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A Plague On Both Your Houses

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Robert Littell, who has written many excellent novels about the world of espionage, ventures a bit outside of his comfort zone with “A Plague On Both Your Houses”, a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” set in Russia during the Great Turf War of the early 1990’s where different Russian gangsters vied for control of the newly liberated economy. Anyone who has read Shakespeare’s tale knows that this probably isn’t going to end very well, but here we go anyway!

In the power vacuum that existed after the fall of communism came the Russian gangs, vory v zakone, (“thieves in law”), taking over territories and providing “roof” or protection to the newly sprouting private businesses. We meet the two families, the Monsurovs who are run by an old-school, code-of-thieves, time in the gulag capo, and the Caplans, an upstart Jewish gang who is trying to muscle in on the old-school territories. Each of the gang leaders has a child, Roman Monsurov and Yulia Caplan respectively. Roman is aware that the world is changing, he has spent time in London and realizes that his father needs to adapt, that the old ways are being moved aside. Yulia is a rebellious girl, doing things to go against her father and trying to break away from her family, her destiny.

Of course, these “star-crossed lovers” meet and fall in love (lust?), running away from their responsibilities. But we know that you cannot escape your fate, as both Roman and Yulia are pulled back to reality, because one must always avenge the family.

This is an okay update on Shakespeare, one of many who have tried. At times the parallels feel a bit heavy-handed, and the violence and sex are a bit over the top. The setting isn’t always used to its fullest, it could very easily be set in 1920’s Chicago or 1970’s New York City with very little change to the story. We learn a little about Russia in the 1990’s, but it seems like we only glimpse a small part of what was going on. I thoroughly enjoy Mr. Littell’s espionage books, this one was a bit harder to enjoy.

I requested and received a free advanced electronic copy from Blackstone Publishing via NetGalley. Thank you!

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Is there a way out of the vicious circle of Russian violence?

In the early 1990’s as the Soviet Union suspended all Communist Party activity, people discovered ways to make some money. For some, it was starting small businesses, for others it was becoming part of an organization that made money in more indirect methods. Groups known as vory v zakone, “thieves in law”, carved out their own pursuits and territories, many by providing “protection” to the fledgling new businesses popping up.,,they called it providing a roof. But, as often happens, there were conflicts between these groups in determining who was in charge of “roofs” for which businesses. A period known as The Great Turf War saw fights, some of them quite bloody, erupt between the different vory. Against this backdrop, the son of one vor and the daughter of a rival vor meet, begin a relationship against the objections of their families and try to escape the futures that seem inevitable.
With a title taken from Mercutio’s line in Shakespeare”s “Romeo and Juliet” and characters named Roman Monsurov and Yulia Caplan who belong to warring clans, it doesn’t take a literary scholar to see that there is a twist on Romeo and Juliet going on here. I was attracted to the novel by its setting, a time period and place about which I realized I knew little….what happened inside the former Soviet Union during the years after Gorbachev left office. From that perspective, I found this novel did help me learn a bit about that time by showing the activities and actions of these two particular groups. The story itself, however, disappointed me. I had read the author’s brilliant “The Company” years ago, and looked forward to a similarly well-crafted work here. Instead, I found the hopping around from one time period and/or narrator to another in different chapters detracted from a cohesive story, and while some of the male characters were well developed I found those of the female characters less so. If the time period is of interest to you, than you may want to pick up a copy for that reason alone….just don’t expect this to be like some of the author’s previous works. I do thank NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing for allowing me access to an early copy of A Plague on Both Your Houses.

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Years ago, I enjoyed Littell’s novel, The Company, about the CIA. I thought he’d have an interesting take on the great turf wars that various criminal gangs fought in the 1990s void following the collapse of the USSR. Unfortunately, this novel is not what I anticipated. Instead, it’s as if somebody mixed up the chapters of The Godfather and Romeo and Juliet. It’s alternatively about two Moscow gangs going to the mattresses, and the doomed love (more like lust) story of the progeny of the two gangs’ leaders. That could be pulp-y fun, but not in this case.

Littell either knows nothing about women or is a misogynist. He thinks that the emblem of a feminist is going braless. Littell thinks that a beautiful woman who rejects a man because he’s her cousin’s lover would suddenly find him irresistible when he asks her if she wants to fornicate (using the one-syllable version of that term). Littell includes a female character who he paints as an idiot about history, yet she is a professor of literature. And to call Littell’s dialog clunky would be a vast understatement. It’s painful to read.

As I’m sure you know, the title of this book refers to Mercutio’s line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as he is dying following a sword fight incited by the ongoing Capulet/Montague feud. Littell works hard to drive home the Romeo and Juliet theme, starting with the title. Then Roman’s first girlfriend is named Rosalyn (to sound like Romeo’s pre-Juliet love, “Fair Rosaline”). (Hmm, a Russian Jewish girl named Rosalyn?) Of course, Roman and Yulia sounds like Romeo and Juliet. There are many other Romeo and Juliet references in the text, just in case the reader is too dense to get the parallel. Littell pushes way too hard at the Romeo and Juliet theme. A little subtlety would have worked much better.

A few of the gangster parts of the book are entertaining—though it’s hard to tell if they bear any relationship to the reality of the Moscow turf wars of the 1990s—but the Roman and Yulia parts are cringeworthy.

