Reading Canary: The Curious Incident of the Nun In Nineteenth-Century Russia

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The Reading Canary: a Reminder

Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

A Literary “What If?”

What if Tolstoy, or Gogol, or Dostoyevsky were caught short for the rent one month, and had to write a quick detective novel in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle or (more closely) Agatha Christie in order to pay the bills? The product would probably closely resemble the Sister Pelagia trilogy by Boris Akunin, a series of detective novels in a very traditional style which nonetheless incorporate frequent references – in prose style, events, techniques and images – to the giants of 19th Century Russian literature.

Sister Pelagia is an Orthodox nun who lives in the fictional province of Zavolzhsk, a clumsy woman who in theory wishes only to retire from the world and live out her life in service to God. However, her superior Bishop Mitrofanii frequently requires her help to solve various mysteries, which the people of his diocese expect him to solve. The upshot is, usually, a middle-of-the-road detective story with an interesting setting, with frequent references for Russian literature fans to get giddy over and the occasional stab at making a political statement, a formula which usually works fine but doesn’t make for repeated reading.

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