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Customer Review

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Falls far short of my expectations...., April 11, 2009
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This review is from: The Secret History of Moscow (Paperback)
I started out very much loving this book. It was the third in a row I'd read with Russia as the setting (Child 44, Moscow Rules and then this). I thought it would be a nice way to round out my Russian fiction education. The beginning has a wonderful mix of magic, lore and dark urban fantasy: we have a seedy, gritty modern Russia, people disappearing and the cops doing nothing about it, and the strange hint of an underground magical force.

The book doesn't have one strong protagonist, which maybe is one of its drawbacks, because it also isn't chapter-by-chapter narrated by different characters--you simply change perspective willy nilly, especially as the book progresses, and none of the characters has a very original voice. That said, Galina, a girl ostensibly "recovering" or "dealing with" symptoms of schizophrenia, is living in modern Moscow with her mother and sister. Her mother detests her for her psychiatric failings, but her sister--who is pregnant and getting married--loves her dearly. One day her sister goes into the bathroom, there is some commotion and the mother and Galina break into the room to find the baby, but no sister. Galina sees a jackdaw on the windowsill and, although she senses that the jackdaw is her sister, keeps her mouth shut to keep from being sent back to the institution.

She eventually meets up with a street artist who has also been seeing strange circumstances throughout the city, as well as a police investigator who witnessed a man turn into a jackdaw. The three go in search of all the missing people-turned-jackdaws, and find their way to a magical underground world below Moscow where the dead and/or semi-dead live with the creatures who make up all the lore and fairy tales told in Moscow (such as Koschey the Deathless).

The story itself is interesting enough, but almost everything fell flat. For one, Galina's supposed schizophrenia. Does she have the disorder? She claims that she once maybe heard voices, but we never, ever once have any evidence that she actually did or still is--and considering she's in the underground world for weeks with no meds, you'd have to assume that the voices, if she'd ever heard them, would return (seeing as you can't "cure" schizophrenia, if she once had it, she still would). It's implied at one point that she was misdiagnosed---the police officer, Yakov, who traveled with her recognizes the specific type of schizophrenia that she was told she had as a fake disorder that the government used to "diagnose" political dissidents and other troublemakers they wanted to keep locked up. But not only is this concept never, ever visited again, but it doesn't seem to make any sense. There was never any implication that Galina had shown signs of being a political dissident, so why would she have been diagnosed with the fake disorder? And she was released to her mother's care, so obviously she wasn't considered a threat.
Then we have Yakov, who also lives with his mother because his wife left him. Something bad also happened to his child. Why did his wife leave him? What happened to the child? Why did his mother act so strange around him? Why was he obsessed with finding the missing people who turned into jackdaws? Did he ever go back to visit the little girl whose mother disappeared? Yakov happens to meet his long-lost grandfather in the underworld. It turns out he wasn't killed as a dissident by the government, but had escaped to the underground and abandoned his family, a decision that had far-reaching effects on Yakov's life, despite it all happening before he was born. So what happens between him and his grandfather? What was the point of meeting him underground? It seems an incredible coincidence, does it not, that of all the millions of people, he meets his own grandfather in the underworld? Again, this discovery, which probably would have been considered an, uh, life-altering discovery for most people amounts to basically nothing. We hear the grandfather recount the terrible day that he escaped to the underground, and then he basically disappears from the book. Yakov spends almost no more time with him. It just doesn't make any sense.

Last, we have several apparently famous fairy tale characters from Russian lore as characters, but none of them makes any sense either. For one, they're not very well explained. I don't know who Koschey the Deathless is, nor have I heard the story, because I wasn't raised on Russian folk tales. Everyone seems to like to threaten him by telling him they "know where his death is" but I don't know what that means, really. Who is this cow that created the Milky Way? What does she mean to the Russian people? Why is she in this story? If you're going to reference the Decemberists, don't just tell ten percent of their story and leave the rest completely ignored--have the character explain what happened with them!

So therein are the problems--the story is completely disjointed. People do and say things and you don't know why. No character is ever developed. The street artist who left home and is obsessed with gypsies--does he ever get over his fear of them? Can he love Oksana freely? What were the Russian mafia men planning on doing with all these souls trapped in glass spheres? How were they using the jackdaws as spies if the jackdaws cannot speak? Or why would the jackdaws only be able to speak to certain people and not others? It's frustrating because the idea behind this book is so good, but the writing only takes you part of the way, and then falls short. It's in no way a /terrible/ book, it's just not great, and not one I'd be quick to recommend.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 6, 2010 10:04:45 PM PST
G. Donde says:
I suppose I only have a minor complait with your review; more of a niggle...In general, it is not the author's job to explain her allusions. Koschej may be a bit more obscure to an average American reader (but not to anyone familiar with folklore in general), but the Decemberists? The fact that you do not know who they were is not a reflection on you or your intelligence; it is a sad comment on the quality of American (I assume) education. One should learn about them in a world history class in, er, 6th grade.

Otherwise, all good! :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 7, 2010 4:57:11 AM PST
L. Boswell says:
I see what you're saying about The Decemberists. I possibly should have learned their story in my school days...perhaps I did and forgot. Although American history education is usually limited to: Here is a war, and we won. And heeeeere is a war, and we won. And then we freed people. The end! But hey, I know who they are now! Yay for reading.

I will give you that, but I dunno, I still say explaining the folk characters' stories could have been extremely seamless in the story and helped people to understand the characters in the book better. I mean...those stories make those characters who they are. Plus in this case, I believe she was writing this for a non-Russian audience (correct me if I'm wrong)--if the book were originally written in Russia and translated, that's different because you can assume most of your audience will already be familiar, but not so in most of the rest of the world.
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