Ekaterina Sedia’s second novel, The Secret History of Moscow, has made her a new author to watch. It has garnered critical praise, from no less than Neil Gaiman and is selling quite well.
The novel is set in Post-Communist Russia, where everyone is suffering under the growing pains of capitalism gone amuck. Thugs and gangs share the stage with those used to the old communist way of doing things, poverty and uncertainty abounds, and yet there is an excitement in the air.
Galina, a young translator, not only feels acutely the psychic tenor of the Post-Soviet zeitgeist, she also glimpses other ‘supernatural’ things, that get her labeled as a schizophrenic. One day, she notices an impossible event she can’t ignore: her very pregnant sister Masha vanishes into thin air, leaving behind a squalling newborn, and a hovering jackdaw outside of the apartment window.
In her quest to find her sister, she meets two other people: the cop Yakov, who is investigating a sudden rash of missing people, and Fyodor, an alcoholic street painter who has seen many odd things well: mixed groups of birds flying over Moscow, and hidden doorways in puddles. The three of them eventually find their way to an underground world, full of the discarded myths and histories of Moscow. Fairytale characters and monsters, like Rusalkas (the ghosts of drowned girls), domovois share the strange underground world with lost souls, like Decembrists, old Calvary members, Jewish and Gypsy victims of pogroms and KGB raids. It’s an eerie underworld of glowing trees and misty rivers, where legend and history mingle in limbo. Galina and her friends, with the help of the legendary Celestial Cow Zemun, uncover a ghastly plot that involves both surface and magical underground dwellers.
Sedia mixes the absurdist fiction of Bulgakov and Gogol with the slick, suspenseful fantasy of Neil Gaiman and Liz Williams, and comes up with something haunting.
Sedia graciously consented to be interviewed for Fantasy Book Spot.
Craig Gidney: The Secret History of Moscow is part folkloric fantasy, part social realism, part history lesson. What were the literary inspirations for the different parts of the novel?
Ekaterina Sedia – Literary inspirations for this book were largely folkloric — Slavic folklore is immense and strange. Gaiman and others, of course, already created a venerable tradition of underground cities, and in case of Moscow it dovetails nicely with many legends and rumors of underground KGB dungeons and such. Viktor Pelevin, perhaps the most interesting Russian writer working today, was a huge influence on pretty much everything I write, as well as African writers such as Tutuola, Achebe and Marechera, and a few magic realists — from all of them, I learned a somewhat shameless and unapolgetic mixing of fantastical folklore with realism of urban life, as well as the idea that folklore is not static but changes with its people. We sometimes get this idea that myths are something old and dusty and almost sacred, not to be messed with, something existing outside of time and place; but I like folklore this is actively engaged in daily life, and changed by it.
Craig Gidney: Who was your favorite character in Secret History of Moscow? What was your favorite scene to write?
Ekaterina Sedia – I liked them all; my favorites (characters and scenes) were probably in some of the little sidestories. Sovin and David come to mind; I really loved writing backgrounds for both of them. Oh, and Sergey the Thug was lots of fun.
Craig Gidney: Where did the character Galina come from?
Ekaterina Sedia – I never know how to answer these questions. Basically, she was a quintessentially damaged person, crippled not so much by a real disease but by people’s idea that she was ill and incapable. And it was interesting for me to start with someone like that and have them break through this incapacitating fog. Too often, I think, in books romantic love acts as the main motivating force, and here I tried to steer away from that template.
Craig Gidney: Paper Cities (Senses Five Press, 2008) , the anthology of urban fantasy stories that you edited just came out. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ekaterina Sedia – I was very privileged to be able to work with such a wonderful assortment of writers. I asked people who wrote the kind of stories I like reading — magic in the cities, mutable and often times novel myth. And no vampires or shapeshifters — nothing against them, but I was looking for a broader sense of urban fantasy. So my requirement for stories was that they should have cities (in a broad sense) and magic (in a broad sense). The diversity and inventiveness of the stories surprised and delighted me; all I did was read and arrange them in a sensible order.
Craig Gidney: Do you find it difficult to switch from your writing hat to your editor’s hat?
Ekaterina Sedia – Not really. I wear my reader hat all the time, and this one sort of encompasses both writers and editors. I like writing stories I would like to read, and with editing it’s just finding those stories in other people’s writing. Both are very rewarding.
Craig Gidney: I’ve noticed that everything you write is quite different — Steampunk, Russian absurdist magical realism, the forthcoming The House of Discarded Dreams (Prime, 2009), which explores race, immigration and magic in the modern New Jersey shore. Is this a conscious thing or does your need for different writing projects come naturally?
