Monday 5 March 2018

Review: The Komarovs by Chico Kidd

The Komarovs is a short novel in the style of mid-twentieth-century pulp fiction. The story takes place in a travelling circus / fairground in Lisbon, where a ship's crew and a bunch of carnies are about to find themselves embroiled in an adventure with zombies, murderers, ghosts and villains...

There's a lot to enjoy about The Komarovs. A fast pace, a larger-than-life plot, and a strong affection for pulp fiction style and substance all make this a fun, quick read. I was never quite sure when the story is set - it could be any time from 1850 to 1990 as far as I can tell - before mobile phones, but after the rise of freak shows and such entertainments.

While it's fun, the story does run into the limits of its medium and length: as a short ensemble piece, we never spend enough time with any of the characters to really get to know them. The most central character is Captain da Silva, who can see ghosts and perform necromancy, but even he barely gets enough time to grumble "I'm getting too old for this shit" (with a few Portuguese expressions thrown in for flavour) before he is embroiled in one action scene after another. It's obvious that there is more back story - this is not the first story about da Silva and his crew - but as a standalone story, the characters are not quite as fleshed out as one would like.

Aside from da Silva, each of the other viewpoint characters is a bit one dimensional. So we have Harris; the werewolf; Sabrina, the he-she (androgynous person); the Komarovs, the evil Siamese twins; Benjamin, the Negro; Zriny, the metre man and circus director, etc.

So, you may have noticed words like "he-she" and "Negro" in the previous paragraph...

The image in my mind when I read "the Negro"
I must admit, it's been a while since I read a book which used the word "Negro". I'm guessing this means the story is set a bit further in the past (early 20th century rather than late), and it almost certainly is meant to place the writerly voice in that time, too, adding to the flavour of the text. It does, however, grate a little bit when about 80% of the references to a character aren't by his name, but simple "the Negro". This sort of referencing is not purely limited to Benjamin - the dwarf circus director is largely referred to as "the metre man", but poor Benjamin certainly gets the brunt of it. I ended up imagining Benjamin as Duplicatha / Flaturtha from the Asterix comics, and it felt like a clumsy writerly choice to me, because it was uncomfortable to read.

So, as long as you can ignore a somewhat un-PC narrative voice, and if you like 1940s style pulp fiction, The Komarovs is a pleasant enough diversion. I would, however, recommend finding the first of the da Silva stories and starting there, rather than starting with the Komarovs, which is apparently a sequel...

Rating: 3/5

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