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Field of Mars
by Stephen Miller
Viking Canada
368 pages, $34.00

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted August 31, 2005

Fans of the excellent TV series, Da Vinci’s Inquest, will recognize the photo on the back of Field of Mars as Vancouver’s own Stephen Miller, but they may find it difficult to imagine the quirky character he plays—the bumbling Traffic Inspector Zack McNabb—as an author of any book, let alone such an accomplished, complex, finely wrought and literate work.

Field of Mars is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Set in 1913-14 Russia during the lead-up to World War One, the world Miller evokes and the characters that reside there are vibrant and alive. Although the story is saturated with historical detail, it flows forward effortlessly. Strong, complex characters are anchored by a thriller plot that rises above the conventions of the genre to delve into the psychological and sociological implications of one of the most important years in 20th Century history.

At the centre of the novel is Pyotr Ryzhkov, a St. Petersburg gorokhovnik or member of the Internal Agency of the Okhrana, Tsarist Russia’s secret police. He “is the one who cleaned up the trash, swept the mess of the empire into the corner, and then saluted his betters as if nothing had ever been there.” For Pyotr, like most of his colleagues, family life is futile because Internal Agents are on call 24 hours a day. All he has to look forward to is a life spent in anonymous service to the Tsar, “a kind of necessary rat, a creature devoid of status, respect, or glamour. Something vile, ruthless, and efficient.”

As the novel opens, Ryzhkov leads a troika of agents assigned to follow “Blue Shirt”, better known as Rasputin, the “Mad Monk” who had the ear of the Imperial Family—and likely the bed of the Tsarina—ostensibly to guard him from foreign agents or revolutionary elements. Really, they are just trying to keep him out of trouble and embarrassment in the newspapers, a difficult task considering his popularity and notoriety as a sexual philanderer. They are watching Rasputin at a high society brothel when a child prostitute falls from an upper window to her death on the cobblestones below. While his partners hustle Blue Shirt out of the building, Pyotr manages to get a look at the girl and notices marks around her neck, signs that she was choked to death before the fall.

Pyotr Ryzhkov is a truly classic character: a morally driven hero whose efforts are thwarted at all turns by the rigid classism and autocracy of the society he lives in. When the girl’s death is called a suicide in spite of the obvious evidence of homicide, he sets out to uncover the truth, and in the process puts his own life at risk. As he investigates, he inadvertently becomes ensnared in a web of conspiracy that rises to the highest pinnacles of Russian society, and eventually leads to the assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the advent of World War One.

Along the way, Ryzhkov falls in love with Vera Aliyeva, a prostitute who witnessed the girl’s murder. When Pyotr tracks her down, Vera has quit her old life and become a dancer at the Komet, a nightclub which becomes the hot place to be among the literati and artistic set because of its politically charged theatrical dance shows. Although she has all the earmarks of the clichéd “hooker with a heart of gold,” in Miller’s hands, Vera is a complex pre-Revolutionary woman, caught between the ancient and modern worlds in Russia.

There are other great characters here, too, from Ryzhkov’s two partners, big and loyal Kostya Hokhodiev and young, ruthless Dima Dudenko, to the various high society conspirators strategizing to topple the Tsar and profit from the ensuing chaos. And the other great character here is the city of St. Petersburg itself, which is described as vividly as if Miller had been a lifelong resident—from the feel of the cobblestones underfoot to the sounds and smells of the factories and canals and the always encroaching swampland in which the city was built.

Field of Mars was clearly a labour of love for Stephen Miller considering the depth of research he describes in his acknowledgments. It certainly was a worthy endeavour—it is an engrossing, insightful, entertaining and thought-provoking novel, easily one of the best Canadian books of the fall if not all of 2005.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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