The Quiet Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov (sort of)

A housekeeping digression:

I don’t generally review novels I’ve not finished – for one thing, doing so would be a confession that I’d not just indefinitely paused, but actually given up, reading the book. So I don’t know if I “should” be writing a review now. According to Goodreads, and to common sense and history, I have not actually completed a novel. All I have done is read about half of The Quiet Don.

However, it’s fair to say that there are some confounding factors here. For one, The Quiet Don was published in stages over the course of around a decade and a half. For another, (a somewhat abridged version of) the first half of the novel was published in English as And Quiet Flows the Don, six years before the novel was even completed – and I have a copy of that ‘novel’, that is a ‘novel’ in English translation but not in the Russian original. Since then, in addition to the second half of the novel being published (or the sequel, if you prefer), it’s also been published in sets of three, four, five or more volumes. And finally: the complete novel (or series, if you prefer), is gigantic. And I’m not going to get to the second half for a while. So, although I was reading a complete edition of the entire novel, I’m going to pretend that – like the first generation to read this in English – I’ve finished reading the first installment of a duology.

Further note: consider yourselves warned, this is a STUPIDLY long review, even by my circumlocutious standards…

It’s been a while since I read a proper epic fantasy novel. I must confess, I didn’t realise I’d be reading one now. And yet, just look at what we have here! Mikhail Sholokhov’s seminal The Quiet Don (or even just the first half, as reviewed here) is a colossal, hand-breaking tome, perhaps the heaviest book I’ve read – it may be only 1,400 pages, but they’re big pages (this edition is a full-size ‘trade paperback’ – a hardback minus the hard back). It begins, as every good fantasy novel does, with a map – a series of maps, even. There’s a dramatis personae at the beginning to refer back to (complete with pronunciation assistance), and at the back there are some hefty appendices. The content, likewise, is conventional for the (fantasy) genre: a simple farm boy discovers himself to be a leader of men, and plays an outsize role in world events, at a time of love, death, brutality, apocalyptic war, and the fall of empires. It’s grim, and it’s dark. Events are interspersed with long discussions of morality and political systems, and there’s a fair amount of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding, particularly in depicting exotic cultural traditions; and then there are the subtler touches that mark out traditional fantasy – the random cultural terms left untranslated (distances are measured in verst, for instance (it’s equivalent to 500 sazhen, if that helps)), and the scattering of culturally-relevant songs and poems. It is, in effect, the archetypal epic fantasy.

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