The Secret History of Moscow
Fiction; Urban Fantasy
Russian urban fantasy is not normally my thing, but Sony was offering this free as a promotion on the E-Reader site, so I went ahead and downloaded it. Surprisingly, I quite liked it. It’s certainly different from anything I’ve read before, and not just because it’s fantasy, which I don’t read much of although I make the occasional foray.
The story is told from several characters’ points of view, but I’d say the primary character is Galina, a young woman in post-Soviet Russia who is working as a medical translator after her release from a mental institution for a vague form of schizophrenia that may or may not have been a complete fabrication by authorities under the old Soviet rule. Living in a dingy Moscow apartment with her mother and pregnant sister, Galina half-assumes her mental illness has returned when her sister locks herself in the bathroom, gives birth to the child, and then somehow disappears through a small window several stories from the ground. The only thing left is a black bird sitting on the windowsill, and Galina tries very hard NOT to believe that the bird is her sister – not to mention that suggesting such a thing to anyone could land her right back in the sanitarium - but can’t fight the certainty that it is.
From here she’s led to several others who are also having odd, inexplicable experiences involving mysterious birds, and portals into an underworld that can pose as anything from an illusory doorway to a puddle of oily water in an alley. The other people she meets and travels with to this underworld are Yakov, a policeman investigating the strange disappearances and himself a reluctant witness to a man who appears to actually turn into a bird, and Fyodor, a homeless artist with a dark past who takes Galina and Yakov through one of the portals.
In the strange world beneath we meet a fascinating cast of creatures and characters from Russian myths and legends, who are concerned about what is happening “up above”, because never before have people been able to pass so easily into the underworld except in death. Something is awry, and while on a literal journey through a strange and beautiful wood, across a Stygian-esque river and into other magical, mysterious places to learn what’s happened to cause this unnatural aperture and also try to find their way back, Galina in particular is on a mission to find her missing sister, whom she can hear calling to her for help in the half-light of her dreams.
The author is a Russian native now living in New Jersey, and I think this is her second or third novel. It is not a translation as far as I can tell, although she may have written a Russian version as well. Although the story drags slightly every so often, for the most part it is beautifully told. Sedia has a beautiful, unique sense of language and style and I would definitely read more from her.