Monday, January 07, 2019

1. Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

I have been looking for a book by Lionel Davidson for quite a while now.  I did not note it down, but I believe that I heard his name the first time via Kenneth Hite (gaming luminary and a genre fiction reader of impeccable taste) in the fantastic Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff podcast.  I finally stumbled upon Kolymsky Heights at Moe's. I see now that this was his last book and the first one he had published in over 16 years, so I clearly still have some searching to do.

I sort of wished I was reading this in the summer, as it takes place mostly in Siberia during winter and you really do feel the insane cold there.  I read it in Berkeley and Montreal in the winter and I still think it helped, as it made me not feel so bad about it being -7 and somewhat windy here.  I am not actually sure it is truly possible to do a lot of the things that happened in the book when it is in the -30s and -40s (like could you really even tighten bolts in that temperature?  Spend the night, even in a super awesome sleeping bag?  Wouldn't you just die?).

The premise of the story is a bit preposterous, even slightly science-fiction.  In a hyper top secret chemical laboratory in Siberia, an old scientist discovers a perfectly frozen cavewoman.  Because of the security levels, he has committed to spend the rest of his life there (as have all the staff, except the native Chukchis who help with some external work because the authorities know they will only return to their reindeer herds).  He manages to sneak out a message to an old colleague that he has important scientific info to share and that he has a way of getting that info out.  He just needs someone to come to him. This someone is Dr. John Porter, academic, eccentric and (as we learn) total badass First Nations dude from northern Manitoba.  Because he is indigenous to Northern Canada as well as being a languages expert, he is the only person who can possibly sneak into the region and somehow access the top secret base.  It also turns out that this guy is super skilled at all kinds of things.  He can fight, he can act, he knows a wide range of industrial manual labour skills (can load merchant ships, drive winter trucks, fix vehicles).  It's all very understated and the details of his actual background are never revealed (he says once he is used to living rough).

What makes the book work are the subtle and complex details of all the spy stuff. How he gets his various identities, how he gets into (and around once there) the region, are interesting, well thought out and really fun to read about.  The location itself is really cool.  I really knew next to nothing about Siberia and here you get a nice look at the industrial and economic engines that drive it, some of the history (how much of it was settled by ex-prisoners of Stalin's camps) and the insane geography and cold.  In the summer, you have to fly everywhere because it's all mushy permafrost.  It is only until winter that the trucks start rolling, across frozen river beds often!  Finally, there are several groups of indigenous people who are integrated into the world there and Davidson portrays the relationship between the Russian state and them in an interesting way.  I don't know how much of it is true or accurate but as a broad portrayal, it certainly made me interested.

I suspect he has better books in him, but this was entertaining and innovative.  Lionel Davidson stays on the hunt list.

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