If I told you that I had read a novel that was a mash-up of War & Peace and The X-Men you would be entitled to be somewhat skeptical. And yet The Age of Ice, a debut novel by Russian author, J.M. (Julia) Sidorova, contains elements of both, and still manages to work, albeit it in a literary novel sort of way. Allow me to explain.
Our story begins in St. Petersburg in 1740. At that time, the Russian Imperial Family could be every bit as eccentric and capricious as their Roman equivalents. On a whim of the Empress, Anna Ioanovna, Alexander and Andrei Velitzyn end up being concieved in a palace made of ice. For reasons never properly explained, Alexander has powers similar to those of Bobby Drake, the Iceman. He can lower his body temperature, freeze water, and survive in cold environments that would kill other men. Unlike Iceman, Velitzyn has little control over his powers. Annoyingly they seem to manifest only when he is emotionally aroused. And he has no Professor Xavier to teach him to use them properly. Heck, he’s a minor nobleman in 18th Century Russia, what is he going to know about water chemistry?
Nevertheless, Velitzyn slowly manages to come to terms with his abilities. They appear to have use during war, when he is able to operate more or less normally during the fierce Russian winter. Eventually he finds a use for them in commerce as well, as international trade develops an interest in refrigeration. He also discovers that, perhaps as a result of a near-death experience while on an exploration mission to Siberia, he is immortal. This allows the story to run all the way through to the present day.
The book is published by Scribner, a mainstream imprint of Simon & Schuster, yet it is also being marketed through genre channels and Sidorova describes herself as a writer of “speculative fiction”. I don’t know how she tried to sell the book, but I suspect that specialist genre editors might have had issues with it. They would have asked about the origins of Velitzyn’s powers, and about the significance of them in the book. Genre readers like a book to be about something, and it isn’t at all clear what The Age is Ice is about.
There are times when the book reads like a fantasy tale of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost), a character from Russian folklore whom you may remember also features in Cat Valente’s Deathless. Velitzyn takes on the aspect of Old Man Frost during the military passages of the book. There are also times when it seems like Velitzyn has his powers for purposes of character development. They certainly complicate his love life. I’m sure you can appreciate that having a body temperature close to zero when you are emotionally aroused is not going to endear you to the ladies, no matter how firm it makes you. Mostly, however, the book is a tour through Russian history. From that point of view, as the subject is barely touched upon in Western schools, it should prove fascinating.
The book does skip over much of the middle part of the 20th Century. That will doubtless be a disappointment to some readers. However, by this time Sidorova has established her hero as an industrial magnate with a fortune in the refrigeration business. To maintain that status he needs to stay out of Russia, and out of the two world wars. Ultimately, the book is about Velitzyn, not about Russian history, and has to go where his story leads.
There is a fair amount of science in the book. Sidorova’s day job is as a biomedical researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. As her hero tries to understand and master his abilities, he naturally searches out experts in the sciences, and some of what he learns is presented in the book. Of course some of the theories that his contemporaries come up with in the 18th and 19th Centuries seem somewhat daft these days, but the history of science is interesting too.
One of the characteristics of literary fiction is that you don’t need to have a plot, or even a point to the book. You can just write, and if the writing is good enough then you have a good book. This may be why The Age of Ice sold to Scribner rather than to a more conventional genre outlet. But don’t let that put you off. There is some lovely prose in the book. It is full of interesting history. And it has enthusiastic blurbs from John Crowley and Karen Joy Fowler, amongst others.
If you would like to sample Sidorova’s writing before buying the novel, there is a free short story set in the world of the novel available from the publisher. She also has a number of story sales to fiction magazines, including one to Asimov’s, and “Messenger” in Clarkesworld (it was the backup story to Cat Valente’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time”). I note also that she’s a graduate of Clarion West.
With speculative elements becoming common in mainstream novels, it is getting harder and harder for people like me to keep up with what is going on. I’m grateful to Scribner for reaching out to traditional genre venues as well as marketing the book through their usual channels. It would have been so easy to have missed it. Now I’m busily encouraging other genre critics to read it. I certainly found a lot to enjoy in the book. And of course I have a chemistry degree, so I share Sidorova’s love for the amazing substance we call ice.
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