Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of MoscowEvery city contains secret places. Moscow in the tumultuous 1990s is no different, its citizens seeking safety in a world below the streets — a dark, cavernous world of magic, weeping trees, and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairy-tale creatures whisper strange tales to those who would listen. Galina is a young woman caught, like her contemporaries, in the seeming lawlessness of the new Russia.

In the midst of this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away — prompting Galina to join Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances. Their search will take them to the underground realm of hidden truths and archetypes, to find themselves caught between reality and myth, past and present, honor and betrayal … the secret history of Moscow. 

Rating: B-

The blurb makes it sound like a relatively ordinary fantasy novel: protagonist sets out to find a disappeared loved one and discovers a magical world. But it’s not quite. Usually, in these kinds of set-ups, the protagonists take a long time to accept that there is really something supernatural going on. Here, it takes Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor three chapters until they decide that all the disappeared people must have turned into birds and crossed through a portal that appeared in a puddle to a different world. Then they come to the obvious conclusion that they are too large to fit through the puddle-portal and that they need a larger one. Fortunately, Fyodor knows just the place and a few pages later they are in an underworld in which they don’t just meet old Russian Gods and spirits but also humans – from the time of the Golden Horde, the pogroms under Alexander III, the Decembrist revolt and the Stalinist Terror – who also passed through a portal and now live in this underworld. They don’t question any of those things. In fact, it doesn’t take them long to discuss which spirit would be the most likely to be helpful or trust solutions that appeared to them in a dream.

And because they didn’t question these things, I didn’t either. Often enough I do get frustrated when characters just know things or just accept something extraordinary without complaining but here I just rolled with it. More than once I was reminded of Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song, another book that doesn’t bother much with complex worldbuilding (or going deep into the characters’ motivation) but I felt that it wasn’t necessary for the story.  And similarly, when Galina and the others go and question a celestial cow about the missing people’s whereabouts I just shrugged and went ‘Yeah. Seems a reasonable thing to do.’

What did bother me was that the book doesn’t make much difference between the main and the side characters. Once they appear for the first time, we get their backstory of how they ended up in the underworld but each gets the same amount of detail. It doesn’t matter if the person ends up being important for the plot or just appear this once. It feels like some of the backstories are just there to give the reader a small history lesson about a certain era. I would have preferred to get to know some of the other characters better, especially since there were loose ends in some of the storylines.

I saw that a lot of people didn’t enjoy the book at all and I can understand that. The ‘just roll with it’-attitude won’t work for everybody but for me it did and so I got a charming and magical story.

Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek

Cover: Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek
Author: Bill Pronzini
Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction

A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.

Rating: A-

I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this.  I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).

Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.

And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.

If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).

I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).

In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.

ARC provided by NetGalley

TTT: Books I’d Slay a Lion to Get Early

1. & 2. Ben Aaronovitch – Lies Sleeping & The October Man

The next two books in the Peter Grant Series, or well one with Peter and one set in the same universe but with a different main character: Tobias Winter, Peter’s German equivalent. I admit that even though I really want to know how the main story continues I’m also really looking forward to meeting Tobias,

3. Robert Galbraith – Lethal White

After the ending of book three? I NEED THAT NOW 😉

4. Curtis Craddock –  An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors #2

It doesn’t have a title, yet…or even a vague release date. But I am willing to slay several lions to get it.

gif: Lion and a box

(I would just distract them with A BOX!)

5. KJ Charles – Last Couple in Hell

The second book in her Green Man Series. I loved book one (and am especially excited because LCIH will feature an f/f couple)

6. Carola Dunn – The Corpse at the Crystal Palace

You might have noticed my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries. And the blurb sounds very promising

7. Carol Berg – ???

I have no idea what she is currently writing, if she is writing at all and when it will come out. I do know that I will read it

8. George R. R. Martin – Winds of Winter

It has to come out one day, right?

Game of thrones scene: Sansa and some other girls. Caption: Prayer Circle

9. The Good Omens TV-Show

That’s not a book, you say? Well, don’t tell anyone 😉

10. The Hath No Fury-Anthology

Yes, this is partly because it will have a Carol Berg-story. But a fantasy anthology focussing on female characters sounds awesome in general.