18 November 2013

The Age of Ice

Summary from Goodreads:
An epic debut novel about a lovelorn eighteenth-century Russian noble, cursed with longevity and an immunity to cold, whose quest for the truth behind his condition spans two thrilling centuries and a stunning array of historical events.

St. Petersburg, Russia, 1740. The Empress Anna Ioanovna has issued her latest eccentric order: construct a palace out of ice blocks. Inside its walls her slaves build a wedding chamber, a canopy bed on a dais, heavy drapes cascading to the floor—all made of ice. Sealed inside are two jesters, one a disgraced nobleman, the other a humpback, a performer by birthright. On the Empress’s command—for her entertainment—these two are to be married, the relationship consummated inside this frozen prison. In the morning guards enter to find them half-dead. Nine months later, two boys are born.

Surrounded by servants and animals, Prince Alexander Velitsyn and his twin brother Andrei have an idyllic childhood on the family’s large country estate. But as they approach manhood stark differences coalesce. Andrei is daring and ambitious; Alexander is tentative and adrift. One frigid winter night on the road between St. Petersburg and Moscow, as he flees his army post, Alexander comes to a horrifying revelation: his body is immune from cold.

J. M. Sidorova's boldly original and genre-bending novel takes readers from the grisly fields of the Napoleonic Wars to the blazing heat of Afghanistan, from the outer reaches of Siberia to the cacophonous streets of nineteenth-century Paris. The adventures of its protagonist, Prince Alexander Velitsyn—on a life-long quest for the truth behind his strange physiology—will span three continents and two centuries, and will bring him into contact with an incredible range of real historical figures, from Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, to the licentious Russian Empress Elizaveta, and to English explorer Joseph Billings.

Romantic, thrilling, and rigorously historical, The Age of Ice is one of the most inventive debut novels of the year.

The premise of this novel is so captivating - two children, born of a frozen, loveless wedding ceremony, are endowed with the ability to adapt to cold temperatures.  One, Alexei, is able to pass as "normal"; the other, the narrator Alexander, becomes freezing cold with the onset of any emotion - anger, desire, sadness - becoming so cold while kissing his betrothed that she develops hypothermia and pneumonia. Alexander thus begins his journey to understand why he is the way he is.

The first 100 pages or so of The Age of Ice move quickly and build Alexander's character through his interactions with others.  However, just as Alexander joins the expedition to explore Siberia - the perfect place for a man who suffers no effects from cold to explore his oddities - the book grinds to a halt.  The plot just stagnates as Alexander and the expedition just seem to wander aimlessly.  Alexander even attempts to kill himself by freezing himself in ice.  At least I think that was what he meant to do...it was confusing.  The rest of the book is a tangle of returning to the society of Russian nobility, marrying his dead brother's wife, the Napoleonic wars, and a period of time in the land wars of Afghanistan/Pakistan/India/Great Britain in Central Asia (which then prompted a period of sniggering via Vizzini).  Had I not specifically requested this book for review, it is unlikely I would have finished it.

The author is a cell biologist and so built up a fantastic premise with, what I felt, very little resolution.  The conceit that Alexander, aside from his extreme cold tolerance and ability to control ice, does not age and cannot die felt forced; he only seemed to attempt to freeze himself to death - why not attempt a more violent means of ending one's life?  The later sections where Alexander seems to jump through time to get him to 2007 just add bulk without bringing him understanding.  I'd like to see what the author does in the future - perhaps a collection of short stories where she can play around with some of these odd concepts without having the burden of creating a book-length narrative.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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