I'll be the first to say it, as of the past few years, the genre of "Dark Fantasy" has gotten soft, especially where vampires are concerned. Don't get me wrong, I even fall occasionally for the tale of the romantic, loner, dark lover vamp that plays the tortured...well...okay, sometimes not-so-tortured, soul. But let's get serious, there needs to be some mass injection of fear-instilling, bloody, brutal writing in the subgenre of these fantastic creatures that resurrects that dark, evil, primal nature for which they were so feared in literature and folk legend not so very long ago. A few exceptions have appeared, Robin McKinley's Sunshine, though it does bear that romantic twist, where the vamps are not the misunderstood outcasts, but frightening, alien creatures that strike terror instead of lust and longing into the hearts of the prey that they hunt.
Jasper Kent surely delivers on that count with his historical-cum-dark-fantasy romp Twelve. Set in Russia in 1812 at the onset of Napoleon's invasion and takeover of the protagonist's beloved Moskva, he gives the reader a reason to fear the dark, to dread the power of night once more. At the beginning, we are abruptly, but effectively, introduced to Aleksei Ivanovich, a hardened, yet still idealistic, Russian soldier turned spy that bears the horrendous scars of torture from a Turkish prison, but maintains his resolve and faith even in the face of extreme adversity. Aleksei is masterfully written, while trusting and naive enough to maintain the patriotism for his beloved Russia and the wonder of her cities, but savvy enough to know that even his nearest and dearest may yet betray him to the French, or worse yet, the frightening voordalaki which his compatriot, Dmitry, has employed for their cause against the French.
Aleksei and his three fellow agents, Vadim, Dmitry and Maksim are faced with the immediate issue of the French invasion from the very beginning and how to deal with the interlopers. It is Dmitry, who, while showing his vascillations early on, but maintaining the reader's respect at the end, suggests hiring twelve mercenaries, which whom he has already fought in Wallachia. The initial meeting of these hired killers, sought for their abilities to cause chaos and strife behind enemy lines, but with their origins cloaked by Dmitry, is shadowy and has a wonderful sense of foreboding. Anyone who is a fan of Bram Stoker's original or the history behind Vlad Dracula would be well pleased with the insinuations.
The reader is subsequently led into a tangled labyrinth that Aleksei explores. He is a married man, and while Kent makes the case for an adequate sense of detachment that Aleksei feels from his wife, Marfa, a society girl that Aleksei married in a matter of haste, Marfa is one part that still doesn't quite connect with the reader. While Aleksei feels estranged from Marfa both due to the nature of his assignment and his lack of attachment, he seems to form a bond rather quickly with Domnikiia, a prostitute with whom he first shares a distracted, escapist experience, which morphs into a relationship far more complicated than he has intended. The reader is also led to constantly question the loyalty of everyone Aleksei encounters, be they old friend who could be working as a French agent, or a sympathetic heart turned to the cause of the voordalak.
The ensuing tale is certainly not for the faint of heart in the sense of gore. Kent paints vivid yet economic scenes of devastation and destruction, both by the onslaught of war, the brutalisation of occupying forces, the voordalaki, and torture. Aleksei's flashback into the incident where he was mutilated in the Turkish cell is actually the most riveting, despite not being the most gruesome of the scenes that Kent describes. The vampires are shown in their full brutality as depraved, cunning murderers that will go to any extreme to satisfy their perverse desires. The sense of urgency and further excitement is amplified by the war being waged in the heart of Moscow and the invaders' hold on the city. Kent doesn't delve too far into the French motivations and methods, and they are far less demonized in Aleksei's mind than the monstrous vampires, once they are truly discovered.
Twelve is a novel I would recommend to most, especially those wanting a little history (thank fark Kent does his bit to explain Russian history and tidbits, not my strong suit, I'll tell you), a little fright, and a return to the darkness that once enraptured audiences of the fantasy world. Take a peek, and well, you might just conclude that yes, sometimes the dark is something to be wary of once in a while.