The Winter Queen and The Turkish Gambit

My husband and I read The Turkish Gambit (by Boris Akunin, trans. Andrew Bromfield) either early last year or the year before–it’s a bit fuzzy in my memory. This is at least in part because I had difficulty following the plot, though it may have been unremarkable for other reasons, too. The translation style adopted by Bromfield, who has translated all the Akunin novels currently available in English, is quite smooth; it would be easy to read the books without realizing they are translated. Only a humorous reference to “American Roulette” in the beginning of The Winter Queen betrays the book’s Russian origins. Perhaps Bromfield’s aim was to present English-speaking readers with a good intrigue rather than a markedly Russian novel. This might be more appropriate with Akunin than with, say, The Master and Margarita, which Bromfield has also translated. (I have read the book, but not Akunin’s translation.) I would be interested in hearing from Russian readers of the original text of Akunin’s novels.

Given my response to my first exposure to Akunin, I’m not sure why I decided to listen to an audio recording of The Winter Queen recently, except perhaps that it was one of the first books to catch my attention in the “A” section of the library’s audiobooks. In any case, I enjoyed it much more than the first, partly because the plot was easier to follow. (Some reviewers have considered it transparent; I think I am just obtuse when it comes to intrigue.) But more significantly, I don’t recall that the writing in The Turkish Gambit was as colorful and witty. This is ironic, because The Winter Queen was written first, but maybe my memory is just faulty.

Both books follow the adventures of Russian detective Erast Fandorin. In The Winter Queen, Fandorin is a new initiate, eager to dive in and prove himself. The narrative follows him across Europe to England and back to Russia, in pursuit of members of an international conspiracy. I wasn’t sure at first what to make of the ending. After so many preposterously narrow escapes earlier in the book, I wasn’t anticipating catastrophe. (Warning: partial plot revelation ahead.) On the other hand, Fandorin does survive. And the victim of this incident was not the object of much character development earlier in the book. After all, it is a Russian novel! The experience also helps explain the transformation of the naive Erast into the sadder but wiser detective of The Turkish Gambit (and, presumably, the other volumes in the series.) In any case, I did not foresee the disaster until Fandorin took off in pursuit of the messenger and failed to take the obvious precaution of dragging his companion out with him.

I recommend The Winter Queen without reservation, but The Turkish Gambit only for committed followers of Fandorin’s exploits. I will probably read some of Akunin’s other books, but only after seeking out recommendations.

Wikipedia has an interesting site on Akunin here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Akunin.

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