Blood Red, Snow White

Blood Red Snow White

Costa Children’s Book Award nominee Blood Red, Snow White was written by Marcus Sedgwick and first published in 2007. The tale, told through three short stories, is loosely based on true events but presents a fictionalised account of Arthur Ransome’s experiences in Russia from 1913 to 1919.

The first of the novellas, A Russian Fairy Tale, sets the scene by telling the story of the fall of the Tsarist regime. Sprinkling the story with light fantasy elements, it weaves a tale of woodcutters, royalty, monks and bears while describing the historical events that occurred between Bloody Sunday and the February Revolution of 1917.

The second story, One Night in Moscow, is more of a philosophical piece. Its third person narrative follows Ransome over his early years in Russia, charting his personal conflict as he finds himself both drawn to the ideals of Bolshevism while being disgusted by the atrocities that it causes. Over this time, he meets Evgenia – secretary of Trotsky – and immediately falls in love with her. However, this love puts him in great danger. The more time he spends with her, the more his fellow Englishmen come to believe that he is a communist spy.

The final story, A Fairy Tale, Ending, is told in first person from the perspective of Ransome as he struggles to clear his name. While he is visiting family in England, he discovers that the situation in Russia has grown worse. Civil War has struck the country and he fears that Evgenia could be in grave danger if she is captured by Tsarist White Army. Facing almost certain death, he embarks on a mission to get back into Russia in order to rescue his lover.

While my views as to the effectiveness of this novel are mixed, I must admit that I was absolutely blown away by the opening story. A Russian Fairy Tale is beautifully written, humble and intricate in equal measure. While the history of Russia is portrayed in only the simplest terms, depth is layered on through a highly intelligent use of imagery. The awakening bear evokes a strong metaphor for the attitudes of the proletariat, slumbering at first but gradually spurred into a rampage by the actions of others. The title of the novel is used most powerfully throughout this section – carrying the air of a fairy story while also representing blood and snow, the Red Bolsheviks and the White Tsarists, Russia and England, war and peace. It is a very simple image but also incredibly striking, emphasising the sharp contrast between the opposing factions and viewpoints.

It is nice to read a war novel that paints such an unbiased view, as history is written by the victors. Nazis and communists are frequently used as villains by unimaginative writers as they were the enemies of England and America during World War II. It is often easy to forget that these ideologies were a response to the sociopolitical climate of the time and did inspire people. In Russia, peasants were starving to death under the Tsarist regime while the rich feasted. In light of this, it’s easy to see why communism would be an extremely desirable alternative.

In Blood Red, Snow White, Sedgwick effectively shows both sides of the coin. Ransome is initially captivated by Russia and is somewhat sympathetic towards the Bolsheviks, acknowledging that their regime does benefit the general populous, but his optimism is gradually tarnished over the years by the violence that he observes. For me, such a view point was refreshing. It was nice to read a novel that didn’t take the usual standpoint of communism=bad and allowed for the Russian characters to feel more like real people and less like comic book villains.

However, I felt that as the story progressed into the second and third tales it also grew weaker. I’m really not sure how much interest this novel would hold for people who were not already familiar with the Russian Revolution. Key players are name dropped left, right and centre but no time is really spent explaining who these people are and why they are important. Even Ransome seemed like an odd choice for a protagonist. I grew up in the Lake District and so am very familiar with Ransome’s work, but how well known is he outside of the United Kingdom? I’m not really sure how many teenagers would either know who he is or have any real reason to care about him as a character.

Important events are also glossed over within the story (the October Revolution is described in a single sentence) without giving any real indication for why these were so significant. Although there is some supplementary material included in the back of the book – including a timeline and some declassified secret service documents – it still does not provide enough depth to make this readily accessible for someone who has no knowledge of the period.

The reliance on the reader already knowing their Russian history also caused problems when it came to the characterisation as no time was spent developing any of the cast. With the exception of Ransome, every one of them is only described fleetingly. I learned nothing about Trotsky over this novel other than the fact that Ransome was intimidated by him, and Evgenia received zero development beyond her ability to apparently fall in love at first sight. Because of it, the whole story seemed somewhat muted which really did hamper my enjoyment of it as a whole. The novel was a spy story and a romance set within a bloody revolution. It should have been dramatic and exciting but the lack of character development prevented me from forming any real attachment to anyone.

Only Ransome felt developed as a character and that was because our experience of revolutionary Russia was shown entirely from his point of view. We can clearly see how the revolution affects him and his struggle to make his fellows at the British Embassy understand that his Bolshevik sympathies do not make him a traitor to his country. However, I did not really ever believe his love for Evgenia as I was never given any reason as to why he loved her so much. Although the attraction was immediate, they spent time together so infrequently that their love seemed to be nothing more than a perfect fairy tale. While I accept that this could well have been the point, this is where this concept failed for me. Ransome’s relationship with Evgenia is fact and I felt as though the happily ever after treatment oversimplified what must have been a complex and dangerous relationship.

So, to sum up, Blood Red, Snow White is a beautifully written book that paints a very evocative and unbiased picture of revolutionary Russia, but beyond this the novel felt a little flat. The historical events were only briefly explained and many important figures were simply name-dropped, making it inaccessible for a reader who does not have any knowledge of the period. The characters also received very little development and so I found that I cared about them less and less as the story progressed. This novel is an interesting curio for someone with an interest in Russian history, but probably would not appeal to anyone beyond this.

Blood Red, Snow White can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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