A novel examines civil war and prophecy in the years following the Russian Revolution.
In his Kamas Trilogy, Fleming (Forty Days at Kamas, 2015, etc.) described a totalitarian future that may yet arrive. In his new stand-alone tale, the prognosticator turns his pen to a half-imagined history, a totalitarian past that needn’t have been. Sent to Siberia by the United States during the Russian civil war of 1918, when the Communist Bolsheviks fought the Nationalist White Guard in the wake of the czar’s execution, Ned Du Pont finds himself providing aimless backup for the Nationalists in “a miserable little fight.” In this battle, American troops are expressly forbidden to directly engage the enemy, whomever that is. Then he meets the Maid of Baikal. Like her namesake, the Maid of Orléans, young Zhanna Dorokhina hears voices. As with Joan of Arc, those voices belong to saints, and their words provide not only courage in the face of adversity, but also precise wartime tactics the White Guard must obey if it hopes to gain a foothold on success. “My voices tell me Uralsk must be retaken by summer,” Zhanna tells White leader Adm. Alexander Kolchak. “If not, the Red Army will surely breach our defenses at Ufa and sweep across Siberia from Yekaterinburg to the Pacific.” Half entranced by Zhanna’s spiritual mission and half in love with the very real young woman in his charge, Ned finds himself in the position of helping her fulfill her prophesies. His assignment soon becomes a calling and he tries as best he can to both prevent Zhanna’s murder at the hands of a vengeful religious tribunal—the same fate that befell her predecessor—and to use the connections his family name delivers to secure arms and ammunition for the anti-Communist front. Fleming achieves the near impossible in this long book, keeping dozens of plots spinning while he catches the reader up both on what historically transpired and how different outcomes might have plausibly happened. Character after character is ushered into the theater of war, made memorable, then variously deployed to raise the stakes. Treachery, espionage, heroism, or romance seem to hover around each encounter, and the reader is placed in the unusual and invigorating position of watching history come alive with no idea of how it’s going to end.
A Russian war story that lives and breathes from a writer at the peak of his powers.