It isn’t often I throw superlatives around, but I think it is fair to describe this book as something of an epic – and it is very, very good. Nor is it common for me to be crying out for a sequel, but having reached the end of this, I would love to see one, to see characters reunited. I’ll try not to spoil anything; suffice to say that the premise concerns three young, orphaned siblings, although beyond a certain point the readers only get to follow two of them. The end is left perfectly poised for the third to come back into the narrative, and I for one would love to see it.
This book is superb and Irmgarde Brown is an excellent author. Admittedly, some of the formatting was a little distracting at times, but most won’t read with the same critical eye as me – and all the better for them, because it would be a very unfortunate excuse not to enjoy everything this book has to offer. It is also at times a little difficult to follow some of the characters, as their names change contextually, which takes some getting used to, though (actually very helpfully, as it turns out), Irmgarde does provide a glossary in this respect. The book is an insight and allegory into post-Glasnost Soviet Union, and how the State handled protecting vulnerable children; as you might imagine it is very bleak, with some horrific subject matter, including child trafficking, pornography and prostitution – although Irmgarde resists the urge, thankfully and admirably, to point the finger at any real state corruption, which is doing its best to cope with a growing social problem as the Union begins its slow and gradual separation. Some of it brings to mind a little the stories of Dickens, in which adults are portrayed as either misguided, out of their depth or utterly villainous. The kids themselves are no fools, though, and Fedya himself becomes something of an Artful Dodger, guilt-stricken for abandoning his sister, and toughened by his own deeply unsettling experiences. The book’s second act builds tension nicely, as a tense, suspenseful plotline unfolds, and some incredibly heinous people emerge.
But don’t be mistaken; I’ve no wish to paint this book as purely bleak and no more – it is so much more than that. It isn’t all dark and hopeless, but rather the contrary; I would say there are large servings of hope, and your faith in the growing competence of the two children who dominate this book is testimony to Irmgarde’s ability to craft layered characters; you root for them completely, and you begin to trust that they will outwit their situation. The theme doesn’t go full-on thriller nor dystopian bureaucracy, but there are sizeable helpings of both. Some of the violence is horrific, as is the abuse, but never exploitative or gratuitous for the reader. The politics are sprinkled liberally and with enough detail for this book to be a serious piece of writing, and the author has researched this aspect of the book very well; some of it is a revelation into a culture we don’t commonly see from the inside.
Children in the City of Czars is exceptionally well written – wordy, but didn’t feel long – and I was totally gripped, from start to finish. It’s fair to say that this is probably the best fiction book I’ve read in a little while, and if you like dark, progressively simmering suspense thrillers, with a heavy focus on geo-politics and life in a crumbling Soviet Union, I very strongly recommend it. And, in case Irmgarde isn’t considering it (which I’m sure she is), I would love to catch up with Irina.
In : Book Reviews
Tags: irmgarde-brown fiction glasnost communist-rule geo-political drama child-abuse trafficking prostitution thriller suspense soviet-union