The Secret History of Moscow

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Ekaterina Sedia

Published: 2007

Reviewed: 2009-08-10

Publisher: Prime Books

In retrospect, I think I might not be the right person to read and
review this book. Ms. Sedia's novel, "The Secret History of Moscow,"
is an excellent piece of storytelling that reminded me very much of
Neil Gaiman's work, and in the end, for perhaps just that reason, left
me largely unmoved.

It is a book that moves on many levels at once. Framing the whole is
a mystery of magic protruding into post-Communist Moscow, only a few
years after the end when capitalism was still a raw new thing and
society had only just begun coping with the changes. People are
vanishing, turning into birds, and our heros... well, not heros...
several inhabitants of Moscow find themselves drawn together as they
are entangled with the mystery.

At the same time, it is the story of these people and many others they
encounter, sometimes only for a moment. Within the main tale, there
are many short stories woven in, each telling of how a character's
life fell apart and disintegrated, bringing them to the point of
despair and dislocation where they can enter the magical world.
Perhaps I am not Russian enough, but as a reader this relentless tramp
of loss and failure took its toll upon me. Each sub-story was like a
perfectly crafted little crystal of sorrow: the main tale pauses and
we read a tale about the dissolution of a marriage or a pogrom or a

And it all ties together beautifully with the strange tapestry of
Russian folk legends and pre-Christian myths. I knew enough to
recognize some of the characters that popped up, and the others had
the right sort of texture that I would not be surprised if they were
all real and at least vaguely familiar to any Russian.

So we have a story on three levels: a main plot, the many threads that
lead into that plot, and the mythology it interacts with. All three
are woven together with the rhythm and baroqueries that characterize a
storyteller with a true love for the narrative form. Yet for all
that, the prose is light and flowing, almost startlingly fast and easy
to read. Anyone who has read Gaiman will see where I find the echo.

So why didn't I like it? I don't see any technical reason---there was
never a moment of being shocked out of suspension of disbelief or any
point where I wish Ms. Sedia had done anything differently. I think
the problem was me---that I am not the person who should be reading
and reviewing this book. This book is filled with the things about
life that I know I must face but do not enjoy being reminded
of---loss, pain, sadness, death, situations where there is nothing to
do but limit the damage. Ms. Sedia writes about them well, but the
reader must be prepared to drink it down, and I was not. For those
who are, I cannot recommend this book too highly.