Beyond being forced to read Anna Karenina once summer (I retain little to this day, my usual method of coping with things I have to do against my will), I’ve encountered Russia very seldom in my fictional travels. But a surefire way to get me interested in a subject is to approach it through the lens of speculative fiction, which is the reason for today’s selections from my reading list—speculative fiction by Russians and set in Russia… or at least exploring it, in the first case.
Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
Published two weeks after his seventieth birthday, Ada, or Ardor is one of Nabokov’s greatest masterpieces, the glorious culmination of his career as a novelist. It tells a love story troubled by incest. But more: it is also at once a fairy tale, epic, philosophical treatise on the nature of time, parody of the history of the novel, and erotic catalogue. Ada, or Ardor is no less than the supreme work of an imagination at white heat.
It’s hard for me to find a path into Nabokov. Everywhere I turn, there’s an issue that creeps me out so badly that I can’t read an entire novel about it—pedophilia in Lolita and incest in Ada, or Ardor. But the speculative fiction leanings of Ada, or Ardor has made me try to get over that, despite the fact I’m told this is not exactly the place to jump in with Nabokov. But I’ll probably never be able to bring myself to read Lolita, so there.
Amanda at the Zen Leaf is proud to have conquered it, but she doesn’t recommend it, or the latter half of Nabokov’s canon. However, Larry at The OF Blog thinks it’s the best Nabokov he’s read, so it appears to be a polarizing piece of work, to say the least…
Ada, or Ardor was published in 1969.
Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia
In a Russia where the Decembrists’ rebellion was successful and the Trans-Siberian railroad was completed before 1854, Sasha Trubetskaya wants nothing more than to have a decent debut ball in St. Petersburg. But her aunt’s feud with the emperor lands Sasha at university, where she becomes one of its first female students – an experiment, she suspects, designed more to prove female unsuitability for such pursuits than offer them education. The pressure intensifies when Sasha’s only friends – Chinese students – start disappearing, and she begins to realize that her new British companion, Jack, has bigger secrets than she can imagine! Sasha and Jack find themselves trying to stop a war brewing between the three empires. The only place they can turn to for help is the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, newly founded by the Taiping rebels. Pursued by the terrifying Dame Florence Nightingale of the British Secret Service, Sasha and Jack escape across Siberia via train to China. Sasha discovers that Jack is not quite the person she thought he was…but then again, neither is she.
Alternate history, gender issues, and an evil Florence Nightingale. What more could you want? Okay, a totally awesome cover, but Heart of Iron has this covered. io9 mentioned this book recently and it just sounded amazing. I hope the execution is as good as the premise.
Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, finding it to be wholly satisfying. Elizabeth at Deluded Visions enjoyed the worldbuilding and the clash between Sasha and Florence, but found it lacking in action.
Heart of Iron will be published on July 26.