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The Secret History of Moscow
Ekaterina Sedia
Narrated by Eileen Stevens, unabridged
Audible Frontiers, 9 hours, 38 minutes

The Secret History of Moscow
Ekaterina Sedia
Ekaterina Sedia was born and raised in Moscow, where her family still resides. She moved to New Jersey and teaches botany and plant ecology at a state liberal arts college and writes books. Her novel, The Secret History of Moscow, is currently available from Prime Books. Another, The Alchemy of Stone, is due in June 2008 ans she is working on The House of Discarded Dreams, to be released in 2009. She has sold stories to Analog, Baen's Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies.

Ekaterina Sedia Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Paper Cities

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Susan Dunman

Living in a grimy Moscow apartment with her mother and younger sister, Galina has recently returned home from a stay in a mental institution. She is determined to say nothing that might send her back to the psychiatric ward, but her world verges on another breakdown when her very pregnant sister, Masha, goes to the bathroom and simply vanishes.

Hearing a scream, Galina breaks through the bathroom door to find a crying newborn baby on the floor and a crow sitting in the open window. Galina thinks it has a knowing look in its eyes as it flies away, but she knows what her mother would do if she suggests Masha has turned into a crow -- so she remains silent. That doesn't keep her from trying to solve the impossible mystery, however, and it's not long before she discovers she's not the only person who thinks people are turning into birds.

With the help of Yakov, a police detective who is assigned to investigate the disappearance of Muscovites across the city, Galina soon uncovers the Moscow "underground" -- a place so incredibly strange that it makes the idea of people turning into birds seem rather ordinary. The citizens of this other-worldly realm are an eclectic mix of humans who have escaped capture from Soviet authorities down through the ages, living eternally alongside a pantheon of characters from Soviet folklore and mythology.

When describing those living above ground in 90s Moscow, Ekaterina Sedia does a remarkable job of capturing the sense of depression and desperation which must have been felt by many after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This Moscow is grey and cold, filled with people trying to survive government corruption and the rise of Mafioso gangs out to control the city. Meanwhile, the underground Moscow is not really that much better, for all who live there, whether human or otherwise, have been forced to retreat there due to prejudice, misunderstanding, hatred, or disbelief in their existence.

Narrator Eileen Stevens has an abundance of characters to portray and she demonstrates a broad range voicing female characters. But when she lowers her voice for the male personalities, it often decreases her range and vocal flexibility, making the male characters less interesting to hear and somewhat stilted. However, Stevens saves her best for the mythic creatures of Russian folklore, such as Koschey the Deathless and Zemun the Celestial Cow, whose udder is full of stars rather than milk. The voice of that cow is going to stay in my head for months after listening to this recording.

. Some reviewers have compared this title with Neil Gaiman's book, Neverwhere, and Gaiman even wrote a blurb for the book extolling its virtues. But, except for the fact that both titles deal with a magical place underneath a major city, they do not seem similar to me at all. In fact, having the opportunity to compare the many differences between the two books in tone, mood, language and outlook is one thing that made The Secret History of Moscow so interesting to hear.

After starting with a shock (new mother turns into a crow) the story slows and takes a rather meandering stroll, which made me concerned that the first 15 minutes were going to be the best part of the tale. But staying with the story is worth the effort, though it does dish out a healthy dose of ambiguity, with plenty of loose ends left dangling from the plot. However, the way the author chooses to end this story is unique and perfectly reflects the melancholy mood of the entire book. As a result, I was much more impressed than I intended to be with this unconventional Russian urban fantasy.

Copyright © 2011 Susan Dunman

Susan became a librarian many light years ago and has been reviewing books ever since. Audiobooks and graphic novels have expanded her quest to find the best science fiction in Libraryland.

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