REVIEW: The Kremlin Phoenix by Stephen Renneberg

Thursday , 31, July 2014 Leave a comment

coverWhen I read the second word in the book I couldn’t believe it. It had happened again! Just a couple of weeks ago I reviewed a book that I had liked very much. But, as I mentioned, the author had repeatedly made the odd mistake of placing Murmansk in Siberia.

Commenter Trimegistus said: “Murmansk is about 50 miles from the border between Russia and Norway. Not in Siberia by more than a thousand miles. If the author gets that wrong, I’ve got my doubts about everything else in the book.” I know, Trimegistus, I know. But still I enjoyed the book.

Again, I’m not an expert in Russia so, please, correct me if I’m wrong about the following two points.

The very first sentence in The Kremlin Phoenix is:

Vitaly Ilia Nogorev was an assassin of rare ability.

Now, as far as I know, Russian full names go: name + patronymic + family name, where the patronymic has a special suffix indicating that it is not just another ‘middle name’ but the father’s name. So, if Vitaly’s father was named Ilya, then he would be Vitaly Ilyich, not Vitaly Ilia. Da?

Later, there is a second strange name, this time it’s a ship:

…an aging cargo ship, the Krasnii Dama out of Murmansk…

Oh, that city again! Anyway, that’s not the point now. I think Krasnii Dama is meant to mean Red Lady, a fitting name for a Russian ship. If so, shouldn’t that be Krasnaya Dama «Красная дама»? Because красный is masculine but, well, a dame is expected to be feminine (am I old-fashioned or what?), and thus, красная. By the way, the Russian word for “red” also has the archaic meaning of “beautiful”. Indeed, the Красная площадь was actually the Beautiful Square. And so this “aging cargo ship” could also be the Beautiful Dame.

I suppose this is where I should say: so I just gave up. Problem is I kept reading and I actually found myself liking the story.

Truth be told, I had bought the book with some misgivings. But that had nothing to do with the Rodina. It had to do with something that a TV character that I dislike very much (Fred Reed called her Albright) once said and, for once, I nodded enthusiastically in agreement with her: “Time travel … The future is the past, the past is the future. It all gives me a headache.”

Or in this case:

“We read a Russian police report, that caused us to send a message into the past, that got Craig Balard to do something different, which saved his life, and caused the police report that triggered the whole chain of events, never to have existed – even though it caused this timeline!”

If there is time travel, I know I’ll have to be generous with suspended disbelief. If you can change the past, does it matter at all how many times you fail at setting it right? You just keep meddling, and meddling… Hopefully you don’t fall into a loop. But then, every time that you change it, do you remember that you changed it? It all gives me a headache. But Renneberg actually does a decent job with all the timeline messing.

The trick, so to speak, is this: these time meddlers cannot actually travel in time, just send holographic messages (one of the characters seems to be named after Ziggy). A nuclear war turned Earth into a lifeless wasteland and the few survivors are in a space station. To send their messages they need to know with absolute precision where and when to send them. And that means accessing and processing vast amounts of information from the extant databases. Apparently, in the not-so-distant future planetary data centers are largely immune to large-scale nuclear war. Oh…

Then there are things that I don’t know if are meant as self-parody… The protagonist, a New York lawyer who has absolutely no training in espionage or the like, manages to do something spectacular.

“That no nothing, wet behind the ears, punk lawyer, just pulled off the biggest heist in history! And seriously pissed off some very nasty people.” He sobered. “Which means he’s the deadest man walking on the face of the Earth! God help him.”

And right after that instead of running for his life and lying low for a few decades he goes straight into messing with those “very nasty people” and, unsurprisingly…

It’s a trap! Craig realized.

He survives that trap just because they want him alive. Then he goes through an ordeal including torture, drugs and even a tank! Again he survives and he just walks into the street in a foreign nation, he doesn’t speak a word of the local language but he manages to contact his people. Oh…

Look, if you like non-stop action, science-fiction, and some Russian flavor, perhaps you will enjoy this a lot. Like I said I found myself liking the story. But if you think you’ll have trouble siding with a “wet behind the ears, punk lawyer” who outmachoes the entire gang of The Expendables, then skip it.

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