by David Nickle
Edited by Sandra Kastari
Cover Artist: Erik Mohr
Review by Benjamin Wald
ChiZine Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781926851594
Date: 26 June 2012 List Price $16.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
David Nickle's second novel, Rasputin's Bastards, moves away from the author's previous focus on horror writing to bring us a fast paced thriller featuring a secret history of psychic cold war spies, vast networks of psychically dominated sleepers, and a plot for world domination. At the same time, there are clear thematic similarities between this work and Nickle's earlier writings, particularly his debut novel Eutopia. Both novels explore the way that we allow ourselves to live in illusions to hide from the world, and how this can allow us to be manipulated and controlled by outside forces.
Surprisingly, for a novel full of mind control and hidden pasts, Nickle manages to imbue his characters with significant agency, using his premise to raise questions of personal responsibility versus societal control rather than hide from them. This strong thematic backbone provides substance to the excellently written spy-thriller material, providing both action and food for thought in a strong sophomore novel.
The plot of the novel is complex and intricate, following a number of characters who start off relatively ignorant, and then proceed to slowly unwrap the layers of the plot and of their own hidden histories. Many of the characters turn out not to be who they think they are, making self-discovery a recurring motif of the novel. The basic premise is that during the cold war the soviets developed a cadre of psychics who had the power to dream walk. From sensory deprivation tanks, these dream walkers could see through the eyes of and control the actions of a network of sleepers; specially prepared agents who were perfect spies since they themselves didn't even know that they were spies. With the collapse of the soviet empire, the dream walkers scattered and went into hiding, using their powers to erase their own existence from the records. Most were content to use their networks of sleepers to amass wealth and live in hiding, but some have grander plans, plans that threaten the entire world.
The novel is full of action and reveals, and does an excellent job of balancing the sense of a wider mystery with a steady stream of revelations to keep the plot advancing. There are also a number of thoroughly delightful touches that create a sense of the bizarre and unexpected, such as the surprise arrival of a decommissioned Russian submarine early in the narrative.
It is not a perfect book. The ending is bit too Deus ex machina for my taste, and Nickle succumbs a bit too often to the temptation to makes characters special by providing them with special psychic powers whose only purpose is to break the rules that Nickle himself sets up about how psychics operate. Also, while the plot arcs of the main characters are well paced and exciting, some of the minor characters meander a bit without too much to do but provide a point of view on some of the action. Still, despite these flaws the novel as a whole is exciting and intriguing.
Rasputinís Bastards works on multiple levels. It is an entertaining thriller, a fun secret history/conspiracy theory, and a thoughtful exploration of the importance of one's own past, the nature and extent of personal responsibility, and the allures and dangers of the human capacity to live in our own illusions.