Friederike Knabe's Reviews > The Turkish Gambit

The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin
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's review
Feb 12, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: ce-europe

"Gambit", literally "tricking somebody" is usually applied to military operations or chess strategies. In order to achieve the ultimate win some losses have to be accepted along the way. Both contexts fit here beautifully. Boris Akunin, Russian pen name of Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartisvili, has taken an actual episode from the 1877-78 war between the Russian and Ottoman empires to spin yet another successful yarn around young Erast Fandorin, secret agent in the Tsar's Special Division. The author fills a niche market in Russia, as he himself sees it, between the serious literature of the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and the usual light detective stories of today. For the international reader this new genre of Russian "espionage mystery" - the subtitle of the original - in a specific historical context is a fun read that at the same time provides some insights into the society of the day.

At the end of the previous, first novel in the series, Winter Queen, Erast Fandorin's world was shattered; the repercussions of the drama seem to have resulted in a change of character. Now, he tends to stutter and is introvert and reserved. Has he lost his detective's touch as well? En route to the Russian military command headquarters outside Plevna, in Bulgaria, where a secret mission has sent him, he literally stumbles across Varvara Andreevna Suvorova. A vivacious and "modern" young woman, she is intent on following her fiancé, a volunteer soldier and cryptographer stationed at the same camp. Varvara, Varya for short, takes over as the primary protagonist of the narrative and Akunin exquisitely develops her character and describes her increasingly important position among the expanding entourage of admiring men. One of these is Sobolev, the White General, for the Russian reader easily recognized as General Skobelev, the real-life hero of the battle for Plevna. For the Turkish side, Akunin also bases some of his characters on actual personalities in the conflict. Furthermore, he introduces an illustrious retinue of international journalists, who mingle with the senior military and are "embedded" at the front lines. Akunin's subtle sarcasm at their doings and mishaps shows through and gives the story a certain actuality to current issues surrounding media observing military conflicts. The drama builds when it becomes evident that a saboteur must be at work: Russian attack positions are pre-empted by Turkish troops. Can the culprit or culprits be apprehended before more lives are lost? Like at a treasure hunt, Akunin leads the protagonists and the reader on a few wild good chases. Will Erast Fandorin's ingenuity and sharp deductive talent, help or hinder the investigation?

Erast Fandorin has become a household name in Russia where millions of copies of each Akunin book are sold. The English speaking world is slowly catching on with now eight novels available in translation. This highly entertaining, this fast moving, action-packed and character-rich story, the second in the series, will delight any reader, beyond the already established Akunin fans. The author brings the intricate Russian historical events of the late 19th century to life with wit and a great sense of irony and humour.
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