The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia. Published 2007 by Prime Books. Paperback.
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There's been a bit of a trend lately for post-Soviet satire and fantasy- social commentary on the fall of the Soviet Union wrapped in a vampire story (a la Sergei Lukyanenko) or a tale about a woman obsessed with her statue of Stalin (Vladimir Voinovich's Monumental Propaganda), as well as literary fiction (Michael Docx's Pravda, which I haven't gotten to quite yet). The Secret History of Moscow is fantasy- an urban tale of a secret world and magic used and misused.
Galina, a young woman in an out of mental hospitals for years and now working as a translator, lives in a typically dour Moscow apartment with her mother and sister, Masha. One day, Galina sees Masha turn into a bird and fly away after giving birth. Galina adores her sister and Masha's transformation and disappearance bewilders her. Across town, a disheartened policeman named Yakov witnesses a similar transformation, and a street artist named Fyodor spies a group of birds flying into a secret door in a puddle. The three meet, find common cause, and plunge into a secret underworld just below the Moscow streets.
It turns out that people have been disappearing all over Moscow and there is some kind of magic on the loose, coming from underground. The magical world is filled with beings from legends, fairy tales as well as ordinary people from the sweep of Russian history, and the three young people go on a Wizard-of-Oz-like journey to find answers and rescue Masha. Along the way they meet a talking cow that gives stars instead of milk, a Charonesque ferryman who takes memories instead of money as payment to carry passengers across his river, and an assortment of other figures both fanciful and historic.
The Secret History of Moscow isn't chocked full of action (although plenty happens) but it struck me as being more about feelings- the feeling of being set adrift, when the world you're faced with isn't the one you expected; the feeling of being alone, when family and friends are scarce or too preoccupied to be there for you; the feeling of alienation, of having no where to call home and no way to reach out. It's also about the power of the imagination and the power of love- being able to accept a bear made of rats, being able to make a friend, being able to make a sacrifice because you love someone. It's a sweet, beautiful book- sort of slight, not at all heavy, but Sedia brings to life the chaos of post-Soviet Moscow deftly and creates believable, likable characters, especially Galina. It's a good book. I liked it.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.