On 12th June 1812, Napoleon's massive Grande Armee forded the River Niemen and by doing so crossed the proverbial Rubicon - the invasion of Russia had begun. In the face of superior numbers and tactics, the imperial Russian army began its fast 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, Wallachia. They know everything about harrassing and defeating an enemy far more powerful than you and they are highly efficient.
The mercenaries are compared to the once-feared Russian secret police - the Oprichniki - and 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...
What I liked:
The Napoleonic Wars, especially the disastroud and ill-guided invasion of Russia, are always a very colourful canvass for any novel; personally I like that period very much. This book didn't disappoint me either. Although I found some minor historical errors (like the narrator speaking of Poland which officially didn't exist at that time - just the ephemeral Grand Duchy of Warsaw, created by the Napoleon to appease the Poles and make them join his army). Ok, I know, it is not a historical novel and by the way who cares...just some weirdos like me.
The pace was fairly slow at the start, as the narrator focuses often on his private life and thoughts. At just over the midpoint, about 270 pages in, the book becomes faster and there was one twist at the very end which was a complete surprise to me.
Now about the voordalak (vampires). I am happy to say these are closer to the older image of a vamp so as far from your Twilight, sparkling, non-human-blood drinking, emotionally tortured vampires as a lap dog is from a wild wolf. The vampires in Twelve are also not your average paranormal romance dudes, those exceptionally handsome and lustful, picking-up-the-best-babes-and-giving-them-the-best-sex-experience-ever-for-a-sip-or-two types . They are sadistic killers and parasites, having all the compassion and subtlety of a Jack the Ripper. They must drink blood to stay alive but they are not kind to their food sources. Getting the most satisfaction from the extreme emotional states of terror and despair in their victims (even other vampires) they will plan out their hunting and then they spend hours in performing the act to heighten their own enjoyment. In other words they were truly horrible monsters which fitted well the Russia and the ugly war around them. It was also nice that the author didn't hesitate to get back to the original themes of "Dracula", exploring such philosophical questions as what it means to be human, how you become a monster, what it means to be a loyal friend or a traitor etc.
Now a bit about the main character and the narrator, Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov. He is a complex hero, one of these flawed ones, not completely likeable to say the least of it but very real and completely honest which warmed me to him significantly. Although I admit that his moral compass was sometimes totally off he was an interesting man to follow around. Aleksei is a professional soldier and spy, thus not far away from mass murderers such as vampires. There's a huge war going on, and people are dying like flies anyway. The survivors commit horrible attrocities out of hunger and low morals, not to mention the harsh Russian winter. It is only too natural that, despite his initial hatred towards the Oprichniki, soon enough Aleksei starts asking himself whether these monsters are really worse than your average human being.
Aleksei is married and has a young son; still, while lingering in Moskow, he enters an illicit relationship with a prostitute called Domnikiia or Dominique. Their relationship quickly exceeds the ordinary transaction turning into a proper affair or maybe even something more serious. It was funny that Dominique caught his eye because of her alleged likeness to the second wife of Napoleon, Marie Louise, the daughter of Francis I, emperor of Austria. Somehow Aleksey's pangs of conscience, not very acute to begin with, were significantly diminishing with every death he witnessed and every enemy he killed. You might think that immoral or wrong but it was also very close to reality - especially during a war, when nobody was sure what the next day might bring. I have to admit I also appreciated the fact that Aleksei never turned into one of those annoyingly tortured heroes, being teared apart by his morality and urges. Once again, you might not like the fact that the hero had both a wife and a mistress and basically considered it ok but personally I found it in perfect accordance with that era and its often hypocritical mores.
Finally let me tell you that one of the vampires, Iuda, definitely deserved more attention that he got and I hope that he will be featured in the next installment. Why? Spoiler highlight to read: Iuda is not a actually a vampire, just a very sick human sadist who pretends to be one to indulge himself. I do wonder how he managed to dupe his vampire companions, his boss and our brave Lyosha as well.
What I didn't like:
I grant it, the book was first published in January 2009. Still the fact that the main character for almost half of the novel tried to solve a big 'mystery' of Oprichniki must seem a bit silly for any reader of fantasy. Even the fact that Aleksei emphasised every now and then that he was above folk fairy tales and other such absurdities didn't explain it well. All the clues were there from the very beginning - the novel starts with a Russian tale which immediately lets you know that there will be some paranormal elements involved. Then we are told that the creepy mercenaries came from Wallachia (Romania nowadays), leaving a trail of death in their wake, they operated only at night and slept during the day, they didn't want any money, always a surprising thing for a mercenary, their leader called himself 'Zmyeevich' so a son of a serpent, an adder or a dragon...honestly when I come to think about it there were actually too many clues around to make it half a decent secret.
The final showdown I found a little too convenient for Aleksei as well - it was one of these blatant cases of ‘being able to have your cake and eat it'. Still knowing that there are more installment coming I can forgive it.
If you like historical fiction set in the 19th century, and you have nothing against classic vampire mythology, this romp where the odds are stacked against your hero at every turn might be up your valley.I will definitely give a try to the next book in the series despite the shortcomings of the first part.