Billed as the first Napoleonic historical and vampire novel, Jasper Kent's Twelve intrigued me from the moment editor Simon Taylor mentioned it while we corresponded last fall. Prior commitments prevented me from reading it earlier, so I was pleased to finally get the opportunity to give it a go.
Described by some as War and Peace meets From Dusk 'til Dawn, Jasper Kent's genre-bending debut delivers on all fronts and lives up to the hype. And then some!
The opening chapter in the Danilov Quintet, Twelve opens up in the fall of 1812. Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, a captain in the army of Tsar Alexander I, swore to die defending Mother Russia against the inexorable advance of Napoléon's Grande Armée. Cities continue to fall before the French onslaught, and it seems that nothing will will keep them from reaching and conquering Moscow. Desperate times lead to desperate measures, and Aleksei and his comrades have no choice but to enlist the help of a band of peculiar mercenaries from the furthest reaches of Christian Europe. These men, known as the Oprichniki, claim that they can somehow turn the tide of this war. Yet witnessing their zeal and efficiency in slaughtering French soldiers, Aleksei is distraught by the fact that such a small number of men can accomplish so much. As he comes to understand the terrifying nature of those twelve strangers, it suddenly dawns upon him this fight is no longer just against Napoléon. Indeed, it is now a battle against an enemy of mankind itself.
Jasper Kent may not be a native like Sergei Lukyanenko or Ekaterina Sedia, yet his depiction of 19th century Russia is "top notch" and has a truly genuine feel. With a definite eye for historical details, the author's prose makes us live vicariously through the French invasion. Moreover, the addition of vampires is well-done and doesn't take anything away from the "realism" of the rest of the tale.
Twelve features a single first person narrative, that of Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov. At first, I believed that this could work against Kent, as the main characters move about separately during their covert operations. But for the most part, witnessing the story unfold through Aleksei's sole POV did work quite effectively. Add to that the fact that Aleksei is a complex and flawed man with an interesting back story, and you have a winner.
Jasper Kent's narrative flows fluidly for the better part of the novel. There is a lull in the rhythm in the middle of the book, yet the story picks up again a couple of chapters later.
All in all, Twelve is a compulsive read. Kent manages to draw the reader into the story from the very beginning, and he won't let go. You have no choice but to read on, promising yourself to stop at the end of the following chapter, but to no avail. You have to know how it's going to end. Visit the author's website at http://www.jasperkent.com/ to read a 50-page excerpt if you wish to get a taste of the novel.
Hands down, one of the best speculative fiction titles of 2009!
The final verdict: 8.5/10