Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011 (UK)
originally published as Алмазная Колесница, 2003
translated by Andrew Bromfield
502 pp. (hardback)
The Diamond Chariot is book number ten in Akunin's Erast Fandorin series, falling timewise in two different parts. According to a few articles I've read about this book, some people are under the impression that it may be the last in the series, but I seriously hope not. I hope we get at least to the Russian Revolution.
Book one, "Dragonfly-Catcher", is set in Russia in 1905. Historically, Russia and Japan are at war, a conflict which will ultimately lead to devastating results for the Romanov dynasty. Rasputin has by now insinuated himself into the court of Nicholas II, and revolutionaries are busy at work trying to steer Russia in a new direction. The action in book two, "Between the Lines," takes place in 1878, some ten years after Japan's Meiji Restoration, when the big empires, Russia included, are vying for domination of influence in Japan. Serieswise, "Between the Lines" is part of a heretofore missing piece of Fandorin's story, falling between Murder on the Leviathan and The Death of Achilles. Although the wide spread of years between the two books in The Diamond Chariot may seem a bit odd at first, all will be made clear as the novel comes to an end.
And what a novel it is! In 1905, Erast Fandorin is once again back in Russia, where after the loss of a Russian battleship and its entire crew, he volunteers his services as a specialist on Japan. The powers that be, however, have different plans for Fandorin, and he is taken on as a "hired gun"/consultant at the Department of Railway Gendarmarie and Police to develop a security system for Russia's railways, the vital supply link for the ongoing war against Japan. He is given great powers, and in his job, he facilitates a number of innovations to keep the railways safe. But it seems that not everyone appreciates his work -- an attack on a train puts Fandorin on the trail of a deadly group of revolutionaries who will stop at nothing, not even the deaths of innocent people, to sabotage any hopes of a Russian victory over Japan. As book one comes to a close, book two begins with Fandorin's arrival in Yokohama as a young, 22-year old diplomat attached to the Consul's office. Fandorin, being who he is, finds himself embroiled in an attempt to foil the killing of a Japanese minister, and soon he is involved in an adventure leading him from a local opium den to the beautiful mountain forests outside the city. Along the way he meets up with a host of potential suspects and has to deal with Yakuza, ninjas, former samurai, and a series of puzzles that must be solved in order to get to the mastermind behind the crime. Here Fandorin will meet his future valet and friend Masa, as well as a most arresting woman who puts him under her powerful spell.
While book one is definitely connected to book two, book one is more like the series novels that Akunin's readers are used to by this point, while book two reaches out into much more depth than the usual Fandorin-to-the-rescue type plot. If I may say so, book two constitutes more of a "cracking good yarn," a solidly-plotted mystery filled with intrigue, double crosses, and humor, while skirting the edges of the metaphysical. But besides the mystery components in the two books, there is much here for readers of historical fiction as well. For example, the author also allows the reader a peek at the contemporary political scene in Japan and Russia, and in book two, delves into the imperialist attitudes of the more "modern" nations which were all hoping to gain a permanent foothold in Japan at the time, as well as the positive and negative effects of Japan's efforts at modernization after the end of the shogunate. Book one also deals with growing disenchantment with the reign of Nicholas II, in a Russia that is "seriously ill," an empire which "had become an anachronism, a dinosaur with a body that was huge and a head that was too small, a creature that had outlived its time on earth."
The entire Fandorin series is fun to read, and The Diamond Chariot is no exception. As a whole, the novel works well, although the jump back so many years may confuse readers for a while until all is revealed. I happen to love Japanese history (one of my specialty areas for graduate study), so much of what was happening in that setting was nothing new for me, but you don't have to be an expert to get what's going on here. Akunin does a good job of setting the scene in both books, but his expertise in Japanese history and culture really shines through in the second part. The first part is good, more on par with the rest of the Fandorin series, but I was totally immersed in the second part, not wanting to let go of the book until I'd finished it, because of the difference in tone and because frankly, it was more like an old-time adventure/mystery story where I seriously couldn't imagine what was going to happen next. And just when I thought myself quite clever for figuring out the evil mastermind in charge of everything that happened, I was a bit stunned that I was wrong. At the same time, I was a bit relieved, because I hate when I guess the who.
The Diamond Chariot may be (imho) Akunin's best work in the series -- it's fun, with a good mystery and a conclusion that ties both parts of the book together in a kind of sad yet satisfying way. My advice: start with the first book in the series, and do NOT make this your introduction to Erast Fandorin. He's a character who grows as time goes on (and if you would take a peek at the pictures of the man on the Weidenfeld and Nicolson covers, he ages a bit in each one), and his backstory is just as important as the action in the book in front of you.
I'm wondering whether or not, as some reviewers have noted, The Diamond Chariot is really the last book in the series; Wikipedia shows that there are already others written but just not translated. If anyone has any info, please let me know.
crime fiction from Russia