December 3, 2010

Rabid Reads: "The Secret History of Moscow" by Ekaterina Sedia

The Secret History of Moscow
by Ekaterina Sedia
Prime Books (2007)
310 pages
ISBN 978-1-60701-229-0

After hearing a heap of praise for her novel The Alchemy of Stone, as well as an anthology she edited, Running with the Pack, I decided I should keep an eye out for Sedia's name on the spines of books. So when I had the opportunity to snag a copy of the new paperback release of The Secret History of Moscow, I did.

One of the front cover blurbs is by Neil Gaiman, in which he compares this book to his own fantasy tale, Neverwhere. As a fan of Gaiman's work, and having read Secret History now, I can say that the story is certainly worthy of being put in the same league as Gaiman's novels.

Galina, a modest 90s era Russian who makes a modest living as a translator, witnesses her little sister Masha turn into a white jackdaw moments after Masha gives birth to her daughter in their apartment's bathroom. Thinking your sister has turned into a bird is crazy, but Galina's been thought of as crazy before--and she's in no hurry for her judgmental mother or anyone at the institution where she once resided to think of her as crazy anymore.

But the strange birds flying over Moscow are more than she can ignore, and when she learns that she's not the only one who can see them, she seeks out a way to find her sister and bring her back home. Helping her on her quest are two men: Fyodor, a street artist long compelled to paint the birds and enamored by a gypsy woman he met before she disappeared; and Yakov, a by-the-numbers police officer who has trouble buying into any notion of people turning into birds or alternative worlds existing beyond reflective surfaces.

In a strange sense, the story kind of reminded me of a grown-up version of The Wizard of Oz. Only as Galina and her small troupe entered the underworld populated by deities and mythical creatures from Russian folklore, the scenes almost seemed to become grayer than the drab experience left behind in Moscow.

There were moments when I really just had to take supporting characters at face value. Being unfamiliar with Russian folklore and history, I felt there was a subtext I was missing out on most of the time. Sedia's prose is charitable enough to offer brief explanations about the more prominent figures they encounter, and a couple of them--like Timur-Bey and Koschey the Deathless--really stand out despite not taking up a lot of proverbial screen time.

At first the trek Galina and company takes feels very linear and almost perfunctory--go here and talk to so-and-so, repeat as need--but it becomes clear that they're doing more than just randomly talking to mythical beasts and asking for directions to the nearest checkpoint. There's a fair bit going on, and a burgeoning love story between Fyodor and the gypsy girl, Oksana, is a bit of a scene-stealer--as are the small army of rats she has befriended.

It's a rich little adventure, and for a fantasy novel I find it refreshing that it is a stand-alone tale with a very satisfying end. That's a rare and welcome occurrence in my opinion. I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of Sedia's work down the road.



  1. My favourite of all Neil Gaiman's books is Neverwhere, I just might have to give The Secret History of Moscow a try.

  2. It's worth checking out, that's for sure.