When I read Eutopia, David Nickle’s first novel, my chief complaint was that it may have worked better as a short story (a form in which Nickle is unparallelled). This is not a complaint one could make about his second offering, Rasputin’s Bastards. Bastards weighs in at 467 pages and, if anything, the story is bigger than that.
This is an ambitious book. Set in alternate 1997, Bastards tells the story of Alexei Kilodovich, former KGB, and his entanglement with an abandoned Soviet super-soldier program. The program, headquartered in a remote location in the Ural Mountains known only as City 512, set out to breed telepaths who could fight the Cold War from within the minds of the enemy. It worked all too well. The children of City 512 became adept at projecting their consciousness from their bodies, roaming the world as ghosts and wearing whoever they chose as puppets. Dreamwalking, they called it.
Inevitably, the dreamwalkers became enamoured with their own power and became unreliable. The program was buried, but it had already gone diasporic. The dreamwalkers hid. In America, in the Ukraine, in plain sight and in the deep. They came to see themselves as martyrs, as rightful leaders, as gods. Rasputin’s Bastards begins just as the first troops begin mobilizing for the campaign to conquer the world mind.
Bastards is part science fiction, part alternate history, part urban fantasy and part hard-boiled spy novel. It’s got knife fights and gunfights; it’s got super-genius telepathic infants, it’s got giant squids and secret underwater lairs; it’s got arms dealers and human traffickers. In all, it’s a far cry from the H.P.-Lovecraft-meets-Barbara-Gowdy style that characterized much of Nickle’s earlier work.
Like I said, it’s ambitious. The problem is that ambitious is at best a backhanded compliment when it comes to literature. Because, even when a writer rises to the occasion (and David Nickle certainly has with Bastards), it’s apparent that he is trying. Not all good books need be effortless to read, but all great books should appear as though they were effortless to write. Rasputin’s Bastards is neither.
The book opens with a cute Dramatis Personae, featuring entries like:
Fyodor Kolyokov — A spy who loved too much
Jean Kontos-Wu — A spy who dreamed badly
It’s good for a chuckle off the bat but, by chapter four or five, the reader will be flipping back to it and cursing it for not having more useful information. There are dozens of vital characters in this book and their paths crisscross constantly across continents, decades, dreams within dreams, and Machiavellian schemes. Keeping track of who is who and how they’re related to each other is a constant challenge that keeps pulling you out of the story.
Taking a look at the Goodreads review page, it’s clear I’m not the only one to have noticed this.
“The story is told in 1-2 page snippets dealing with various characters. Sometimes it takes most of that to orient you to what you missed while reading a previous snippet, other times you are trying frantically to remember who these people are.”
“I got lost and can’t find my way back to the story.”
“The cast of characters in the novel is enormous, [...] many of those characters could have been relegated to walk-on roles only.”
At times it seems an impossible tangle but, if you have the patience to dig back through the chapters and straighten everything out, it becomes apparent that the construction of this book is meticulous. The research and planning Nickle must have put in to pull this novel off is frankly awe inspiring. And the writing is incredible. And the story, if you can stay with it, is as rollicking as it is twisted.
I enjoyed this book considerably, but it took me three months to get through it. I’m left feeling that I have to be selective in who I recommend it to. Which is a shame, because I continue recommending Monstrous Affections without reservation to anyone who will listen.
Right now, David Nickle is Canada’s most remarkable new literary talent, genre or otherwise. Mark my words, he is going to write a perfect novel. In Rasputin’s Bastards, and in Eutopia before it, we are simply watching him stretch.