Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was a gruesome historical tragedy; or, a colossal act of hubris that cost the lives of 400 000 soldiers. Sounds like the perfect milieu for a vampire feeding frenzy! Jasper Kent’s Twelve is an odd mix of historical novel, horror, and, of all things, a somewhat too close examination of torture.
I’ve given away a huge spoiler, or a routine bit of the back cover blurb, depending on which edition of the book you are reading. Some Russian soldiers, having previously fought against the Turks in Eastern Europe, bring in a group of twelve “guerrilla fighters” (that they knew to be devastatingly effective behind-the-lines killing machines from that previous campaign) to help fight against the French invasion. Shocking twist! They’re all vampires, and they don’t particularly care who they munch on. As if the horrors of war are not enough, the chaos and carnage provide a handy cover for nocturnal exsanguination.
Twelve ends up being a mostly effective horror/thriller. But with elements of 24, i.e. a rancid and blood-soaked journey through the fictionally uncompelling world of torture rationalization. The whole torture theme is marginally more interesting here, since we’re in the protagonist’s head. Aleksei, the Russian soldier who tells this story, talks a a lot about dehumanization. For example, he has to steel himself for action against the vampires, and in a key scene later in the book as he observes the vampires torturing a farmer just for fun; instead of intervening, he needs to see what’s happening so that his jaded and war-wearied psyche can get motivated. I dunno, I see what Kent is doing here, and Aleksei is generally convincing in the way he tells of his soul fraying into pieces. But haven’t we seen all this before?
Unfortunately, in addition to the torture stuff, the book has a real problem with female characterization. Aleksei and his buddies are all men; the vampires are all men; the people they fight against are men; the villagers who get in the way of the fighting are men (with one small exception). The only major female character is, surprise, surprise, a prostitute. With bonus danger of the gendered variety! Will our hooker with a heart of gold get turned into a vampire? Will she be Aleksei’s true love? At this late in the game, I don’t particularly care any more about arguments of historicity of women’s roles, I just want this lame shit to go away. Prostitute in peril?? Tell me more, oh master of storytelling novelty and oomph.
To wrap it all up, the book has a notably crummy ending. It’s mostly related to the problematic gender material. Without giving too much away, I felt like it was reaching for the same effect as a Norwegian movie called Headhunters that I saw recently. That flick, in addition to being wildly over the top, had an ending where the fate of our antihero hinged on his relationship to his lover. Here, the payoff never happens and the narrative peters out. Too bad!
Having said all that, admittedly three huge strikes against the book, I have to say that I found Twelve to be strangely hypnotic. I’ve been trying to put some pop back in my pop culture fix (see next paragraph), and one of my strategies for doing so: read up to a big juicy moment, then walk away for a bit. For example, Aleksei is at a rendezvous in a rather chilly location… he brushes away some snow, only to find the frozen body of the vampire he’s been hunting… can a vampire freeze to death, he wonders… that’s when he notices the frozen eyeballs moving slightly in their sockets… DUN DUN DUH! That’s precisely when I would take a break for a few hours or half a day, letting some what-will-happen-next anticipation build and build. I have to say, there were lots of story moments like that in Twelve, so the narrative engine was still running, if misfiring on a few cylinders. It was nice to savour a book a bit more than usual, rather than burning through it on my way to the next thing (that would probably suffer from the same approach). For a long time now, I think I’ve finished a book, then noted the feeling of it falling out of my swiss-cheese memory moments later. That might not be entirely the fault of every single book in the genre, so I’m hoping this strategy might help me out as necessary.
I’ve been fighting a pop culture funk for a while now (see last month’s entry) so a historical horror novel is something a little different for me. I kind of enjoyed it, despite the reservations noted above. My other strategy has been a long and rocky process of de-internetting, somewhat ironic for someone writing online of course, but I recently re-read my piece from three years ago (!) about this very topic, and I think I convinced myself.
With less internet reading, this seems like a good time to wrap up the occasional series I’ve been working on, that of authors with worthwhile blogs.
So far I’ve covered: