All this talk of human rivers and grim waves of destruction reminds me that I haven’t got around to posting up a review of my most recent reading material, Twelve by Jasper Kent. Maintaining the recent trend towards undead-themed novels, Twelve is a tale about vampires set in Russia in 1812, during Napoleon’s invasion. Napoleon is within weeks of Moscow, and a group of four Russian officers who form a kind of irregular spy cadre regather for the first time in four years to unleash a new force in the war. One of their number has called on an old ally from outside of Russia, a mysterious man named Zmyeelich who brings with him 12 dirty, sinister-looking mercenaries. These 12 men, the officers are assured, will provide great aid in the war against Napoleon. Nothing is revealed about these men and their nature, except that they are very disturbing; but over the course of the book their true form is revealed, and one of the group of four sets out to destroy them all.

The blurb on the book suggests that these 12 men are a threat to all of humanity, but I didn’t get this impression reading the story. Rather, they’re just really really nasty. We certainly get to find out how nasty during some of the descriptions of their more vicious actions against the French, and it’s clear that they are worth a lot more than 12 men in their actions. But stacked up against the size of Napoleon’s army – some 400,000 men when it crossed the Neman, and probably still more than 200,000 when it reached Moscow – it’s hard to believe they could make a dent in less than a year, especially since the central theme of the story is our main hero managing to kill them one by one. Of course, his killing of them depends on knowledge that the French don’t have, but they are proven to be far from invincible. The main story turns into a tale of vengeance and holy fury, with our hero committed to the destruction of the twelve out of purely religious and moral concerns.

The book contains an interesting side story about the main character’s relationship with a sex worker called Dominique, and his guilt at his preference for her over his wife. His relationships with the other three spies, which prove to be crippled by self doubt and distrust, are also essential to the progress of the plot and make his situation very believable. The story is also written with what I imagine to be the classic monster-hunter/van Helsing style, where the main character’s own fears, deductions and moral failings are displayed to the reader through his debates with himself, his dreams and his anxious ponderings. In this sense it fits with my image of older horror stories, like Frankenstein and the work of Bram Stoker, which often involve intense debates entirely within the conscience of the main character.

The backdrop of the Napoleonic wars is also handled very well, with the characters (and their nemesis) settling as spies in deserted Moscow during the French occupation, then following them back during the initial stages of their retreat. The sense of a city emptied, under occupation and empty of supplies is well conveyed, as is the increasing desperation and lawlessness of the French. In amongst all this we see the increasingly uncontrolled and predatory behaviour of the vampires as our heroes’ cooperation and trust begins to break down; and then the winter comes. This builds tension nicely to the climax, which occurs at Napoleons’ disastrous crossing of the river Berezine, which seals the fate of both Napoleon and the sinister enemies that the Russian spies have called forth.

This book is well written, in the classic horror story style of focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist and his relations with his fellows. It works well on undermining trust between these fellows, and uses the classic methods of understated description and avoiding gore to build up the horror and violence of the foe, though eventually it gets suitably grotesque. The vampires are evil and powerful without being unbelievably invincible, and our hero’s efforts to defeat them are largely believable. The historical context is really interesting and the backdrop of war, slaughter and confusion gives a subdued apocalyptic feel to the whole setting. Overall this book is an excellent addition to the vampire genre, and well worth reading if you like either historical fiction or solid undead stories with a hint of an old-fashioned horror style.