By Christopher Thompson
Ekaterina Sedia’s novel The Secret History of Moscow is often seen as a Russian answer to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but its protagonist Galina is a more interesting and complex personality than Neverwhere’s Richard Mayhew. Where Mayhew (like some of Gaiman’s other heroes) can be frustratingly passive, Galina is an active participant in every situation she finds herself in.
When Galina’s sister turns into a bird and flies out the window after giving birth in the bathroom, Galina and two acquaintances follow after her into a secret world beneath the city of Moscow. Down in the underworld they find a number of characters from Russian folklore, a few of the ancient Slavic deities, and an assortment of refugees from the world above who fled underground at various points in Russian history.
Although Russian mythology and folklore is a big part of this story, Sedia treats the mythological elements with the same tone of melancholy, ambiguity and skepticism that she applies to the modern world, the people in it and heroes of Russian history such as the Decembrists.
There are several different ways to approach mythology. You can think of it as a mess of lies about nonexistent gods and heroes, a collection of amusing or poetic stories, a set of revealed truths with factual validity, a memory of a lost golden age when the world was young and everything was magical- or as something as alive and relevant now as it ever was, though not literal.
There’s no point in questioning or probing a set of lies- you just dismiss them. There’s no need to do so with stories that are merely amusing or poetic- you just let yourself be entertained by them. Revealed truths are supposed to be immune to doubt. A memory of a lost golden age can’t really be questioned too closely either. King Arthur was the good guy, and that’s that- even though he ordered the murder of every baby boy in the kingdom to try to prevent Mordred from being born.
Anything alive and real and relevant to our lives can be questioned and probed. You can criticize it or adopt a skeptical attitude to it if you choose to, because it’s not separate from our world. Sedia’s tone in The Secret History of Moscow is complex and somewhat cynical, but it seems to me that this is because she takes the mythology too seriously to put it up on a pedestal.
If we look at all of the works we’ve examined in this essay, different facets of the mythorealist tendency become apparent with each one:
Gaiman- magic and myth in modern settings, the magic is all around us.
Barker- horror and wonder at the same time; horror and wonder are the same thing.
Lukyanenko- using mythology to tell morally serious stories.
Del Toro- seeing out of more than one set of eyes; magical polyvalence.
Bekinski- freedom of imagination combined with realism.
Bull– the magic of place.
Sedia– taking the myths seriously enough to adopt a critical stance toward them.
All of these aspects, in one way or another, are “what happens when myth incarnates in the waking world.”
Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest
“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)