Ekaterina Sedia – It’s natural, and not always conscious — only to the extent that I’m interested in a bunch of things, cultures, historical periods, social issues, etc. So some of these things usually crop up in one project or another. I also did make a conscious decision to try and write about people different from me in terms of ethnicity, age, gender, background, etc. So a bit of both — first there’s that visceral ‘oh cool!’ stage when an idea hits, but as it develops there are some conscious choices involved in that.
Craig Gidney: What was the first book/author that convinced you that writing was cool?
Ekaterina Sedia – I never wanted to be a writer, but I’ve been a reader since I was four. I did not start writing until I was 33, so you can’t blame any specific work or person. But generally, I feel that one shouldn’t be writing because they want to be like someone, but rather because one has something to say.
Craig Gidney: You are very prolific. What is your writing process?
Ekaterina Sedia – I’m not that prolific — I write between 500-1000 words a day, which is nothing compared to many pro writers. And my process is fairly simple — put words on paper until they look good. I don’t outline most of the time, but I do have a short description of what the book is about. The YA novel I’m currently writing had its synopsis written in advance, and this is probably the most prep I’ve ever done for a book.
Craig Gidney: Thanks for joining us here on Fantasy Bookspot. What can you tell us about the forthcoming Alchemy of the Stone, which comes out in July?
Oh, that one is a lot more plotty than Moscow, with clockworks and a revolution. And alchemy and gargoyles. It actually owes more to my classes on the history of the Russian revolution than any steampunk literature though. Also, it is my first foray into romance territory. With gargoyles and clockworks.
The Escher-eqse city of Ayona has a nominal nobility, in the form of a duke and his royal family, but the city is mostly governed by the frequently conflicting groups of Mechanics and Alchemist. While the Mechanics and Alchemists exist in an uneasy truce with each other, they both vie for the upper hand in power. The ancient city was “grown” out of stone by the ubiquitous but slowly dying race of gargoyles, who, when they were stronger, were worshipped and feared and kept both groups in check.
Mattie, a mechanical automaton, is at the center of this conflict for several reasons. First, she is the creation of a prominent Mechanic, Loharri. Second, she is a practicing alchemist. And finally, she has been contacted by the gargoyles and given the task to heal the sickness that turns them into stone. While Mattie is mostly a free agent, she bound to Loharri, because he has the key to her clockwork heart.
The novel has numerous subplots and operates on several levels. One is as a novel of political intrigue. The war between the Mechanics and Alchemists is kicked off when a terrorist group destroys the stone palace, and both groups point the finger at each other. Mattie shuttles back and forth between the two groups. As automaton, most of the mechanics believe that she is the mute and mindless servant of Loharri, so she can listen in on their plans without being considered a threat. Both groups use Mattie to find out who the culprit is, without realizing that she has her own motivations. The Alchemy of Stone is also a novel of weird magic. In addition to the major narrative featuring Mattie, part of the novel is narrated by the gargoyles themselves. Their mysterious story is told in a plural poetic voice, not unlike Kafka’s short story Josephine the Singer.
“We scale the rough bricks of the building’s façade. Their crumbling edges soften under our claw-like fingers; they jut out of the flat, adenoid face of the wall to provide easy footholds….We could’ve flown. But instead we hug the wall, press our cheeks against the warm bricks; the filigree of age and weather covering their surface imprints on our skin, steely-gray like the thunderous skies above us…”
Most of the scenes of Mattie performing alchemy have her doing arcane things. She can see salamanders dancing in fire, and other elementals. The fact that Mattie does not have a soul also allows her to befriend the Soul Smoker, a much feared lonely old man who devours ghost and like Mattie is used by various factions. It is also a novel of relationships, between creator and creation, between magic and science, and ultimately, between people. While there is a slight love story, most of the tension in the book is generated by the love-hate relationship between Mattie and Loharri. In a way, their disturbing relationship reminds me of the dynamics of male-female, master and slave relationship explored in the oeuvre of Octavia Butler.
Sedia’s novel has a steady pace and aims for the ‘slice of life’ feel of the fantasy books of Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu or any of Patricia McKillip’s work. She avoids explaining some of the magic/mechanics—like what makes Mattie intelligent. Instead, the reader sees the world mostly through Mattie’s eyes, and feels her terrible loneliness. She’s a misfit toy in a strange world. If at times she is passive, it fits with her character. She is literally a breakable person. The novel’s main weakness is that is can’t make up its mind as to what kind of story it wants to be. Quest story? Love story? Political allegory? (In addition to the terrorism and the revolution stories, there is also a subplot involving racial profiling). The anomie that pervades the narrative seems to be the main theme of the book. From the Soul Smoker to the gargoyles to Mattie herself, this is a book about those unsung heroes and outsiders who sacrifice much for the common good. The resolution is both haunting and unresolved. While The Alchemy of Stone is not a perfect book, it is a worthwhile read and belongs on the same shelf as such postmodern fantasy authors like Mieville and Vandermeer.