As in the case of Altyn Tolobas, the first of Boris Akunin's novels featuring Nicholas Fandorin (the great-grandson of his Imperial Russia great detective Erast Fandorin), the first volume of this two part follow-up is very much concerned with blood-lines, with heritage and with its relevance to what it means to be Russian in the present day. Like the earlier book this is brought out in Extracurricular Reading (as its Russian title translates) by a comparison in alternative chapters between Nika in the present day and the adventures of one of his other ancestors in the past.
That ancestor this time is Danila Fondorin (a variation on the name of Von Dorn, Cornelius Von Dorn being the ancestor who brought the bloodline to Russia in Altyn Tolobas), a doctor and former personal secretary to Catherine the Great. The historic part of the story however mostly focuses on another unusual character, Mitia, a gifted six-year old, well-read and with a prowess in mathematics, who is introduced into the royal court by his father as a kind of novelty figure. Mitia soon becomes involved in plot and intrigue when he foils a plot to poison the Empress, and when he is later caught up in an attempted abduction by the conspirators, he meets and engages the help of Danila.
In the Nicholas Fandorin storyline, Nika has set up an advisory agency - The Land of the Soviets - confident that he can offer a solution to any problem to those in need. Although the term soviet means 'counsel' or advice in Nika's mind, it obviously has other connotations that make him the target for a secret agency who have assassinated several wealthy businessmen and were about to pass a death sentence on Nicholas. Those connotations and the implications of the Soviet title and the groups that have arisen out of the old regime, are of course used by Akunin to consider other aspects of present day Russia and its more recent historical legacy. Unfortunately, that really just means that, like Altyn Tolobas, Nika is once again involved in a lot of running around, chased by corrupt policemen and Russian mafia types.
In a curious attempt to connect the two threads, the Danila story seems to take a life of its own as a project for a video game being developed by Nicholas in his spare time. Akunin has some very strange ideas about what's cool in the modern world. At least however he has dropped Nicholas' affectations for limericks, rollerblades and Chris Deburgh. Both parts of the story are typical Akunin adventures, but nothing special as crime thrillers. Akunin of course never writes straightforward thrillers, and Extracurricular Reading likewise explores various aspects of what it means to be Russian from a contemporary and from a historical viewpoint, and there are some nice observations and references. There are a few other notable features here, not least Nicholas's ass-kicking ployglot transgender assistant Valia Glen, where questions of identity are far more complex.
Never quite up to the standard of Akunin's Erast Fandorin or Sister Pelagia novels, the Nicholas Fandorin books so far are of curiousity value only. It doesn't appear that the Nicholas Fandorin books are going to be published in English, or at least not until the Erast Fandorin novels are exhausted (which could be a few years yet). Split across two volumes, there's an abrupt and unnatural conclusion at the end of the first volume that indicates that the book was never meant to be divided up in this way. (Review based on French edition - Bon sang ne saurait mentir - T1).