Ned and his crew are a beating heart amid the abstraction of war, whether fighting in closed rooms of power or along the front.
Narratively styled like a boy’s adventure story with heavy paternalistic overtones, Preston Fleming’s The Maid of Baikal conflates Joan of Arc and the Russian Civil War to create an alternate history wherein the White Russians save their country from societal failure. As witnessed by U.S. Army Captain Ned du Pont, the heroic actions of Zhanna, the prophesied Maid of Baikal, show Russian leaders how to achieve good governance and deliver the Russian people to democracy after a long military struggle.
It’s 1918, and Russia is embroiled in a bloody civil war. Famine looms. Transportation breaks down. The country is divided between the White and Red armies. Undercover American agent Captain Ned du Pont serves with the Russian Railway Service Corps, empowered by the U.S. government to provide as much covert aid and support as is needed to help the White Army win. He never suspects the form it will take: supporting Zhanna, an eighteen-year-old Russian visionary, as she fights her way to victory along a front that stretches for five hundred miles.
The Maid of Baikal takes some risks in its depth. A long list of dramatis personae and maps begin the book; interestingly, photographs are included for historical figures. Chapters open with introductory quotes and musical citations to score the reading. And, unusually for fiction, chapters also end with footnotes that cite references or define terms. Additional detailed explorations of the backstory and the world political stage inform the narrative while adding significant length. While this mix of multimedia, reference, and story can be overwhelming, it’s also easily skimmed. For those who wish to escape into this fictive universe completely, the same flourishes invite total immersion in the novel’s reimagined world.
Although the novel confidently bridges historical fact and fiction, extraneous historical details occasionally bog the narrative down, especially in matters pertaining to campaign strategy and military action. The novel starts slowly, laboriously setting up the situation and stakes.
Establishing all the players within the Russian factions is a major undertaking of explication. Initially, set pieces alternate between high-powered dinner parties and endless slogs between military outposts and backwater towns to discuss supply lines, tactics, and morale. But the story picks up pace when it hones in on Ned du Pont and his intimates in direct action. Ned and his crew are a beating heart amid the abstraction of war, whether fighting in closed rooms of power or along the front.
The novel ably delivers historical fantasy in all matters military. But when it comes to women, the book waffles. Representations of women attempt to speak to their personhood but also include historical rationalizations of sexism and a “boys will be boys” attitude that normalizes male sexual aggression.
Despite Zhanna’s centrality, her specialness among the female cast is difficult to swallow; it simultaneously gives agency to a woman and underlines the fact that her status is an exception. By divine intervention, she’s temporarily excluded or able to overcome attitudes and judgments about women that, as a whole, seem otherwise unquestioned.
Willing to uphold the rightness of democracy and correct a perceived historical ill in the outcome of the Russian Civil War, The Maid of Baikal delivers an adventure of derring-do that catapults Ned du Pont and his cohort into halls of power and battle charges with equal abandon. There’s a realism in this fantasy that transports audience imaginations.
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