Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow evokes two distinct, vivid worlds unfamiliar to mainstream US readers. First is Moscow of the 1990s, with Communism dead, gangsters staking their claim to the beginnings of democracy and most people keeping their heads down and getting by. Second is the underworld beneath Moscow, where storybook creatures, Pagan gods and disposessed humans live an eternal life of...well, getting by.
Random Muscovites are disappearing, and eyewitnesses swear they turn into birds and fly away. Galina, a young woman who has always seen things fluttering at the edges of her vision, loses her sister in this way. Yakov, a weary young policeman fully aware of his pointless job, tries to help. Fyodor, a reprobate street artist, has the clue they need: he's seen swarms of birds fly in and out of the underworld. These three pilgrims enter this strange but sweetly mundane spiritual realm hoping to find the reason for these transformations, and a way to help Galina's sister.
Sedia (author of The Alchemy of Stone) uses a prose style that is brisk, strong and clear. She doesn't waste a lot of time on subplots or needless description, nor does she scrimp on background. She keeps the characters' relationships, even the non-human ones, refreshingly realistic. Even immortal deities and creatures who inhabit nightmares speak with distinct personality and without any of that faux-formal talk so often used to designate otherworldliness. The underworld itself avoids the accepted cliches of faerie, becoming a distorted mirror-image of the society above it without lapsing into either blatant politics or satire (there is a lot of commentary on what it's like to live in Russia both past and present, but it never comes across as didactic). And most delightfully (to me, at least, as a reader weary of such things) it's not the first of a trilogy or a series. It's a self-contained one-off tale that sets up its characters and themes, then resolves them beautifully. In fact, the perfectly-judged conclusion brings the story close to being an actual folk-tale itself.
But it's the vivid oddness of this Muscovian underworld that really sets it apart. Russian folklore, with its mixture of European and Asian influences, gives her a wide canvas, and the human characters knows these strange figures just as Americans would know Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood. Further, some of the characters encountered in the underworld are historical figures on their way to becoming folklore, such as Elena, one of the "Decembrists' Widows," whose status in Russian history has become almost legendary.
For guys, the biggest recommendation I can make is that the story doesn't feel like it's written for girls. Magical realism as a genre tends to skew toward a very feminine view of things; I don't mean this as a value judgment, and I've written some myself so I know it's not a function of the writer's gender. But there's something about faerie tales, otherworlds and the like that speaks to the feminine aspect of both men and women, possibly because it requires a kind of sensitivity that our culture considers feminine. Whatever its source or cause, Sedia avoids it completely. There's a fair bit of action, a lot of humor and just the right amount of suspense, making The Secret History of Moscow a tour through two worlds, above and below, that are both wonderlands to Western readers.
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