Back in 2009, I was so impressed with Monstrous Affections, David Nickle’s collection of short stories, that I selected it as one of my picks for best books of the year. At the same time, I made a note to keep an eye out for future offerings from this talented author. Now here we are with Rasputin’s Bastards (Chizine) and Nickle? He hasn’t disappointed.
It’s interesting because Nickle is best known for his tightly woven short stories. It’s a difficult form, the short story. That is, to do it well demands talent and discipline and it does not necessarily follow that an artist who has mastered the short form will do well with more rein and scope. Rasputin’s Bastards has both along with an intricate plotline, a carefully created pace and a whole lot of pages and words. It is the exact opposite of a short story in just about every way imaginable and I was much relieved to discover that Nickle could go this distance, as well. In fact, it’s almost as though Nickle was honing his muscles on the collection, in order to go the whole way in the longer form here because once again he proves himself to be the master of showing us innocuous, everyday things, then dialing us closer and showing us something else.
I find it difficult to talk about Rasputin’s Bastards without either giving too much away or oversimplifying a plot and structure that are far from simple. What begins as a fairly standard — thought perfectly executed — Cold War tale rapidly shows itself to be anything but as Nickle unravels a fascinated and complicated tale of international intrigue and — yes — horror.
As always, Nickle is right on point. The prose here is thoughtful, energetic and sharp. Most importantly of all, the plot of Rasputin’s Bastards is complicated and it’s told in a complex way. Despite this, it’s stiffly compelling. Once you’re done, there’s no question: the hours spent enfolded in Nickle’s imagination are well spent. You won’t ever feel the desire to ask for them back. ◊
David Middleton is art & culture editor of January Magazine.