Russian-born professor Sidorova puts her knowledge of her homeland’s history to work in this novel that follows the odd story of a man whose life is synonymous with cold.
When Prince Alexander Velitzyn’s father, Mikhail, helped conceive him and his twin brother, Andrei, in 18th-century Russia, it was out of anything but love: After displeasing the empress, Mikhail and a hunchbacked jester were thrown together to spend the night in a palace made entirely of ice, down to the bed and curtains. Twins Alexander and Andrei were the result of the forced union. Instead of being close, as twins oftentimes are, Andrei seems to take great delight in taunting his brother, while Alexander remains devoted to Andrei. In an epic tale that starts with the boys' births in 1740 and follows Alexander through his exceedingly long life (the main character and narrator lives into the 21st century), Sidorova explores cold as a narrative theme: Alexander has a peculiar lack of bodily warmth and has a tolerance to ice and snow that's not shared with the rest of the human race. In this uneven tale, Alexander takes readers through the reigns of Catherine and Peter in his homeland, traverses the coldest places imaginable, spans Europe and ends up in modern-day America. The journey is disconcerting. Although Sidorova ably presents life in 18th-century Russia, her protagonist is difficult to like. The prose often slips back and forth in tenses, and the emphasis on the lead character’s coldness verges on literary nagging. Even more problematic: 18th-century Russian characters speak in modern slang, which the author mixes with the more formal language of the time.
Fans of historical fiction with a supernatural component may like this novel, but the climate-immune protagonist and his endless, often nonsensical ramblings will leave more literal-minded readers feeling cold.