Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ex Libris: Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow

The secrets of cities are buried underground.

If there's a slowly developing trope of speculative fiction of cities (read: urban fantasy?), it's that their underground hides a great number of secrets. Ranging from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere to Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon's Hidden Cities series (Mind the Gap) to China Mieville's YA book Un Lun Dun to the aptly named Dark Cities Underground by Lisa Goldstein.

This is not surprising. William Gibson said in an interview in The Paris Review that "cities are like compost heaps--just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent." In this case, the city is both the burial ground and garbage dump of all our myths and legends, where our monsters and dreams go to be forgotten after our childhood ends.

If you also notice the aforementioned books, it does seem like most writers have a tendency to focus on the London underground as the most "happening" place. This is why I was happy to check out Ekaterina Sedia's first novel, The Secret History of Moscow, which is set (of course), in the underground of Russia's capital.

This wasn't the only reason why this book was the first I've read of Sedia's. I've heard a number of good things about this author and her body of work looks definitely interesting. But I figured: why not go with the first work (or so I thought), see if I could observe her growth as a writer? Which is why despite the flaws I encountered with this book, I was generally forgiving as I persevered reading until the end.

In this case, Galina is a young-yet-spinsterish translator with a past of alleged schizophrenia whose pregnant younger sister Masha disappears in a locked bathroom, leaving behind a newly-birthed babe and a human-acting jackdaw that quickly flies out of the window. Accompanied by Yakov, a policeman with his own emotional baggage who's investigating the numbered disappearances throughout the city, and led by a street artist Fyodor seeking some lost magic in his own life, the trio discover the realm underneath Moscow where all-- as the title points out-- the buried secrets of Russia's history have been relegated, ranging from myths like Zemun the celestial cow (rather, a talking grousing cow) to rusalkas crowding every body of water.

Unfortunately, despite the fascinating concept behind Sedia's book, it never really caught on fire for me no matter how hard I tried to enjoy it. Sedia never really maximizes the mythic resonances of the material she's working from while her prose-- though it gamely moves beyond the sparse and into literary territory-- felt too clumsy to lift the story. It also doesn't help that I didn't get a proper feel of Sedia's Moscow nor the supposed shadow place underneath the city. The city should be a character in its own right within the book but I never got that feeling throughout my reading.

In a sense, these were my main objections of Sedia's book throughout my reading. So even though I could talk about other things in my review, about characterization, the magical/mythical lore, the vignette-type storytelling, the conceptual implications of secrets and buried history in a setting like the former communist country-- heck, even whether the story gripped me enough-- none of these mattered. Yes, I had high expectations with Sedia-- but with books we think we'll treasure forever, shouldn't we expect that?

In any case, I'm still willing to try Sedia's other works. Just chalk it up to first time blues and hope that the next books are an improvement, yes? (Rating: 2 paws out 4.)

P.S. I do feel that I should really do a speculative cities blog. It's so damn fascinating, this whole cities thing. I wonder why...

No comments: