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by Stephen Miller
HarperCollins, March 2006
464 pages
ISBN: 0007191200

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I like counterfactual fiction; or 'alternate history', as it's sometimes called. Change one detail, and the kaleidoscope of world events spins into a strange new pattern. Peter Ackroyd revitalised the genre with MILTON IN AMERICA in 1995, and in 1994 Philip Roth made a frightening, transparently allegorical contribution with his THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, in which the terrorists are Nazi sympathisers and they take over the Oval Office, democratically.

So I was glad to discover Stephen Miller's A GAME OF SOLDIERS, a counterfactual thriller set in Russia before the first world war. You know, the war started by a bunch of Russian conspirators who wanted to use Serbian malcontents to depose the Romanovs and crown malcontented prince Nestor Evdaev the new Tsar of All the Russias.

In St Petersburg in 1913, Pyotr Ryzhov, an officer of the Okhrana, or Tsarist secret police, is on duty protecting Rasputin, who is at a brothel, when he sees a girl's body fall from the building's window. After Ryzhov and his team spirit the influential monk away from the scene, the death is ruled a suicide, but Ryzhov isn't so certain.

He investigates, to the chagrin of their superior Gulka, who has his own reasons for wishing that this particular case would be dropped. With the help of Vera Aliyeva, a dancer and prostitute who performs at the cabaret of the bohemian Komet Theatre, Ryzhov starts unravelling the secret of Evdaev's conspiracy.

Some of the language seemed strikingly allusive of the post-9-11 English-speaking world. Plotters are 'terrorists', they belong to 'cells', and I wondered whether it's an accident that the Komet Theatre's resident ultra-radical writer is a Jewish guy named Kushner. If there's an intended topical message, I must admit I didn't pick it up on the first (or second) read.

Excepting the hard-boiled yet ethical Ryzhov, the characters are mostly drawn rather thinly. They are archetypes rather than personalities. The hooker-with-a-heart-nearly-of-gold is an overused cliche which demolishes any sense of realism that the blunt portrayals of Tsarist St Petersburg child prostitution may have been intended to convey.

I also must admit that there are points when I wasn't able to appreciate the brilliance of Miller's weaving of fact and fantasy because I didn't know enough about Russian and Balkan history to know what the facts were. The book was intriguing enough to make me google many of the characters and events to determine whether they were real or not, and then re-read several chapters. Consequently, it's not a quick read, but it's an engaging one. How often does counterfactual fiction cause one to learn about real-world history?

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, April 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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