Lately I have been charmed by the discovery of Ekaterina Sedia's short fiction, which has appeared in a variety of online journals. (You can find a list of them here.) So I was delighted when a review copy of her forthcoming novel, The Secret History of Moscow, showed up in the mail. And what a treat it is -- combining a wry political satire of Moscow in the 1990s with a richly imagined underworld, populated by Russia's iconic fairy tale figures -- from the smallest of the domovoi (house spirits) to the powerful Koschey the Deathless.
The novel focuses on Galina, a young woman troubled by strange visions, who is convinced that her sister Masha has been transformed into a jackdaw moments after giving birth to her son. On the other side of town, Yakov, a police detective, also witnesses a man abruptly transform into a jackdaw and fly away. All over Moscow, trees are lined with jackdaws and owls, even as the number of missing persons reports continues to grow. Galina and Yakov encounter a street painter named Fyodor, who seems to know something about it. He shows them how to look in the reflection of a door in a puddle: "Don't look at the real thing. Watch the reflection -- this is what's important." And from the dark, reflected opening, flocks of dark birds emerge from a hidden world below.
With little more than faith in the fantastic and the desire to rescue her sister from enchantment, Galina falls, like a modern day Alice, along with Yakov and Fyodor, into the dark reflections and discovers a secret world beneath Moscow. From here the story gathers steam, as well as a wonderful cast of characters: many of the familiar names of Russian folk tales, along with other human beings who throughout history have inadvertently found their way down into Moscow's eternal underworld. Interestingly, each one of these human characters was someone who once refused to capitulate in a moment of historical crisis -- as each tells their story, there is a layering effect -- suggesting the sediment beneath Moscow is made up of failed revolutions and the lost survivors of reactionary regimes.
Until now, the underworld with its fantastic denizens have worked silently to protect Russia from the worst of its historical tragedies. But someone has learned how to open the doorway between the worlds -- and suddenly the modern world of Russian gangsters and thugs has begun to corrupt the underworld, endangering the world above with newfound power stolen from the fantastic.
The secret histories of Moscow are not just those of the city and the underworld. Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor will each find something essential about their past and their families, and discover a truth about themselves, as they journey through the underworld with its deep historical and cultural roots. Sedia writes about the underworld in a magical, lyrical voice (the rusalka -- water spirits of drowned girls -- are superb), but she also writes with dry, deadpan humor about the modern Moscow above. For example, she notes that the Zaporozhet, a little car that a thug drives to avoid being noticed, is "the make that in the city folklore was often compared to a pregnant ninth-grader, since both equaled the family disgrace."
I think readers will find this novel thoroughly engaging -- whether one is new to Russian history and folklore or already well versed in both. Treat yourself -- the novel is due out in early November, but can be pre-ordered here .