There's just something about a city that sparks the imagination. As a child, I would often wonder what lurked between those massive buildings or what might be crawling in the city sewers. Would there be those mythical alligators there, or something else. As I grew older, my fascination with cities changed a little bit. The traditions and the unique characteristics of citizens of various cities started to fascinate me. Growing up near Nashville, TN, I got quite inured to "Music City USA." It was quite amusing to hear tourists (after all, even those of us who live in the furtherest reaches of the 615 area code identify with the city more so than with the state) try to talk in exaggerated drawls (when after all, one of the defining traits of a Nashville-area native is the "drop" at the end of multisyllable words, something that was pointed out to me when I lived near Miami - not a drawl, but rather a tone shift that cuts off end syllables) and to parade about wearing although sorts of cowboy boots and huge belt buckles as if they were trying "to go native." But yet we would just smile, be friendly I suppose, while wondering what in the blue hell some of those people were on.
Cities have fascinating and often troubled histories. So much so that the older cities begin to secrete layers of historical clashes and cultural shifts, with elements of the old mutating to fit the needs of the present. Prod a bit under a city's surface and you are bound to turn up a few skeletons and other rotting vestiges of the older cultural orders. Perhaps it might be best to say instead that if one digs deep enough, one will find all sorts of mythical alligators lurking underneath the surface layer.
In Ekaterina Sedia's second novel, The Secret History of Moscow, one discovers a very rich and cruel history of Moscow. Unlike a Nashville, with its façade of friendliness, the Moscow that Sedia portrays is a very cynical and harsh place, distrustful of strangers and not quick to assimilate them. Set in the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Moscow of this time is a dangerous and almost lawless place, where the new businesses were beset by mafioso types and a corrupt and inefficient government.
The story begins with two sisters, Galina and Masha. Galina, the older sister, seems destined to be an old maid (at least according to her mother), while Masha becomes pregnant at the age of 18. Living in a Soviet-era apartment with her mother, grandmother, and sister, Galina constantly is berated for not being this or that:
Already we can see the tension between the city/society (as expressed in the person of Galina's mother) and between the "modern woman" persona of Galina. Throughout this novel, this clash will be referenced on multiple occasions, sometimes subtly, other times quite directly. But there's another, more magical element that is introduced immediately following this section.
Of course she's too young, the mother said. But better too early than too late, and you know Galina: she's an old maid and I doubt there would be any grandchildren out of her, and really, I wish she would just have one out of wedlock, nowadays who really cares. I know she won't find a husband and I've resigned to that. But if she would just have a baby...Oh, I know, I told her a million times. But she's stubborn like you wouldn't believe, and I doubt any man would put up with that for long.
There was nothing there Galina hadn't heard before - to her mother, men were rare and precious prey that had to be snared with cunning and artifice. Galina couldn't remember when last their conversation hadn't turned into a lesson in making herself attractive - how she should dress nicer, and mouth off less and smile more. Maybe this way she would hold someone's attention long enough to get knocked up. Neither mentioned the premise of these speeches - that Galina was unlovable without artifice and deception. She tried to avoid talking to her mother lately. But the voice in the hallway continued:
I just don't want her to turn into a bitter man-hater, her mother said. Last time when she came home from the hospital (she could never bring herself to say 'mental institution') I had hope for a while. But now - I don't know if she should just go back or if there's nothing they can do to fix her. (pp. 8-9)
Masha is due to give birth at any moment and the family has not taken her to the hospital. Galina hears a scream and rushes into her sister's room, to discover a wailing newborn and a disappeared Masha. As she goes to look out the open window, she is confronted by a rather odd jackdaw, who seems to act more "human" than a bird ought to be doing. Fresh out of a stay in a mental institution for a breakdown, Galina is not thrilled with mentioning this to her mother, so she keeps silent. Her sister's body is not found.
This opening scene sets the stage. Later, when Galina meets up with Yakov, a policeman investigating a series of recent disappearances, she comes to discover that underneath the surface of 1990s Moscow lurks older and sometimes more sinister forces. As she and Yakov conduct their search, they come across an underground that in many ways resembles that of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere in its overlapping but rarely colliding worlds of the Above and the Underground, although in Sedia's novel there is not as much of a focus on the comic as there is on the tensions between older and newer beliefs. Below is quoted a scene where the mythological and the Soviet past meet:
It is this appropriation of prior cultural beliefs, often in a cynical and manipulative fashion, that becomes a reoccurring theme in the novel. In addition, Galina and Yakov encounter rusalka, those water spirits that represent suffering as well as other life/death beliefs. The further they go, the more they (and the reader) encounter all sorts of violent and bloody reminders of Moscow's history. While I will not reveal the ending here, I will merely note that it keeps in spirit and tone with the beginning and the middle sections and that there is a sort of a circle that is completed on the final pages.
A faint noise that grew for some time finally crossed into her awareness, and she listened to the quiet but powerful throb. It sounded as if it came from a great distance, and she guessed that close by it would roar, deafening. Like a waterfall, she thought, the waterfall of the escalator that brought her down to the overturned skeleton of the funeral barge - the subway station had foreshadowed what was concealed below, and she had to wonder if it were intentional.
People outside, the people the used to run things back in her remote pioneer childhood and who still seemed to be running them now, must have had a hand in the identical design of the above and below ground; suddenly Fyodor's words about the secret KGB dungeons did not sound as ridiculous. It made sense that the communists would find and harness the river Styx, perhaps turn it around and plop a hydroelectric station on it, squatting like an ugly cement toad and polluting cold black waters. Charon was dead, rotted to nothing in a labor camp some years ago, and his barge, raised to the surface, was cynically used as the skeleton of the train station below, and nobody ever knew. They probably still charged for the crossing though, and she dug through her pockets (pp. 62-63).
As a story, The Secret History of Moscow is best read as a multilayered conflict between the past and the present. This is not a simple or sugarcoated tale, as an outsider such as myself gets this mental image that the city itself, full of cynical regard for all, is as much of a character as are Galina and Yakov. As presented through the various mythological and historical characters that appear, the city looms ever cold and threatening as the story progresses. I found this to be intriguing and it certainly made for a thought-provoking read even after I finished this book. As an urban fantasy, Sedia's book captures the mood very well and the tensions between character and place are drawn out quite nicely, as evidenced in the passages that I cited above in in many others. While Sergei Lukyanenko's Watch novels might have captured the feel of a Cold War-era Moscow, Sedia's Moscow is more "alive" and fleshed out. A lot of attention was given to portraying the city's history quite well and while some other readers might argue that Galina's story is overwhelmed at times, I would argue that this is not the case. Rather, her tale is meant to be just one more facet of a much larger panorama that is unfolding and it is her interaction with these layers that made for an enjoyable drama. The Secret History of Moscow will appeal to fans of urban fantasies and particularly those of Gaiman's Neverwhere, although Sedia's work certainly has its own style and approach to her native city. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: November 1, 2007 (US), Tradeback.
Publisher: Prime Books