I know what you're thinking: with a title like that, what could go wrong?
The answer, my friends, is very little.
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra spans nearly 70 years as it delves into Russian history through the lives of (at least) 9 characters.
It sounds a little overwhelming, but honestly, the writing was intriguing and clear, so I rarely got people or places confused.
The story begins in Leningrad (later renamed St. Petersburg) in 1937, with a painter tasked with censoring photos of Soviet dissidents. From there, the story leaps forward and far to the north, following the granddaughter of a ballerina the censor was charged with erasing, now living on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Before long the story leaps southward to Grozny in the Chechen region of southern Russia, and so on. Despite the frequent shifts in viewpoint characters, the individual voices felt unique and discernible from one another, which I greatly appreciated. The characters are all tied together in unbelievable ways, which at time felt out of place, given that the rest of the story remains extremely grounded in realism. I found myself willing to forgive this, though, especially given the excellence of the writing. (And hey, I'm reading fiction, right? Shouldn't it be a little unbelievable sometimes?)
Because the characters are so interwoven, you get to see them from different people's perspectives. One character is introduced as a good-for-nothing teenager, so later when he arrived as a viewpoint character I was startled by my empathy for him. Additional insight into his character is given from his brother and an old high school friend, whereby a multi-faceted view of his personality begins to emerge. It was interesting to sort out how much of their perspectives was real, or, perhaps, how much of the young man's perspective of himself is actually what others see. I found this technique interesting and it made the book compelling, especially as it revealed something about the human experience. In real life, the stories we tell about ourselves and others are both true and not true. We are the ultimate unreliable narrators.
But I digress.
There was a lot of reference to early Soviet history and recent Russian conflicts that I don't think I would have understood if I weren't married to a Russophile currently reading a 976 page biography of Stalin. There were still things I'd come across that I wasn't familiar with, but I personally found that intriguing instead of off-putting. For someone less familiar with Russian history, I imagine wikipedia could be a great aid in enjoying the book.
At this point, I feel the need to say that several of the characters are soldiers and/or young men, and as such there was considerably more reference to sexual content than I typically choose to read (luckily nothing too explicit). The vast majority of the time I felt that it was in service of the plot and character development, but there were a few times when it made me uncomfortable. If any of you choose to read this book (and I hope some of you do!), I just want you to know what you're getting into.
Those things being said, I really enjoyed this book. The storytelling was cleverly crafted, the characters were intriguing, and the prose was delightful. Several times I had to read a sentence over again, because there were layers of meaning in it I hadn't caught the first time. Ten pages in to the book I announced to Jesse that he had to read this next, and yet the prose was so great that at times I had to read it aloud to him, even at the risk of spoiling some of the story.
The Tsar of Love and Techno comes out October 6th. Get your hands on a copy, or, better yet, borrow mine!
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.