on 19 July 2006
The plot is captivating. That is one. Erast Fandorin is one of the most likeable detectives ever. That is two. There's a host of other quixotic characters. That is three. The language is delightful (three cheers for the translator). That is four. The humour is at times hilarious. That is five.
Conclusion: by all means buy this book!
on 30 April 2008
"Gambit", literally "tricking somebody" is usually applied to military operations or chess strategies. In order to achieve the ultimate win some losses have to be accepted along the way. Both contexts fit here beautifully. Boris Akunin, Russian pen name of Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartisvili, has taken an actual episode from the 1877-78 war between the Russian and Ottoman empires to spin yet another successful yarn around young Erast Fandorin, secret agent in the Tsar's Special Division. The author fills a niche market in Russia, as he himself sees it, between the serious literature of the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and the usual light detective stories of today. For the international reader this new genre of Russian "espionage mystery" - the subtitle of the original - in a specific historical context is a fun read that at the same time provides some insights into the society of the day.
At the end of the previous, first novel in the series, Winter Queen, Erast Fandorin's world was shattered; the repercussions of the drama seem to have resulted in a change of character. Now, he tends to stutter and is introvert and reserved. Has he lost his detective's touch as well? En route to the Russian military command headquarters outside Plevna, in Bulgaria, where a secret mission has sent him, he literally stumbles across Varvara Andreevna Suvorova. A vivacious and "modern" young woman, she is intent on following her fiancé, a volunteer soldier and cryptographer stationed at the same camp. Varvara, Varya for short, takes over as the primary protagonist of the narrative and Akunin exquisitely develops her character and describes her increasingly important position among the expanding entourage of admiring men. One of these is Sobolev, the White General, for the Russian reader easily recognized as General Skobelev, the real-life hero of the battle for Plevna. For the Turkish side, Akunin also bases some of his characters on actual personalities in the conflict. Furthermore, he introduces an illustrious retinue of international journalists, who mingle with the senior military and are "embedded" at the front lines. Akunin's subtle sarcasm at their doings and mishaps shows through and gives the story a certain actuality to current issues surrounding media observing military conflicts. The drama builds when it becomes evident that a saboteur must be at work: Russian attack positions are pre-empted by Turkish troops. Can the culprit or culprits be apprehended before more lives are lost? Like at a treasure hunt, Akunin leads the protagonists and the reader on a few wild good chases. Will Erast Fandorin's ingenuity and sharp deductive talent, help or hinder the investigation?
Erast Fandorin has become a household name in Russia where millions of copies of each Akunin book are sold. The English speaking world is slowly catching on with now eight novels available in translation. This highly entertaining, this fast moving, action-packed and character-rich story, the second in the series, will delight any reader, beyond the already established Akunin fans. The author brings the intricate Russian historical events of the late 19th century to life with wit and a great sense of irony and humour. [Friederike Knabe]
As with Murder on the Leviathan, I think that Erast's character comes across in a much more entertaining manner when he's viewed from the perspective of another character and here we have the somewhat naive, passionate and at times, coquettish Varvara Suvorova.
Suvorova starts the book in something of a predicament - having poorly disguised herself as a boy in order to travel from Russia to Bulgaria she is betrayed by her guide who leaves her in a pub and makes off with her money, passport and possessions. It is only due to Fandorin's timely arrival (he is heading to the front line to give the General Staff some urgent intelligence on troop movements) and his uncanny luck at games of chance that she is rescued and together they head to the Russian camp.
As the story continues, Suvorova begins to have second thoughts as to whether she is right to marry her beleagured fiancé and has her head turned by the many brave journalists and dashing Russian officers who take note of her and of course, also the brilliant young Fandorin. As a character, I found that I quite liked her and Akunin makes good use of her naivete and at times, contrary nature. There's a constant undercurrent that her feelings for Fandorin are growing, even if she doesn't understand it and at times, Akunin hints that he could reciprocate.
The actual mystery element to the story is deftly handled in such a way that whilst you have your suspicions as to who the spy is, it's not so obvious that you can't enjoy the denouement. Akunin's skill at pacing the plot definitely helps in this regard - as a reader you feel catapulted along with events and he constantly throws up new twists to keep you guessing.
