Two Sides to a Heart & Two Sides to a City

There are two parts to my blog post today, although you could say they are vaguely related, as both parts are about thriller writing.

Firstly: Calling all thriller writers:

Thriller Writing Contest for Bookrix Authors: The Music of Eric Zann (German: Die Musik des Erich Zann). It’s free to join as a reader and/or author – it’s a German/English language self-publishing platform. You can upload your submission in either German or English – or both!

Writing Contest Theme: Choose a sentence from Howard Phillip Lovecraft’s story “The Music of Erich Zann” as inspiration for a short story. Use this sentence within your story. You have from 15.09.2015 to 10.10.2015 to post your story to this thread:;content-id:group_9738093986,id:1769300.html

Remember, you must become a member of Bookrix, before you can enter the contest. The winner gets not only a virtual pat on the back and potentially lots of readers and reviews on Bookrix, especially when delivering your story in German, but can also look forward to a book prize:

Im Sommernachtstraum / Die Bürgschaft 11,80 EUR, 210 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-940445-80-3

Also available as an eBook. EUR 0,99

And while you may not be keen on the book prize, if German isn’t your first language, you should remember that the majority of Bookrix readers is under 40 and therefore able to read English pretty well – lots of potential readers and therefore potential purchasers of your own books! Phil Humor, the organiser of the contest, has thoughtfully provided various links to Lovecraft’s story:

Here’ s the German Wiki Link and short story description:

Die Musik des Erich Zann (Originaltitel: The Music of Erich Zann) ist eine Kurzgeschichte von Howard Phillips Lovecraft, geschrieben im Dezember 1921 und erstveröffentlicht im März 1922 in der Zeitschrift The National Amateur. Sie gehört zu den beliebtesten Erzählungen Lovecrafts, wurde vielfach nachgedruckt und in mehrere Sprachen übersetzt, unter anderem ins Deutsche und ins Französische. Bis in die Gegenwart hat sie Schriftsteller, Illustratoren, Filmemacher und nicht zuletzt Musiker zu eigenen Schöpfungen angeregt.

Plus some more info in German and English: (downloadable short story in German)

  1. P. Lovecrafts Bibliothek des Schreckens “Die Musik des Erich Zann” Part 2

Secondly: Two Sides to a Heart, Two Sides to a City

Back to my “location” focused blog theme now: recently I read two very different books that both used the  setting for their books as brilliant metaphors for the “internal” journey their protagonists undergo in the course of the story. I’d like to delve into the first one, which is a brilliant thriller by the Russian writer Boris Akunin, whose popular “Erast Fandorin” adventures have wowed not only hordes of readers but also international critics over the years.The novel in question is “The Coronation”. You can read my general review at my Goodreads page, if you like.

Nicholas_II_by_Boissonnas_&_Eggler_c1909The narrator of the story is Afanasii Stepanovich Ziukin, a butler at the Green Court in St. Petersburg of Tsarist Russia. It’s the week before the coronation of what will be the country’s last Tsar, for soon the tides will turn against the monarchy; chaos will break out across Russia and many members of the ruling Romanov family will be murdered. Nicholas II reign lasted from 1.11.1894 to 15.3.1917. The coronation in question happened on 26th May 1896, (old style date lists this as 14th May 1896)

However, the novel isn’t about that. It’s more about the build up to all the horrors still to come – at first glance.

At second glance, however, it is a wonderful novel about one man who rediscovers his heart. His early love for a high-born lady was thwarted some 30 years before the plot starts. It broke his tender adolescent heart and he closed himself off to all human emotions other than “adoration” for those he serves. As Afanasii is forced to get involved in the adventures of Erast Fandorin, he learns to love again. Throughout the book Afanasii refuses to acknowledge that he is capable of love, however, and it is this refusal, which ultimately saves his life and soul in a tragic twist of fate.

With every fence or drain pipe he has to climb during the adventure, Afanasii not only gets used to seeing Moscow – and imperial Russia for that matter – in a different light. As his limbs get accustomed to the unusual exercise, so does that other muscle, the human heart, get used to the unfamiliar feeling of loving.

Author Akunin shows us the grand imperial palaces and parks as they were when Tsar Alexander was about to be crowned emperor in Moscow. By way of contrast, we get to see the murky side of impoverished Moscow, where gangs of thugs rule supreme, calling themselves “king” over their subjects of cut throats, pickpockets and pimps. Sounds familiar to modern day Russians by any chance?

Spb_06-2012_Palace_Embankment_various_14Akunin also uses the different palaces to show us how rivalry between the Romanovs was expressed in more or less subtle ways. This rivalry greatly added to the poor decision making that was ultimately the monarchy’s downfall. For example: upon arrival for the coronation, the Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich, who is the zar’s uncle and Afanasii’s employer, the butler discovers the Green Court’s members and staff have been put into the Small Hermitage Palace, which has only 15 rooms to accommodate them all. Even the butler and his assistants have their own servants…so where are they all to sleep? He suspects that this was a vindictive manoeuvre by the youngest of the Grand Dukes, who can’t stand his older brother Georgii, but is in charge of all that happens in Moscow as the governor general of the capital. His decision to put the Green Court into such an easily accessible, and poorly defended palace, has far reaching, tragic consequences.

Naturally, Akunin also uses Moscow’s buildings and streets to demonstrate the immense gulf that lay between the Romanovs and the enormous number of aristocrats the Russian ordinary people had to support with their labours. Virtual slaves, they hardly earned enough to eat and clothe themselves or have a roof over their head. And there is another brilliant metaphor Akunin uses to show us something important that happens to his protagonist, whenever he changes location:

With every part of the adventure, Afanasii, who lives and works in several palaces throughout the year, as the Romanovs travel from residence to residence with the change of the seasons, the butler loses or ruins parts of his clothing. To Afanasii, his courtly clothes mark him out as a man of distinction; he believes they give him his dignity and he uses them like armour against emotional involvement. Shedding his outer layers of skin or emotional armour, if you like, always comes with a dramatic change of location.

Tsaritsino_from_helicopter-1The butler’s courtly clothing either gets lost or torn while climbing over fences or scampering up or down drain pipes or his clothes get stolen in the dangerous streets of the suburbs. We are told how much fashionable clothing costs – and while in comparison to what court butlers earn it is not such a lot, in comparison to what the ordinary man or woman or child in the street earns, it is an unimaginable fortune.

It is rare for me to close a book and then want to read it all over again in an instant. This is such a book. If you want to learn how to use your chosen setting/location in many different, subtle ways to say something important about your protagonist’s inner workings, this is the book to read. It is also rip-roaring fun to read, despite its very serious theme and setting. Read it prior to writing your own thriller and your submission to Bookrix should be in with a very good chance of winning!