30 January 2008

Locus Magazine's Faren Miller reviews Ekaterina Sedia

from Locus Magazine, January 2008

The Secret History of Moscow, Ekaterina Sedia (Prime 978-0-8095-7223-6, $12.95, 304pp, tp) December 2007. Cover by Frederic Cayer.

Like [Steve Erickson's] Zeroville's Los Angeles area in the '70s and '80s, Moscow (and much of the former USSR) went into a hectic era of transition in the 1990s. The Moscow of that time, in a world turning mad, serves as the setting for Ekaterina Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow.

Of the three main protagonists, Galina knows she herself is part crazy: a diagnosed schizophrenic just trying to avoid a return trip to the hospital. As long as she doesn't confess to seeing and hearing the impossible, maybe she can pass as normal. But when her own sister turns into a jackdaw, then flies away and disappears, Galina can't help but take it personally. That turns out to be just one of a host of odd disappearances, a mystery awkward enough to put the city's police force on the spot; in traditional style, they choose one of the least popular inspectors to look into the matter.

Yakov may not have been born a peasant, but this policeman does look like one, with no trace of his exotic forebear — an English grandfather who deserted the family long before he was born. He insists on pragmatism with a kind of desperation, while Galina is accustomed to living in a crazy world. Fyodor, the final member of the threesome who venture into an otherworldly version of their city, is a scruffy street artist with his own neuroses but also some valuable knowledge: he can get them into that otherworld.

Old Russia's spirit creatures have long since retreated to the secret city, along with former mortals (misfits one and all) who have become something like ageless, solid ghosts. And someone down there must be more actively malevolent, responsible for the weird phenomena that brought the main characters together in the first place as they set off on their haphazard quest for the truth.

With a mix of blunt, colloquial language, wry humor, a generous dollop of psychological traumas, and some fine descriptive passages (whether setting a scene, showing moments of self-understanding, or producing both in one decisive moment), Sedia moves effortlessly from a '90s Moscow where the world seems to have gone "upside-down overnight," to its magical counterpart where weirdness is the norm, and finally back to the improbable realm of consensus reality. Meanwhile, she keeps in touch with her protagonists as individuals, fostering a sense of intimacy that keeps the plot from outracing our ability to think with them, feel with them, and share their remarkable experiences.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the January 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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