CLASSIFICATION: Set in 1812 during the French invasion of Russia — specifically the Battle of Borodino, the capture and fires of Moscow, the retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Berezina — with the primary antagonists being vampires, Twelve is much like the book describes itself… a vibrant blend of detailed historical fiction and heart-stopping supernatural horror. I was reminded of a cross between a Bernard Cornwell novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and “Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire.”
FORMAT/INFO: Twelve is 480 pages long divided over two Parts, thirty-two Roman-numbered chapters, and a Russian Folk Tale as the Prologue. Also includes a map and an Author’s Note. Narration is in the first-person exclusively via Aleksei Ivanonvich Danilov. Story is self-contained and comes to a very satisfying conclusion, but Twelve is envisioned as the “first in a quintet (The Danilov Quintet) of novels which span Russian history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” with a sequel, Thirteen Years Later, currently under development.
ANALYSIS: I love vampire stories, but the concept has started to lose its novelty because it’s just the same ideas being used over and over. Which is why I was instantly attracted to Jasper Kent’s Twelve, a book billed as “the First Napoleonic Historical Vampire Novel.” Simply put, using a war as the backdrop for a vampire tale was a brilliant idea. In fact, I wonder why it hasn’t been done more often. After all, wartime is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the ever thirsting vampire and is just full of material for an author to work with.
Yet an interesting hook can only take a novel so far without the proper execution. This is what makes Twelve so special. Because while it was the hook that first reeled me in, it was Jasper Kent’s wonderful writing and storytelling that kept me glued to Twelve until its very last page.
Kent’s writing impressed me for a number of reasons, but most impressive of all was the characterization, specifically of the main protagonist, Aleksei Ivanonvich Danilov. With a first-person narrative, one would expect to get a little more insight into a character than they would from a third-person narrative, but Jasper takes it a step further, establishing everything from Aleksei’s personality and his fears and desires to the different levels of friendship he has developed with Maks, Dmitry and Vadim to the love that he feels for his wife and child as well as the prostitute Domnikiia, and much more. The end result is a fully realized three-dimensional character who readers can care about, root for, and connect with emotionally. One of my favorite traits about Aleksei was his wonderful similes and metaphors:
Horses and victuals that had been moved away from the road during the French advance had surged back in after their retreat, as though Napoleon were Moses leading his army of Israelites across the Red Seas, except that what was drawn away in advance of him and returned behind would have brought life, not death to his army.
In addition to the characterization, the worldbuilding was topnotch, effortlessly transporting the reader back to the Napoleonic Wars when France was invading Russia. History buffs in particular will be thrilled by the amount of detail that Kent has packed into Twelve, especially the way he weaves the main storyline with actual historical events like the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon’s capture and occupation of Moscow, the fires and the French army’s retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Berezina. It should be noted however, that even though the book takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and that Aleksei and his friends are Russian soldiers, Twelve is not your typical war novel. Part of the reason is because Aleksei, Maks, Dmitry, and Vadim specialize in espionage and fight the war through subterfuge, but it’s also because of the vampire storyline which dominates about half of the novel.
Story-wise, Twelve starts off a little slow with the author focused on establishing the setting, the character of Aleksei, his relationship with Maks, Dmitry, Vadim, and Domnikiia, the strangeness of the Oprichniki, and so forth. In fact, the vampires aren’t even revealed as such until about 200 pages into the novel. What’s interesting about this though is that the reader knows that the Oprichniki are vampires, so it’s fun to catch all of the little clues that reveal the Oprichniki’s true nature. Plus, there’s plenty to keep the reader entertained including war espionage, the love story between Aleksei and Domnikiia, and a traitor amongst Aleksei’s friends. After the Oprichniki are revealed as vampires, Twelve starts to venture into more traditional horror territory with Aleksei intent on destroying the Oprichniki, but Kent does have a few tricks up his sleeve including a couple of unexpected twists — which are easy to figure out if you pay attention — and an engaging game of cat and mouse.
As far as the vampires, Jasper relies mainly on recognizable lore such as the Oprichniki’s increased strength, speed, and recuperative abilities; their need for blood; their Wallachian roots; and being susceptible to sunlight, a stake through the heart, and decapitation. Crosses and churches don’t affect the Oprichniki however, and they cannot change into bats, wolves, or mist. For the most part though, Jasper’s vampires are of the time-honored variety, although the author does explore the Oprichniki philosophically and psychologically, and also uses vampires as a stark contrast to mankind who are still the world’s worst monsters.
CONCLUSION: Jasper Kent’s Twelve may fall in the category of historical fiction and vampire horror, but labels are only a small part of the picture. To put it simply, Twelve is magnificently written and told, with great characters and villains, a vivid setting, and a haunting story, all of which makes Jasper Kent’s debut one of the best books of the year.
The Danilov Quintet — (2009-2014) Publisher: Zmyeevich had remained standing and now began to speak in very precise, but very formal and strangely accented French. His voice had a darkness to it that seemed to emit not from his throat but from deep in his torso. Somewhere inside him it was as if giant millstones were turning against one another, or as though the lid were being slowly dragged aside to open a stone sarcophagus… On 12th June 1812, Napoleon’s massive grande armee forded the River Niemen and so crossed the Rubicon — its invasion of Russia had begun. In the face of superior numbers and tactics, the imperial Russian army began its retreat. But a handful of Russian officers — veterans of Borodino — are charged with trying to slow the enemy’s inexorable march on Moscow. Indeed, one of their number has already set the wheels of resistance in motion, having summoned the help of a band of mercenaries from the outermost fringes of Christian Europe.Comparing them to the once-feared Russian secret police — the Oprichniki — the name sticks. As rumours of plague travelling west from the Black Sea reach the Russians, the Oprichniki — but twelve in number — arrive.Preferring to work alone, and at night, the twelve prove brutally, shockingly effective against the French. But one amongst the Russians, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov, is unnerved by the Oprichniki’s ruthlessness… as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they’ve unleashed in their midst… Full of authentic historical detail and heart-stopping supernatural moments, and boasting a page-turning narrative, “Twelve” is storytelling at its most original and exciting.