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“A Plague on Both Your Houses” by Robert Littell is the Romeo and Juliet inspired story of Roman and Yulia, that come from different Russian Mafia families. It is set in 1991, after the fall of communism during the time the transitional government was in place. This transition led to a rise in the Russian mafia and turf wars throughout Russia and the region.

The concept and political landscape at the time lent itself to what could have been a great historical fiction novel, however, it came up short and I ended up DNFing at 50%. The book lacked the historical depth for me to get a sense of time and place and the transitions in point of view limited the character development I desired. At 50% I was still unclear of the main themes of the book. I also had trouble with the writing of the female characters in general. If you go in knowing more about Russian History and the Russian Mafia, this book might interest you, but for me, I didn’t get enough depth to understand the backstory or characters so the book felt flat.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Blackstone Publishing for an advanced copy of of this fictional tale about two households both alike in dignity during the fall of the Soviet Union, and two people trying to find love and freedom among the underworld forces that are starting to take power.

Chaos creates opportunity. And there was no period of chaos that created opportunity for so many as the fall of the Soviet Union. While people, countries, even the world was celebrating the end of the "Evil Empire" as some called it, forces were starting to gather, coming from gulags, and the underworld. As Boris Yeltsin tried to make Russia into a democracy the Russian mafia began to show their strength, moving quickly into positions, buying property, arms, people, almost before many could decide their price. Nature abhors a vacuum, and rival gangs began to fight for the opportunity. And a new Russia was beginning to rise. A Plague On Both Your Houses is a novel, by journalist and master espionage writer Robert Littell about these times and the people who want nothing to do with this New World Order. However family is a very tough legacy to escape from.

The book begins in the gulag where we meet the gang that within twenty years will be vying for power as head of the Russian mafia. A man who misses out on most of his son Roman's life. We jump to the fall of the Soviet Union, with Roman returning from a sojourn in London, learning about Shakespeare, and a little about the world. Roman's exile was both for his protection and to keep him away from a woman he feels strongly about, Yulia, the daughter of a Jewish crime lord, and an enemy to Roman's father. Roman and Yulia must deal with their families, a collapsing country, and corrupt officials as the violence around them comes close to home, old family feuds are continues, and the dreams of a new country, start to turn into a nightmare.

My Grandfather introduced me to the works of Robert Littell years ago I think with the Sisters, and I have read pretty much everything he has done. This book is not as large as The Company, and is a pretty quick read, but still has a good story and interesting characters. And as with all of Littell's books is well researched and really well written. There is a Shakespeare theme, that seems a little heavy handed, but doesn't really get in the way of the story. This is a dark novel, about a very grim time, and in some spots can be very shocking, and of its time, which would be the early 90's. Littell story does jump in time, from past to present, to past again, but Littell never loses the narrative and is very good about keeping the story flowing and never bogging down, or losing the plot. Another fine book from a master at espionage.

Recommended for readers who enjoy their spy books not shaken or stirred, but told well with compelling characters, actions and lots of believable moments and research. Littell makes his characters seem like people one knows caught up in situations that just keep getting worse, with only their wits to help them survive.

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Well all good things have to come tom an end, or maybe it was just me.

This never glimpsed what was but after so many books we all get tired. This was just not one that caught on, I'm going to re-read the company.

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A Plague on Both Your Houses by Robert Littell

This was a pleasant surprise to me this book coming out. Mr. Littell is 88 yrs old! It is not his best work but it still was a good read. Also, given his long experience in life and writing, I think it is ok for him to give some very candid opinions.
The story takes place mainly just after the fall of the Soviet Union where chaos is rampant and crime blue collar and white collar dominates the Russian economy. The story is about two mafia type families who find themselves competing to dominate the same area in Moscow. The State Security forces know they do not have the resources to stop the crime and instead work to have the two families kill each other off. The story has a Romeo and Juliet line in that one family has a young man and the other a young woman who for no reason I can understand if not falling in love and least enjoy going to bed together. Perhaps the weakest part of the story. I will not give away the final surprise except to say Littell does stay true to the Romeo and Juliet saga.

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There’s an attraction between Roman and Yulia, and maybe the romance could go somewhere. Sadly, for them, they are on opposite sides of Moscow’s Great Turf War in the early 1990s. Their fathers both head rival mafia families, one Russian, one Jewish. Can they find a way? Maybe, but their story isn’t the only thing going on in this book. As well as a view of life in Russia, there is also an insight into the mechanics of a mafia family. How they live, how they make ‘a living’ and, ultimately, how some of them die.
I really enjoyed this book. It is told from various points of view, with some chapters involving the ‘front story’ and some the ‘back story’. Luckily, there is a brief note at the top of each chapter explaining who is involved and when. It was really clever.
Many thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for an ARC is exchange for an honest review.

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Robert Littell is one of a tiny handful of American writers you can honestly describe as a master of the spy fiction form. Friends who work at the Agency have repeatedly told me that he's the one who gets it right.

Littell must be nearly ninety now, but in A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES he stretches kind of work he has previously published further than I would have thought possible. This book is dense, scholarly, and complex, but it swings and swoops and dives and jives. If James Ellroy were to write a spy novel, it would read pretty much like this.

I'm simply awed. Nearly ninety and he's still inovating as a writer. Robert Littell, you ARE the man.

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