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Literature / The Turkish Gambit

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The Turkish Gambit is a 1998 Russian novel by Boris Akunin. It is the second novel in the wildly popular Erast Fandorin series.

It is set in 1878. Varvara Suvorova, a young woman of vaguely liberal political bent, has gone to the front of the Russo-Turkish War to visit her fiancé Pyotr, who is in the army. All her luggage is stolen and she is left alone near the front, but she is rescued by one Erast Petrovich Fandorin.

Fandorin is serving in the army as a way of sublimating his grief after the tragic death of his newlywed bride at the end of The Winter Queen. He brings word that the Turks are advancing on the strategic town of Plevna and the Russians must take it first. However, when the orders for the Russian army arrive via telegram, they are for an attack on a different, irrelevant objective. Varvara's fiancé Pyotr, who sent the telegram, falls under suspicion. Meanwhile, Fandorin receives intelligence that a Turkish secret agent named Anwar Effiendi has penetrated Russian army intelligence, and is likely responsible for the altered telegram. It falls to Fandorin to ferret out the spy.

Adapted into a 2005 Russian film, The Turkish Gambit.


  • Bittersweet Ending: Fandorin manages to stop the villain's Evil Plan before its final and most disastrous (for the Russians) stage could commence, the villain ends up shooting himself, and the war is won, but it is very much a Pyrrhic Victory, with a huge toll of casualties and a victory that Britain and France are guaranteed to undo at the peace conference. Fandorin himself leaves for Japan.
  • Brick Joke: Each chapter of the book starts off with a newspaper clipping that provides a bit of exposition. In Chapter 4 Paladin says he could write an article about absolutely anything, and is dared to write an article about his dirty old boots. The next chapter starts with Paladin's newspaper article "Old Boots".
  • The Cavalry: A literal example, as Sobolev's cossacks arrive to rescue Fandorin and Varvara from the Bashi-bazouks.
  • Call-Back: Towards the end of the first Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, one Anwar Effiendi is named as one of the agents of the Azazel secret society. He's the villain in this book.
  • Call-Forward: Doubles as a Call-Back, as Anwar makes the same point about the looming dangerous future that Lady Astair made in The Winter Queen.
    Anwar: But lurking within Russia is a terrible threat to civilization. There are savage, destructive forces within her, forces that will break out sooner or later, and then the world will be in a bad way.
  • Chess Motifs: The "gambit", as reflected in the title and explained by Anwar towards the end. A "gambit" in chess is a maneuver in which one sacrifices a piece to gain a strategic advantage. Anwar is prepared to sacrifice his own Turkey to deal a blow to Russian power.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Varvara is terrified to see that one of the Bashi-Bazouk partisans has a severed human head tied to his saddle.
  • Dub Name Change: Charles d'Hevrais became Charles Paladin in the English translation. justified because "d'Hevrais" (French "from Hevrais") is a huge giveaway of Charles' real identity, namely, Anwar Effendi (born in the town of Hevrais); it works well in Russian because the Cyrillic spelling of "d'Hevrais" and "Hevrais" are almost nothing alike but in English, it would be a ruinous spoiler).
  • El Spanish "-o": When Varvara Suvorova finds herself stranded with no money or documents in a Bulgarian village, she attempts to encourage herself that Bulgarian language is simply Russian with "-ta" added to every word. Fortunately for her, she never gets to find out if it's true (it's certainly not), because the first person she encounters speaks fluent Russian.
  • Expy: Oddly, with just a tweak of the spelling, as this novel's Michel Sobolev is an obvious stand-in for the real-life Mikhail Skobelev, who was in fact a commander in this war.
  • Funetik Aksent: How Akunin—or rather English translator Andrew Bromfield—gets across the strong accent of Irish reporter Seamus McLaughlin. When Seamus is speaking in English, a language Varvara doesn't understand, he says stuff like "Yoor a haroin, medam." When he's speaking in Russian the convention is dropped.
  • Historical In-Joke: Why did the real-life Siege of Pleven happen? Because a Turkish spy misdirected the Russian army, of course.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Old-style chapter titles appropriate to the time setting.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Averted with Anwar Effendi, the Ottoman super-spy, who is perfectly willing to sacrifice his own country for sake of stopping autocratic Russia and winning time for the liberal powers of the West.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Several, but especially Sobolev.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Anwar dismisses Varvara's concern after he shoots Mitya, telling her that he only shot Mitya in the thigh. A bullet to the thigh will cause the victim to very rapidly bleed to death if it hits the femoral artery.
  • Relationship Labeling Problems: Varya has some trouble mentally labeling her relationship with Petya, eventually settling on "former husband and future fiance" (they lived together for a long while as a Chastity Couple, he proposed to her before going to fight in the Russo-Turkish War, and she plans to accept that proposal). She does tell Petya she'll marry him. Later, as she gets many more attractive suitors, she begins to reconsider again and only doesn't reject Petya out of pity. Eventually, Varya still ends up with Petya, since by the last chapter, all of her other crushes are either dead, Evil All Along, or unable to commit.
  • Spy Drama: Fandorin is hunting a Turkish spy.
  • Spy Fiction: Mostly martini-flavored, with dashing heroes in dramatic situations.
  • Standard Female Grab Area: "Paladin had reached out his left hand, grasped her tightly by the elbow, and pulled her toward him, protecting himself with her like a shield."
  • Stress Vomit: Subverted when Varya throws up after spending days bandaging the wounded and, to top it off, learning that her fiance attempted suicide. She thinks that it's just stress but it turns out that she contracted typhoid fever, putting her out of commission for weeks.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: A habit of Akunin's throughout the series, happening in this book for the first time. Count Zurov, a pivotal character from The Winter Queen, pops back up in The Turkish Gambit only to be killed off.
  • Summation Gathering: Although Fandorin didn't summon them there. The gang is in San Stefano, about to advance into Constantinople itself, when Fandorin shows up, unmasks Paladin as Anwary, and then explains the mystery.
  • Supporting Protagonist: The whole novel is told from Varvara's point-of-view, but she isn't the actual protagonist, Fandorin is. And Varvara's endless flirtation with all the handsome men at Russian army headquarters has little to do with the main story.
  • Train-Station Goodbye: Ends with a crying Varvara, who Cannot Spit It Out about her love for Fandorin, saying goodbye forever at the train station.
  • Villainous Crush: Downplayed. Anwar admits to being slightly in love with Varvara, but explains he can't afford to take such feelings too far since they would distract him from his global-scale goals.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Anwar Effiendi, naturally enough since he was a pupil of Lady Astair, the Well-Intentioned Extremist of the first novel. At the climax Effiendi tells Fandorin that autocratic, backwards Russia must be stopped in its grasping for power, so the more liberal, enlightened West can win out.
  • Wham Line: Fandorin's sense of style leads him to unmask the villain in this way. After arriving in San Stefan and cordially greeting Varvara and Sobolev, he turns to Paladin and says "Salaam aleichem, Anwar-Effiendi".
  • Woken Up at an Ungodly Hour: Charles complains that he had to rise at four in the morning since he wasn't informed that the decisive battle wasn't to begin until three p. m., and he adds that waking up so early is like a death sentence to him. Considering he is really Anwar Effendi, the brilliant spy and chief of Turkish secret police, we never know how much of that is the truth.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Fandorin eventually figures out that the duel in which Paladin kills Colonel Lukan was Paladin's way of getting rid of Lukan, his co-conspirator who was no longer useful after helping lead the Russians into a bloodbath at Plevna.