Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir PutinI must confess that I am slightly obsessed with Vladimir Putin. Not in the hero-worshiping way of many Russians (and some Americans!) but because he is one of the most unbelievable global figures today. From hairless cat doppelgangers to  “Wrecking Ball” lyrics,  Putin has spawned memes almost as baffling as (though more amusing than) his policies, both of which are sure to continue for the forseeable future as Putin continues to rule as dictator in every way but name.

Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin attempts to explain how that came about, so of course I had to pick it up. Myers was a reporter for The New York Times in Russia throughout the 2000s as well as the former Moscow bureau chief. As such, he is able to present an unbiased account of Putin through Myers’ own perspective as well as that of his many sources, from his impoverished childhood in Leningrad to his improbable rise through the ranks of the KGB and subsequent entree into politics to his development of a cult of personality and absolute authority in Russia today.

This book is long, nearly 500 dense pages (plus endnotes), but the material is riveting. As a whole, it’s both strongly and thoroughly composed, but a few parts stood out to me:

  • Pictures of Putin throughout the years, particularly his amazing ’80s style while working in East Germany
  • His undistinguished KGB and political careers, in which he succeeded mostly by being somewhat efficient and not quite as corrupt as the next guy (ironically given the current bureaucratic sluggishness and cronyism in his government)
  • His surprising loyalty to his closest friends/mentors and therefore his intolerance for “betrayal”
  • His quasi-rational, but increasingly paranoid, fear/resentment of the West
  • And, of course, conspiracy theories about his personal relationships, including the conspicuous absence of his daughters from the public eye and his rumored affairs with both women and men.

I will say I hate the cover typeface and photo, intimidating though Putin looks, because of its blandness – it doesn’t reflect the high quality of the writing within and I fear many readers might not pick it up after judging the book by its poor quality cover.

Additionally, I wish there was additional analysis on the most recent 5 or so years as Putin’s newest term as president began. Perhaps because of the recency, that portion of the book is the briefest, but given that the geo-political crises still occurring in places like Ukraine and Syria, I am most curious about the future consequences of Putin’s actions and beliefs on those issues. Still, this is a biography, not a policy book, so I guess that’s out of Myers’ scope and I can forgive the lack of prediction.

Highly recommend for anyone interested in Russia/the Soviet Union, the KGB and the Cold War or with a general interest in current affairs and international politics.

5 Stars

 

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

A Crown for Cold Silver (The Crimson Empire, #1)First, my heartiest apologies for the long absence – fall at work and school has proven busier than expected. Not that I haven’t been reading, but my writing time has been limited.

Alex Marshall, purportedly the pseudonym for a well-known author of other genres, makes his high fantasy debut with A Crown for Cold Silver. As if the critical accolades weren’t enough, the way the title rolls off the tongue built up the intrigue as did the ferocious cover, a perfect depiction of the bloody struggle for empire narrated in the book.

Feared conqueror Cobalt Zosia and her Five Villains tore and remade the Crimson Empire, until the Queen was stricken down and her mercenary army scattered. Presumed dead for twenty years, Zosia’s peaceful life is disrupted by the assassination of her husband and the massacre of her village. Vowing vengeance, she sets out to reconnect with old allies, discovering that loyalty is not what it once was, nor are her enemies the same.

That summary only captures part of Marshall’s sprawling story, which follows numerous characters across 600-odd pages. Unfortunately though, that’s a little too much reach, as the parts of Zosia’s past are more compelling a tale than the present. Her life has faded into legend, and it’s an interesting contrast to see how such a larger-than-life figure has aged. You don’t get a lot of fantasies with the protagonist in their fifties, as she and her villains are, and they still steal the show, unfortunately for the other characters.

Princess General Ji-hyeon, who is impersonating Zosia for her own glory, is a pale copy of the original, and her love triangle with the bland horned wolf Sullen and priggish Virtue Guard Keun-ju is nothing short of boring. Same with Sister Portales, a conflicted devil-ridden witchnun whose struggles with sinfulness are tedious at best. How can they compare to Villains like Singh with her martial skills and mighty mustache or Hoartrap’s uncanny wizardry and twisted humor?

Poorly, that’s how. I will admit that I admire the diversity found in the characters – I’ve never read a book so nonchalant about gender identity and sexuality. Males have arranged marriages to other men and spawn children. Multiple characters are open to bisexuality, and a few are happily androgynous. All of this is blatantly acceptable as is the crassness and debauchery you would expect from hardened soldiers. They flirt, they drink, they smoke – more attention is paid to this very human behavior than to the politicking and military strategy.

In fact, that’s another thing I didn’t like. Marshall often told rather than showed. Zosia narrates what her plans are, but we don’t get to see them unfold. We hear she’s a great tactician, but we don’t directly hear her and Ji-hyeon plotting war strategy. Hoartrap, Colonel Hjortt, Wan – all these men come across as cartoon caricature bad guys because they spend time declaiming their plots to their captives.

Meanwhile, we learn about all this intrigue, but other parts of this world are left unexplained. This is practically the only fantasy I’ve read that doesn’t include a map, so I’m boggled at the scope of the Crimson Empire from the Immaculates to the Chain. We know little to nothing about how devils work, which is acceptable because neither do most characters, but unacceptable when the horned wolves or the wildborn are thrown in without explanation about how they’re related to devilry. (If you didn’t understand this paragraph, don’t worry, because I don’t either even after finishing the book.)

So I concluded with mixed feelings. A Crown for Cold Silver is certainly unique, but between the length and my general confusion/boredom, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel.

3,5 Stars

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