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Enjoyable, but the final third is weak
on 14 June 2007
The Fandorin series is being translated out of sequence. This was not such a problem for the reader where those two books were concerned, but (for me) it was a barrier to enjoying this one because we are told that Fandorin has spent 4 years in Japan, during which time he clearly had at least one mystery to solve because not only has he picked up an impressive array of martial arts skills (there's one, very well written scene where he gets to use a set of nunchaka and there are a number of instances where he displays his profficiency with sharinken throwing stars). This is such a sudden development for a character we previously understood to only practice gymnastic skills that it comes across as something of a Gary-Stu trait.
Similarly, Fandorin has now picked up a devoted Japanese manservant called Masa and whilst we get intriguing references to the story behind this (i.e. we know that Masa was in the Yakuza and that Fandorin saved his life) it would have been nice to understand the build up to this relationship and the clear friendship that exists between the two. Indeed, some of the best exchanges in the book are the culture clash scenes between Masa and Fandorin and my favourite was a scene where Masa allows a Russian lady into Fandorin's bathroom whilst his master is in a bath of ice cold water, on the basis that he thinks she's a prostitute.
As for the mystery itself, well it's nice to have a degree of continuity back to Turkish Gambit, although Sobolov never directly interacts with Fandorin and we do see Captain Guksamov again, who has more of a role in the early chapters. In fact, we also see the return of a character from The Winter Queen, with Fandorin's old police boss, Grushin, although it is regrettable that his role is cut short in one of the twist scenes as he was a believable foil for Fandorin's methods.
This is not a whodunnit like the previous novels. In the final third, we are told who the culprit is and the mystery moves to why and how he did it, unravelling nicely right up until the final third where Akunin, for some reason decides to fill us in on the entire backstory of the culprit and how he came to be who he is, before briefly summarising the book's plot from his perpective.
I also had an issue with the ending. It seems at first that Akunin is going for a deliberately downbeat ending with a pyrrhic victory for Fandorin and I actually quite liked it. However, Akunin then changes his mind and without giving anything away, I think it's a lost opportunity in terms of taking Fandorin's character forward.
My only other comment about the book is that it really would be useful for the publishers to set out a list of characters at the front. They did this for The Winter Queen and it does help you to sort through all the Russian names (particularly as Akunin uses two versions of the same name to describe certain characters).