I do however have two criticisms of the book. Firstly, I couldn't help but feel that Akunin really leaves Suvorova's fiancé as a cipher on the sidelines. He has no character development, rarely turns up (excpet to get arrested and thereby form the rationale for Suvorova staying with the camp) and because there's little interaction between her and him, you do wonder why she feels obligated to marry him or indeed, what their connection is. Secondly, (and understandably) because most of the characters in the book are Russian, there are an awful lot of names to try and keep in your head. At times, I found it v. difficult to keep track of who everyone was and it's not helped by the fact that at times characters refer to each other by their surnames or their Christian and middle names in an inconsistent manner. It might have been useful if the translator (Andrew Bromfield) had either used character names in a consistent manner or if a table of characters had been added to the book so that you could quickly check who so-and-so was.
I think I know why they translated this novel (chronologically, the second of the series) third. It's demands a kind of prior appreciation of what Akunin can do, a knowledge of how good he is, before you can fully appreciate it. Turkish Gambit is, without doubt, as good as last year's Murder on the Leviathan, a wickedly witty, masterfully observed - and also reverent - pastiche of the Christie style crime genre. However, it's superior to the first, The Winter Queen. Anyone who read and liked either of those novels will not be disappointed by this.
As a background, the Russo-Turkish war is obscure. That's both a benefit and a drawback. The fact that you'll rarely have read a centring on that period makes this completely original, but given that you've probably no knowledge of it at all, it requires a bit of effort to get straight. It's a challenge, perhaps, but it is without doubt a rewarding. It's a very effective setting, in the end, for this war-based pastiche.
I entirely enjoyed this novel. I dock a star only because Leviathan was so utterly superb. It's exciting, very funny indeed, twisty, and Akunin's writing is as tart and sly as ever. I love it. With every book, Fandorin seems to become even more of an enigma, which is a nice trick to pull off. By all means, buy this book if you've enjoyed either of his others: it's more of the glorious same, and yet is entirely original as well.
Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series has been spectacularly successful in Russia. Akunin's books have sold millions of copies there. Akunin, whose real name is Grigori Chkhartisvili, was born in (Soviet) Georgia. He grew up in Kazakhstan and then Moscow. Highly educated, Akunin was a student of linguistics, editor of a scholarly literary journal and a Japanese-Russian translator. He turned to writing these stories at age 40 during his self-described mid-life crisis. He saw a niche between the serious tomes that marked Russian literature (Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) and the mass market pulp fiction that dominated the low end of the post-Communist literary market. His book sales both in Russia and in Europe and the United States have proved him correct.
Turkish Gambit takes place in 1877. Russia is at war with Turkey after Russia and Serbia came to the aid of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria in their struggle to free themselves from rule by the Ottoman Empire. The war had important implications for all of Europe. The war was concluded at the Congress of Berlin, a congress that pretty much stripped the Russians of the gains they had made in the war. The Congress of Berlin humiliated the Russians and paved the way for future unrest in the Balkans that eventually led to the First World War. Newspaper reporters and others (including assorted spies) flocked to the battlefront from all over Europe. This is the historical context in which we find Fandorin and the Turkish Gambit's cast of characters.
The story centers on a young lady, Vavara Surovova. Like many children of the Russian aristocracy she considered herself progressive, smoked, enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh, and had a great disdain for Tsarist rule. Nevertheless, she decides to travel from Moscow to meet up with her fiancé, a Russian officer serving in the corps of cryptographers. No sooner does her journey start than she encounters a life threatening situation. It is here that Fandorin makes his initial appearance. Although she has no small amount of disdain for the man who rescued her they make their way to the front, near the town of Plevna where the Russian army is laying siege to a Turkish stronghold. As the story progresses Vavara soon becomes the focal point not only of the romantic advances of the soldiers and reporters encamped near Plevna but also of the spies and counter-spies who are trying desperately to influence the course of the war. The intensity of the story and Akunin's writing builds as the siege reaches its conclusion. As was the case in both Winter Queen and Leviathan nothing is truly as it seems and the layers of mystery created by Akunin are peeled away slowly by Fandorin. Akunin does an excellent job in maintaining the mystery throughout, even for those very familiar with plot devices and red herrings in stories of this sort.
One of the more interesting aspects of this series of books has been the marked change in the style of each book. Winter Queen may be described as an action-adventure yarn with the young, optimistic and idealistic racing from pillar to post, Indiana Jones-style, saving the world, or at least Moscow from some spectacularly murderous evil-doers. In Leviathan, we see a more subdued, thoughtful Fandorin playing the role of Hercule Poirot in an Agatha Christie parlor mystery. Fandorin was not center stage but would appear at critical moments to use deductive reasoning to advance the story and solve the mystery. In Turkish Gambit we see Fandorin in 19th-century spy mode reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent. Fandorin is more involved in the action than in Winter Queen but is placed a bit off-center as Vavara and her mishaps takes center stage.
Turkish Gambit should not disappoint any Akunin fan that has been awaiting the publication of his third story in English. The Turkish Gambit is a highly enjoyable period piece marked by good writing and better than average characterizations. Turkish Gambit is the third Erast Fandorin mystery series translated into English, following the publication here of Winter Queen and Leviathan. However, Turkish Gambit was the second in the series published in Russia. For those new to Akunin's Fandorin mysteries I suggest beginning with Winter Queen, followed by Turkish Gambit and then Leviathan.
So far there has been a total of eleven Fandorin mysteries published in Russia. Akunin has also written another four books in which Fandorin's grandson is a detective in contemporary Moscow. I eagerly await the publications of these volumes. Turkish Gambit was a delight and I do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in a good yarn.
on 8 February 2008
What can I say, I am an absolute fan of Akunin, and can't wait for each new release. Fandorin series is my favourite however I read all Akunin books I could get my hands on. Adventure + mystery + a tiny bit of romance + Akunin's unique ideas about various historic events = brilliant! You can't go wrong with a character like Fandorin, something between James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Mr Darcy (ladies will know what I mean :-), men want to be him, women want to be with him.
I thoroughly enjoyed TG (but State Counsellor is my favourite among Fandorin series), it reminded me of Agatha Christi's Poirot novels, because of the way the suspicion fell on every character in turn. Hope you enjoy it too.
on 21 May 2005
I must confess to becoming a Boris Akunin addict as i find his writing to be so descriptive and captivating. Turkish Gambit is the third Erast Fandorin novel (chronologicaly second)and for me succedes on every level. Akunin has away of portraying scenes that drag you into the very midst of the action. His desccriptions of 19th century Russia with it's complex social hierachy and politics are vivid to say the least and the use of this skill in Turkish Gambit is brought to its best. The insight into Russias war with the Turks is facsinating and the intrigue and plot are pure Conan Doyle. I can hardly wait for the fourth installment.
Boris Akunin has set this book in the series about his detective, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, in South-East Europe in the 1870s. One of the most interesting outcomes of reading novels such as this is that one learns a great deal about unknown historical events. In this case it is the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which set the Ottoman Empire against an Eastern Orthodox coalition led by Russia and also containing the forces of several Balkan countries.
Even before we start reading there are several levels of complexity; Fandorin, referred to as the "titular counsellor" throughout, is the creation of Boris Akunin who, in turn, is the creation of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a Georgian-born write who grew up in Russia.
There is, surprisingly very little about Fandorin in this novel which does not sit well with the advertisement "The new Erast Fantorin mystery" on the front cover. He stammers, sits, slouches, rides and eats and drinks. He is clearly very well connected and operates more as a secret agent than detective. Only once, towards the end, does he leap into action to travel to Britain in pursuit of Anwar-effendi, Turkish spy extraordinaire.
The book was published in 2004, six years after its appearance in Russia. At the centre of this book is Varvara Suvorova, a progressive young Russian woman who we first meet on her way to the front to be with her fiance. She underestimates the dangers of the trip and has to be rescued by Fandorin. When she is taken to safety, she immediately attracts the attention of officers and journalists from a variety of countries. Immediately, Suvorova takes a dislike to Fantorin's rather conservative attitudes and there is little interaction between the couple throughout the novel. An unexpected Turkish success is put down to the activities of a spy within Russian headquarters and Suvarova's fiance is arrested. The unmasking of this spy, Anwar-effendi, is recounted in Turkish Gambit.
