‘Rasputin’s Bastards’ by David Nickle

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Chadwick Ginther

Alexei Kilodovich is a product of the mysterious City 512—a Soviet-era psychic research facility—and a former KGB agent. He is a man who “had that kind of hardness about him that all guys in the profession had at one time. And he had the stare. The one that said he’d taken stock of all the goodness and mercy in his soul—everything that was right—and locked it up somewhere safe.” But before long, Alexei realizes that while he has grown accustomed to lying about his past, it is that very past he has been hiding that was the true lie. His entire history has been manufactured by his old mentor, spymaster Fyodor Kolyokov.

Alexei must sieve the truth of his life from the lies, both self-induced and programmed into his psyche all the while being a pawn of both Kolyokov and his Cold War lover. Alexei’s task is daunting, not only for what Kolykov has done to him, but what Alexei has forgotten, repressed, or outright rewritten himself.

“In our own memories we change history,” Alexei thinks,

We delude ourselves half the time anyway. And then as the days and weeks and years pass, we change them. We forget the things we don’t want to have as a part of ourselves, and we edit and amplify those things that bolster us. So any memory, unchecked, is a lie.

Alexei’s quest makes an excellent lifeline for the reader to grasp onto as Rasputin’s Bastards gets truly weird; visiting a CIA sponsored transcendental meditation camp, putting one’s consciousness into a giant squid, or being chastised by a very sarcastic five-month-old. The dream-walking psychics of Nickle’s novel use metaphor as a focus for their power. To them, it is not just a literary conceit, but a “construct—and the powers of a God can be fashioned there as readily as can a convincing bowl of soup.” In the world of Rasputin’s Bastards a metaphor can kill.

Nickle never shies from exploring the many (and often unsavoury) possibilities and consequences of such gifts. He brings a whole new “metaphorical” meaning to Cold War sleepers—with psychics walking them like marionettes, having sex in disparate locales all over the world.  One man shares in the experience of childbirth; another’s conditioning is so severe, “he can barely sign his name, he had so little confidence in himself.” One of the later generation of psychics raised in City 512, has never known a reprieve from the Discourse—the dream-walker’s telepathic speech. When she finally encounters a mind she cannot read, she is uncomfortable with the clumsiness, and obfuscation of verbal speech.

Metaphorical constructs can also become an addiction. Sleepers being dream-walked are sent to places of safety so perfect, that one becomes a prisoner of her own making. Nickle describes psychic battles featuring: “clouds of flesh-stripping locusts and great black tentacles, sudden gouts of red-hot magma that leapt at them from fresh-cut fissures in the rock,” and coming back to one’s body after it has been used and abused by a dream-walker.

Nickle also appears to share my view that our world’s self-proclaimed psychics are frauds. Surely, real power would never reveal itself in such a manner as to invite its exploitation. In Fyodor Kolyokov’s mind the dream-walkers of City 512

were all lottery winners—of a much larger sum of money. We didn’t need to work for anyone. Some of us came to that conclusion earlier than others.—but we all at a point came to understand that we would ever be tools for venal men and women. And to allow that would be foolish. For those men and women—they could become tools of us.

In a quirky bit of book design, some characters’ last names have been redacted from the Dramatis Personae. This, and the decision to have Rasputin’s Bastards’ chapter titles cast Cyrillic shadows, are little things that add a great deal to the novel’s post-Cold War flavour.

Those chapter titles are drawn from Russian literature, both commonly known, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy; and less so: Sergei Dovlatov (yes, I had to Google him). Alexei, who is searching for the truth in his lie of a life is “The Idiot.”  Kolyokov, who has dreamed large and paid the price for it is “The Gambler.” But in the same way that Nickle’s characters are all connected, I am certain more allusions wait, ocean deep and reaching with Kraken-like tentacles throughout the narrative, to readers with a more intimate knowledge of the Russian literary canon.

In terms of pure prose, Rasputin’s Bastards never disappoints. The dark fairy tale language of the novel’s prologue, with gems such as “The squid arrived sometime in the night. It thrashed and twisted underneath the translucent grey ice for hours before it died, its tentacles braiding and spreading—a woman’s long dark hair in a suicide bath” contrasts starkly with and yet is wholly at home among lines like: “Mrs. Kontos-Wu’s nails were filthy, and probably home to more harmful bacteria than a crackhouse toothbrush.”

Nickle even likens the Gaspé Peninsula to “a tongue, and all the towns on it were cankered along its outer edges.” But for all his hard-edged writing, he also knows when to cut the tension with a well-placed joke. I particularly enjoyed the idea that the publishing industry was flooded with sleepers; part of a “cultural operation.”

While recognizably “genre,” whatever that may mean to the reader (and their prejudices about the same), Rasputin’s Bastards is not of a genre. Instead it’s an ambitious melange of them all. Nickle’s horror is the theft of body and will; the revelation that one’s father is “A cold, soul-dead killer.” His science fiction feels like 50’s pulps, his fantasy a dark-lensed fairy tale with literary heft. Rasputin’s Bastards is a testament to the fact Nickle can write anything.

ChiZine | 500 pages |  $15.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1926851594

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Chadwick Ginther

Chadwick Ginther latest novel is Tombstone Blues (Ravenstone). He lives and writes in Winnipeg.