Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘The Russo-Turkish war is at a critical juncture, and Erast Fandorin, broken-hearted and disillusioned, has gone to the front in an attempt to forget his sorrows. But Fandorin’s efforts to steer clear of trouble are thwarted when he comes to the aid of Varvara Suvorova – a ‘progressive’ Russian woman trying to make her way to the Russian headquarters to join her fiancé.

Within days, Varvara’s fiancé has been accused of treason, a Turkish victory looms on the horizon, and there are rumours of a Turkish spy hiding within their own camp. Our reluctant gentleman sleuth will need to resurrect all of his dormant powers of detection if he is to unmask the traitor, help the Russians to victory and smooth the path of young love.’

The protagonist created by Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin, has often had comparisons with James Bond as well as Sherlock Holmes. On that note, I decided to pick this book up, to see how the author is managing to bring a mystery element into a spy thriller plot.

This is the second book where the police officer Erast Fandorin is featured. Here, he is in Serbia as a volunteer in the Russo – Turkish War in order to overcome his sorrows (I don’t know what as I haven’t read the first book but I can give my word that you don’t necessarily have to, to enjoy this book). At the same time, Varya Suvorova is on her way to Bulgaria to meet her fiancé who works as a cryptographer in the war for the Russian army. She has her luggage stolen which is when she meets Fandorin, who offers to help her and makes acquaintance of the British journalist McLaughlin and the French journalist Charles Paladin, who are covering the war.

However, soon after she reaches the Russian camp, a crucial letter to the General is edited, owing to which the Russian forces move to Nikopol while the Turks move into the strategically important Plevna unopposed. The only person who had access to the letter before it was sent was Pyotr Yablokov, Varya’s fiancé and thus, the reach the obvious conclusion accusing him of treason. The Russian troubles don’t end there, every attack led by the Russians, the Turks easily outmanoeuvre them, facing heavy losses.

In the meantime, Fandorin also talks about a certain Anwar, who is an astute Turkish official and a formidable opponent to face. He suspects that Anwar has a mole inside the Russian camp and is tasked with finding who changed the message and who is the traitor within the camp, as Russia’s fortunes depend on that, and in this, he takes Varya as his assistant who also has interest in proving her fiancé’s innocence.

This book was an amalgam of a lot of my favourite genres, to start with, historical fiction and then, there was an element of mystery, a rather interesting one. The start could have been a little difficult as the author would have introduced around 8-10 characters within the first pages, all of them with significant importance but once you could get a hang of it, there was no stopping with the book. The author did a good job in establishing the objectives of the warring factions considering the historical context, with Russia fighting for its Pan-Slavic ideals and the Ottoman Empire to defend their territories in Europe.

The author also did a good job in unfolding the mystery gradually – unlike some of the novels I have typically read wherein the culprit is found early on and the rest of the book is on chasing the person. There were sufficient red herrings to divert the attention of the reader and at the same time, without compromising on the progress of the investigation. Of course, for the satisfaction of the reader, ‘solve before the police’ is possible in this novel if careful attention was paid to every part of the novel.

Despite the novel being short, at around 266 pages, the author did a good job in building some of the characters, such as Varya herself, the progressive woman who strongly believes in suffrage – this was a frequent point of debate in the camp, where the highly conservative generals were opposed to her ideas. However, she did find support from the French journalist Charles Paladin, who had years of experience in covering events from Mesopotamia till Western Europe and thus, well-versed in the cultures of both Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

The frequent ideological conversations between Varya and the others in the camp might be viewed by some people as a compromise on pace but then, if you enjoy such conversations (I for one), you would certainly not feel bored, I had in fact found it rather insightful. There could also be disappointment on the mystery around Fandorin himself, considering till the end, I got to know very little about him barring the fact that he was a smart detective and no character talks much about him as he is in ‘sorrow’ but then, I would certainly read the first book to know more about him.

The author also used the genre to his advantage, wherein, characters make accurate predictions of the political consequences of various decisions in the future, to display the intellect of the character whereas the reader has knowledge of these events that happened in the future (such as the Russian Revolution) and know what the author is getting at.

It is not often that I have been left speechless after reading a book but that was the case with this book. It was a well-crafted historical fiction cum mystery novel and would be thoroughly enjoyed by readers of either genre. On that note, I would award the book a rating of nine on ten.

Rating – 9/10

Have a nice day,

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