Alan's Reviews > The Secret History of Moscow

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia
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's review
Jan 23, 2011

liked it
Recommended to Alan by: Subsequent work
Recommended for: Rusalki i kulturnyh
Read in January, 2011

"You know how they say the grass is always greener on the other side? It is greener, because you're not there. And if you go you'll trample it and leave dirty footprints and probably spill something poisonous."

Some people make the mistake of thinking that magic is stronger than science, older and more powerful, but we city-dwellers know that magic is a fragile thing, easily driven away or trampled underfoot by unthinking humanity. When magic is attacked, it retreats, into the high places, into faraway fastnesses, and... underground, where it tries to eke out an uneasy coexistence with the mundane world above.

All the magic of Moscow—its minor gods and colorful doomed soldiery, its rusalki (mermaids) and vodyanoy (water spirits, which I had not realized were a part of Slavic folklore; I had thought that China Miéville invented 'em)—has been retreating in this way for centuries. The pace has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the Czars, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, glasnost, the post-Soviet Russian Federation... but always the magic has gone deeper, deeper underground, deeper even than the Metro tunnels evoked so strongly here (also called forth by Alexander Kaletski's excellent semi-autobiographical novel Metro: A Novel of the Moscow Underground, which displays much the same lyrical appreciation for the Moscow subway system).

Naturally, there is a quest, or several quests; an unlikely and happenstance band of surface dwellers ducks through a portal into the underworld of Moscow, into its secret history, in search of an explanation for the number of people disappearing from aboveground—are they truly being transformed into birds, as the diagnosed schizophrenic Galina believes happened to her sister Masha? Or is there something else at work?

I was not as immediately engaged by The Secret History of Moscow as I was by Sedia's subsequent novel, The Alchemy of Stone, but I did end up liking this one a lot. There are the occasional hints that the author is not a native English-speaker—dropped articles, odd prepositional choices—but those are infrequent enough that they only add to the charm. Ekaterina Sedia knows about mystery and magic, and about Moscow, as this subtle and melancholy fantasy shows.
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