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A magical Zelig moves through history in 'The Age of Ice'

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The protagonist of J.M. Sidorova's ambitious first novel, "The Age of Ice," is conceived in extremity during the reign of the cruel and impulsive Russian Empress Ionaovna. Captivated by the antics of her court fool, a humpbacked woman, the Empress commands that she marry a disgraced Russian prince.

This "jester wedding" takes place during the brutal winter of 1739, and the miserable couple consummate their union in an ice palace constructed by the Empress' slaves, in "a wedding chamber, a canopy bed on a dais, with heavy drapes half drawn, cascading to the floor — all made of ice." Nine months later, the unfortunate fool dies in childbirth, leaving twin sons, Prince Alexander Velitzyn and his brother Andrei.

From childhood, the boys are at odds, although Alexander, the tale's narrator, notes that "I hated him less than he hated me." When 10-year-old Alexander inveigles his brother into building an ice fortress, Andrew burns it down. When 12-year-old Andrei leaves their country estate to become a military cadet, Alexander follows, even though he knows his brother longs to escape him.

It's only after graduation from the Cadet Corps that Alexander learns he possesses an unsettling gift his twin doesn't share. One December night, he's thrown by his horse on a remote road. He stumbles to his feet, removes his glove and picks up a handful of snow: "The snow I had squeezed didn't melt. Dry, solid flakes went into my bare palm and dry flakes sifted out, sparkling and twirling as they fell to the ground."

Alexander Velitzyn can freeze things with his touch. Yet this ability appears uncontrollable, linked to moments of emotional or physical extremity — fear, alarm, awe, and especially sexual arousal.

It's the latter that causes Alexander the most anguish in the years to come. Fearful that any bodily contact may harm his fiancée on their wedding night, he arranges a trial run before the marriage. And indeed, as he kisses her, she begins to shiver violently. Alexander breaks off the engagement when, two days after their assignation, she comes down with pneumonia.

Understandably depressed after this episode, Alexander opts for a somewhat rarefied suicide: he volunteers to be inoculated with smallpox as a test case for Empress Ekaterine and her young son. He survives, only to fall in love with Anna, his brother's wife. Andrei and his family are transferred to Orenburg, a walled city that is beset during the Cossack rebellion of 1773-75. Alexander follows, playing a critical role in defending the besieged city.

As with much else that takes place in "The Age of Ice," Sidorova draws on Russian history for her account of the Cossack rebellion. Alexander, whose supernatural powers also include immortality, begins to function as a sort of gelid Zelig: As the decades pass, he witnesses the Napoleonic wars, journeys to Paris, Turkey, Iran, India, and finally returns to his home at the dawn of the 20th century, with revolution looming.

Unfortunately, the most interesting thing about Alexander — his magical power to freeze at a touch — plays a surprisingly small part in all these goings-on. It's only when the nights grow long and the weather unbearable that "The Age of Ice" truly soars and, like those first magical, unmelting snowflakes, begins to glitter and entrance.

Alexander's account of a nine-year expedition to Siberia led by Joseph Billings is the most enthralling part of the novel, a thrilling journey across frozen steppes, barren tundra and ice-locked lakes. The journey is drawn from real events: Billings had previously sailed with Captain Cook, and now hoped to discover the Northeast Passage.

The explorers are constantly on the verge of starvation; their encounters with the native Arctic peoples veer between the comical and the horrific. Alexander befriends the expedition's naturalist, Carl Merck, the German physician whose journal provided much of this chapter's background material. He obsessively records the temperature, which plummets as October darkens into November.

"Ten ounces of mercury in a stopped vial froze in three hours, brandy became thick as molasses, day became a thinner shade of night. At -40 Reaumur, axes bounced off tree trunks and shattered. Something snapped and shot in the forest, as if trees exploded like firecrackers. At -40, a man's exhalation froze in front of his face and fell to the ground. Everyone's exhalation, including mine, made a tearing sound. Everyone but me complained of pain in the chest. Everyone's eyeballs hurt but mine .… A frightful fancy hatched in my mind … Negative forty-five will be the temperature point of transfiguration."

Alexander, of course, is uniquely prepared to survive, even thrive, in this boreal landscape. He does undergo a transfiguration, one which contributes to Merck's increasing, if subdued, emotional instability. Merck dies only a few years after the expedition returned to St. Petersburg. Alexander lives on and on and on, for almost 200 more pages.

The story would have been better served if Sidorova's book had been half its length. Still, "The Age of Ice" is an impressive debut by a writer who draws her own magic from some of the darker, and colder, chapters of Russia's complex history.

Hand's most recent book is the collection "Errantry: Strange Stories."

The Age of Ice
A novel

J.M. Sidorova
Scribner: 398 pp, $26

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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