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Ekaterina Sedia – The Secret History of MoscowEkaterina Sedia is a Moscow-born writer, living and working in New Jersey. She has 4 novels to her name (the first one, According to Crow, only as E. Sedia); The Secret History of Moscow is her 3rd one. She has won the World Fantasy Award for Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy which she edited. Her latest anthology, Bewere the Night, is due out in April 2011.

Galina is a misfit; she lives in Moscow and works as a translator when she's not institutionalized. She never fit in, and is considered to be mentally ill by her family and by society at large. But then her sister, her well-adapted and 'normal' counterpart, gives birth to her first child, and then turns into a Jackdaw and flies away...
Yakov is a policeman, the grand-child of a British communist who came to Moscow on ideological grounds, and was shortly thereafter picked up by Stalin's henchmen as suspicious foreigner, and dissapeared forever. He witnesses a dog walker turn into a bird and fly away, and is, on the same day, assigned to investigate the spate of recent dissapearances  in Moscow, which is how he encounters Galina.
Together with Fyodor, a street artist living, literally, in the cracks of society, they follow the trail of the birds, who seem to dissappear into another world by flying through the reflections of doors in windows and puddles. They end up in a world which calls itself Underground.

Underground is some kind of refuge – it started out as a place for the pagan 'things' (spirits, lesser gods, their human allies) to go in 980 when Russia was converted to Christianism using fire & sword. Since then it has acquired misfits from all periods of Russion/Muscovite history, although most people only seem to stay there for some time, before they move on or leave. This part is never really explained (as it a lot of other things about Underground), but part of the concept smacks of Limbo, or of Purgatory; guilt and paying for past deeds definitely seems to feature. Besides the human denizens there are a number of characters from Russian mythology present – we get Rusalki (nowhere near as scary as in Liz William's Nine Layers of Sky), Kikimora, Domovoi, Vodyanoy; plus named characters like Father Frost, Koschey the Deathless, or Zemun the Celestian Cow.

There is a Gaiman quote on the front cover of the edition I read, linking the book to his own Neverwhere story. I found the link tenous only – yes, it's a parallel underworld in a major world city, but that's where the similarities end. This is not a mirror image, or a different side of the same coin, Underground sets itself apart, and is a different country alltogether. I found that The Secret History of Moscow reads more like a classical Russian Folk Tale, and the multiple segments where characters describe how they ended up there it reminded me more of Gaiman's American Gods, and its Coming to America sub-stories.

The human characters in the story are complex, and well fleshed out. We see through their eyes, witness how they learn the world they found themselves thrown into, and make their decisions of allegiance and belonging. The historical characters, in contrast, are frequently sketchy, only hinted at (although I have to admit here that my knowledge of Russian Folk Tales and Myths is sketchy, too), and are shown in glimpses only. This last technique actually works surprisingly well to lend some depth, or at least mystery, to the 'Old Ones'. A particular favourite of mine was the Ferryman over the 'Black River', who insists on payment for the crossing – in memories.

Overall a recommended read if 'Urban Fantasy' is not something that sends you running away screaming, and a writer to look out for.

Thanks to Prime Books for the free copy.

More Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Secret History of Moscow
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Reviewer: Markus Thierstein
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Prime Books
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 2007
Review Date: 110306
ISBN: 9780809572236
Price: USD 12.95
Pages: 303
Format: Paperback
Topic: Fantasy
Topic: Alternate History


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