, but that may be because, like I've said before, I study Russian. Overall, as of right now, I enjoy reading The Secret History of Moscow, but I wouldn't say it's the best book ever written
     
  6. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    Well, it's good that you felt you could join in, Elthyra, and joined to do so! Welcome.

    Reading through the thread and the comments to date, I'm getting the impression that there are elements of this book that are closely related to Russian history/culture and that an understanding of them makes you appreciate the books better.

    I felt a bit like that with Sergei Lukyanenko's The Night Watch As a non-Russian, I'm not sure I got 'everything' about what was going on.

    Would that be an unfair comment about this book?

    Mark / Hobbit
     
  7. Zedar

    Zedar Registered User

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    That sounds about right Hobbit. There were a lot of small references to Russian history and society throughout the book which, while not necessary to follow the plot, probably make it a much richer experience. My knowledge of Russian history isn't fantastic, but I know the rough outline of things well enough to get by in most cases. I imagine I would have managed even better if I'd had enough of a working knowledge of Russian folklore to recognize all the strange figures who were wandering around in the underworld.
     
  8. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    That's one thing I felt I was missing, especially since most of my knowledge of Russian history and society comes through reading Hellboy and watching Rocky 4.

    The older I get the more ignorant I realise I am.
     
  9. Raule

    Raule Registered User

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    Same here Eventine.

    Once again, I read this at the beginning of the year, and my memory is now pretty sketchy. I liked the book enough to want to try other books by Sedia, but I wasn't blown away by it. I also thought it lagged a little in the middle, but the ending was nice. It somehow made it work for me. I'd have to read it again to specify exactly why that was, though (and I've too much on my plate to go back and re-read right now). I do remember liking that quip in the middle about much of Russia's folklore being borrowed. It somehow underscores so many things that I think are at the heart of this book.
     
  10. Astra_

    Astra_ Sony Reader PRS-650

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    I read the book a couple of month ago and disliked it.

    My opinion about it:

     
  11. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    Time to get the Erf posting in these threads again...[/laziness]

    I was fairly neutral in my reaction to this one. As with Eventine, this is the sort of book I'd usually really like, but something about its execution fell a little flat for me. I think what probably did it is its resemblance to The Orphan's Tales which we'd read a few months earlier. It had a similar episodic structure in that (nearly) each chapter had a nested story of some sort. They weren't AS nested as in the Valente, but it was similar enough for me to make the connection. What I lacked here was the import that the tales in the OTs had. Everything there tied in to the main character's story in an important way. This book seemed like a bit of a sight-seeing trip through old Russia, which as Eventine mentioned, missed the mark a bit as most of us Western readers don't know much about the folklore of that part of the world.

    The other thing I really wanted out of this book was some growth or connection in the main character. She's looking for her sister. We know this, but we don't feel it. The various stories of the other characters move past her without affecting her at all. I would have liked to seem the author add some depth to her character through her reactions to the other stories, through some parallels between her life and the folklore. As it was, I was left feeling like she was fairly disconnected. As a result, I felt the ending, which could have been a beautiful moment of sacrifice of one sister for another, didn't do much.

    All that said, I really liked the folklore and flavor of the tale. I was just left wishing that it had been executed in a slightly different (I would almost say better) way.
     
  12. Shayna

    Shayna Greyscale

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    Eventine

    Eventine reminded me of how much we overlook the small authors that have a great book..or have great fantasy writing that we sometimes overlook!

    Ekaterina Sedia is such an author! I have read her " The Secret History of Moscow and have come to realize how much we forget about the great fairy tales that are read around the world! We do not always know the tales told to us in different languages, but yet, we do have the curiosity of wanting to know how the so-called "cinderella" story was told or spoke about in other languages!

    I love to hear how the interpretation is told to us. Ekaterina has given us a bit of a taste of how a fairy tale make by told in another unique way.

    I hope all writers or authors will never stop to strive toward a new way to telling an old tale. It can always give us a new perspective on an old/new story to begin....Once upon a time......:)