Saturn’s Daughters: The Birth of Terrorism
Evgenya Grishina is eighteen when she comes into contact with “the Movement”, the first political group to call themselves terrorists and who engage in violent acts to destabilise society. Their ultimate goal is the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II and for a more enlightened government to take his place. The trouble is, with its secretive nature and no cohesive vision of what the new order will be, the Movement is chaotic, anarchic and subject to the passions and weaknesses of its members. The novel reflects this so well that it is often risks losing the reader with a complex narrative that requires perseverance.
Evgenya turns into an 1870s version of Lisbeth Salander, accomplished in sex and ciphers, bomb-making and nude boxing. Her on-again off-again relationship with her cousin, tunnel-digger Vitya Pelin, is complicated by their link to another cousin, Anna Shestakova, a gun-running countess who trained as a doctor, as well as the manipulations of the Movement’s dangerous ringleader, Sonya Perovskaya. The men are secondary characters: brutal, sinister, inept. Vitya has a better nature but that can make him seem too soft and malleable for a good terrorist.
The novel’s strengths are in its sharp dialogue and sense of place. Occasional extracts from the memoirs of an ex-member of the Movement provide some background context, but with so many names that include Russian patronymics, nicknames and code identities, a who’s-who list would have been useful, also a map of where events took place. Most disappointing is the lack of author notes or sources on these murky doings and some indication as to which of the female operatives really existed.
It is said one person’s terrorist is another’s hero (or heroine in this case), and the novel does explore uncomfortable facts about the nature of fanaticism, especially in women. A highly accomplished work that will inspire readers to reach beyond the fiction and discover the true history.