The Assassins is a historical novel that focuses on the historical circumstances and key players surrounding the events that lead to the assassinationThe Assassins is a historical novel that focuses on the historical circumstances and key players surrounding the events that lead to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo in 1914. The assassination of the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was the catalyst that started the Great War (as it was called then and is often referred to again), which lasted four-and-a-half bloody years (August 1914-November 1918.)
As the second decade in the 21st century sees the centenary of this Great War that, for many historians, shaped the “modern age” and ushered in what many claim to be the bloodiest century in the history of the world, there has been an outpouring of commemorations, memorials, and tributes. A century later, we continue to try to understand the causes and effects of this war; the ripples continue to be felt to this day, even if we no longer understand the origins.
Amidst all the fiction that has looked at various aspects of the war, from the popular aristocratic family (often in decline) that has parallels to the much beloved Downtown Abbey to weighty historical tomes and reprints of famous war-time classics and memoirs, Alan Bardos seeks to bring life to that event—so often reduced to one line in the dry required text book – about how a little known Austrian archduke was assassinated one morning in June. To be sure, it’s not the first time this event has been covered in fiction or in film; two cinematic versions that immediately come to mind include one in which Christopher Plummer played the ill-fated Archduke (The Day that Shook the World) and Max Ophüls’ film De Mayerling à Sarajevo. Bruno Brehm’s Apis und Este (published in English as They Call It Patriotism) also focuses on the assassins and The Question of Bruno by Aleksandre Hemon also meditates on Sarajevo in its own way. (And plenty of the other Habsburgs, especially Kaiserin Sissi, have been the focus of countless other works of fiction.)
Bardos deftly navigates the twists and turns that led to that fateful day, dividing the story line mainly between Franz Ferdinand, Gavrilo Princip (the successful assassin), and the fictional Johnny Swift, a lower-level attaché in the British Diplomatic Corps who finds himself immersed in the plot and rushes to try to prevent it, and has brushes with many other actual historical figures along the way including Leon Trotsky. With many different characters and switching view points, as a whole Bardos helps keep the reader on track with “who is who” and what their importance is and where their allegiance lies in the story (pro-Austria, pro-Serbia, etc.); although I admit at times—at least for me—the different conspirators, except for Princip—rather blurred together nonetheless. (Though they blurred together, the general sense of their reasons for the assassination are presented in a way that make sense, given the context, even if we disagree.) The fact that this was an assassination that could have been prevented so many times and nearly was more than once, was excellently portrayed--how small decisions continuously shift the outcome from moment to moment makes one ponder “fate”. Nonetheless, the suspense could perhaps have been heightened—at times the cringe-worthy, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat sensation was not as taut as I would have liked. The portrayal of the Archduke was nuanced, showing both his famous fits of temper that could only be calmed by his wife, the devoted family man, the arrogant aristocrat, the forward-thinking politician. The assassins and their victims are sympathetic yet flawed.
The (often younger) protagonist caught up in events greater than themselves, sometimes beyond their understanding, is a trope in fiction—particularly historical fiction—and often is an effective choice, as reader and protagonist learn together. Thus, one issue I had with the book was that I personally found Johnny Swift (of no relation in personality, outlook, or family to the novelist and satirist of similar name that I could see) and his paramour (the married Lady Elizabeth Smyth) to not be the most sympathetic of characters. Despite not liking him that much, one wishes he could have prevented the assassination, even though, since we know that could not have happened, there’s no real point in even thinking “Can he? Will he?” There are limits to historical fiction versus alternative histories. Another odd criticism that I have is the sometimes inconsistent use of German names for people and places; the archduke’s castle appears as both Konopischt (German spelling) and Konopiste (Czech spelling, minus the caron); the emperor of Germany is referred to as both Wilhelm and William; Franz Ferdinand is never changed to Francis Ferdinand but his uncle appears as Franz Joseph vs. Franz Josef (or a completely Anglicized Francis Joseph); the successor after Franz Ferdinand is referred to as Charles not Karl, though the emperor’s younger brother was referred to earlier as Karl Ludwig (versus the English Charles Louis); other proper names appear without their umlauts.
The strength of Mr. Bardos’ book is his research; I state this with a fair amount of certainty as not only have I read most of his bibliography, I also own many of the aforementioned books and as I write this review I can meander over to my bookshelf and look at them. He provides an extensive and somewhat annotated bibliography of his sources and even the places he has visited. The exposition was, at times a trifle clunky, and the writing did not always sweep me away, transporting me with words to a time and place that no longer exists. Despite the clear and often meticulous historical research, at times I found the historical era was simply not as vibrant as I would have liked when I read historical fiction—I did not suddenly look up from the book, surprised not to see the Ringstrasse of Vienna or conspirators huddled in the corner of a café. I’ve no doubt the author knows exactly what that train car looked like, or what the street probably looked like, or what Swift was wearing—but that general sense of history didn’t always translate as well to the page. It’s not that there weren’t facts and interesting tidbits of information—occasionally the historical details seemed a superfluous--for instance the make of two automobiles driven by Swift and Franz Ferdinand might have been rather incomprehensible to the modern reader unless they really know their antique cars.
Nonetheless despite these quibbles, Bardos’ book is a readable and enjoyable account that brings together much research to tell the fascinating story behind the assassination that started a world war. Well-versed WWI historians or Habsburg scholars can probably pass, only because they’ll be familiar anyway, though I think they would still appreciate the research. For those that want sweeping historical fiction with only a light gloss of history, this might be too specific—the love story of Franz Ferdinand is interspersed between other stories. But for everyone else who likes a good historical novel and appreciates one where the author took pains to be accurate, this is definitely the book for you—especially if you don’t know that much about the idyllic summer before the war. A 5 for research and a 3 for writing, so an average of 4 stars. ...more
An interesting book written in spare prose about a marriage of convenience in Nazi Germany in which a German soldier hoping to escape the Eastern fronAn interesting book written in spare prose about a marriage of convenience in Nazi Germany in which a German soldier hoping to escape the Eastern front marries a young woman, who then seeks to advance herself into the upper echelons of Nazi high society. Follows characters until several years after the war. A different view of the war without the normal plot points of Resistance, although the strong anti-Semitism/purity of the race is hard to miss. ...more