In the first third of the book there is a great deal of scene-setting and character-introduction, and I found this rather tough going. It would, presumably, be much more familiar to the original Russian readership. The involvement of so many countries amply demonstrates the importance of the region at that time and each chapter is introduced by a contemporary newspaper report, including one from The Times, all of which I assume to be factual. Reading up about the Russo-Turkish War afterwards, it seems that the locations, advances and retreats, and senior characters on each side are also factual with the story being developed within this historical context.
The book is translated by Andrew Bromfield's and he certainly offers great variation between military action and the more introspective comments of Fandorin. So much focus is placed on Suvorova that, in the absence of any emotional relationship with Fandorin, I suspect that she may return in future novels as his assistant/partner.
As befits a swashbuckling novel, a great many of the officers and newspapermen are described in very broad strokes, and behind them the masses of the fighters on each side remain just vague shapes. This means that there is little depth to the characters but the novel has such pace that this, in general, is not such a disadvantage. However, this also applies to Suvorova herself and so leaves to a vagueness at the heart of the book which might have been filled with an indication of how Fantorin arrived at his conclusions. The identity of Anwar-effendi is not too difficult to work out since the number of possibilities is small. However, such a conclusion is only part of the pleasure of reading one of Akunin's books.
A map of the region would have been very helpful as would a brief summary of the origins, battles and consequences of the Russo-Turkish War.
It would certainly help if a reader were to have an interest in the history or politics of the time and region.
She's young, beautiful - and abandoned. Varvara Suvanova, a "modern woman" in late 19th Century Russia, has been deserted by her "guide" in a remote Bulgarian inn. Rescued - in a manner of speaking - by a diffident, but clearly significant, middle-aged man, Varya quickly finds herself embroiled in a web of war, intrigue and contrary values. Russia is [again!] at war with Turkey, a conflict viewed with concern by the European Powers - especially Great Britain. Varvara is seeking her fiance Pyotr, who is a cryptographer at Russian military headquaters. Her rescuer, Erast Fandorin, is a man of mystery, and Vavara is brought into his machinations by becoming his assistant. With this opening, Akunin launches a tale of Chekhovian proportions. In fact, describing this book as "Chekhov light" would be fitting.
A dispatch concerning Turkish military dispositions around Plevna launches the complex situation embroiling Varya and Erast. Hardly equipped to deal with state secrets, she can only mourn the easy victory that became a disastrous rout for the Russians. How did the Turks manage to intercept the battalions before they were even disposed for the planned assault? On this question, the entire story pivots as it becomes increasingly clear that the defeat was neither chance nor hinged on superior Turkish military skill. Something else is involved, here, and Fandorin's job is to determine what that is and who might be responsible.
As this story progresses, each new character is introduced with his [they are all men] pedigree trailing along behind. You can almost hear the military fanfare for each officer, and national anthems for the Europeans. For there are "observers" resident at this headquarters to report on activities. There is the Frenchman "Paladin", the Britisher McLaughlin - who is actually Irish, and a Bulgarian nobleman. Varya is continually plagued by indecision as to her role in this conflict. She doesn't wish to be treated as a "frail female", but is insulted when proper deference to her gender isn't given. She has no nursing skills, breaking into tears at the sight of wagonloads of wounded. Resentment at the hierarchical structure of Russian society is offset by her patriotism for the Motherland. The challenges are many and varied - more than once leading to fatalities.
While all this sounds terribly grim and foreboding, Akunin keeps the pace fast and the dialogue rich and delicious. It's hardly an example of Slavic despondency usually encountered in Russian fiction. The author is writing to a new market in Russia - middle class readers seeking entertainment without it being farce. Without contrivance, he keeps the reader smiling at Varya's struggle to maintain her self-generated identity. Her foil is Fandorin, who, although hardly an easily defined character, keeps offering surprises for her to cope with. Not the least of which is what drives him to his feats. A fine tale, well worth any reader's time. Fans of intrigue will find it a real gem. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 7 September 2013
Are you bitten by the Erast Fandorin bug? If so, give this a try. Although 2nd chronologically it was published 3rd in the series and I can see why. It's not in the usual vein of EF adventures and is quite difficult reading (all those complicated Russian names). And being totally ignorant of the Russo-Turkish wars I feel the need for a simple history book to go with it.
It is all part of the subtle web woven by Boris Akunin and any fan will want to read it 'for completeness'. A real fan will want to re-read books 1, 2 and 3 in the correct order (1, 3, 2).