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Literature / The Winter Queen

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The Winter Queen (Russian: Азазель, "Azazel") is a 1998 Russian mystery novel by author Boris Akunin. It was the first novel in his Erast Fandorin series, which became hugely popular in Russia and around the world.

The novel is set in Moscow in 1876. A handsome young student, Pyotr Kokorin, pulls out a gun and shoots himself in broad daylight right in front of a beautiful young woman, Elizaveta von Evert-Kolokoltseva. The case, which appears to be an open-and-shut suicide, is assigned to 20-year-old rookie cop Erast Fandorin. Fandorin discovers that Kokorin was playing Russian roulette with another student, Akhtyrtsev. Fandorin starts tailing Akhtyrtsev, and follows him to the apartment of a dark, mysterious young woman, Amalia Bezhetskaya. Akhyrtsev spots Fandorin's tail, and invites him out for drinks....but then there's a murder. Fandorin narrowly escapes being murdered as well, and winds up stumbling on to a dark, murderous conspiracy involving a secret society called "Azazel", one with connections deep within the Tsarist government.

The first of fifteen novels in the wildly popular (in Russia, at least) Fandorin series, which took the character from 1876 to 1919. A Russian television series adaptation of The Winter Queen was produced in 2002. Another premiered in 2023. An English-language adaptation of this novel, to be directed by Paul Verhoeven who is an expert on Femme Fatale stories, languished in Development Hell for years and years, and does not appear to be forthcoming.

This page is for tropes unique to The Winter Queen. For general tropes about the Fandorin character and other general tropes found in the series, see the Erast Fandorin page.


  • Anachronism Stew: The first example of a deliberate anachronism played for a joke, a Running Gag throughout the series. Brilling uses a telephone in Moscow in 1876, when that instrument had just been invented in America that year.
  • Anti-Villain: A hallmark of the Fandorin series. Lady Astair and the Astair Houses are doing unquestioned good for the world, picking talented young orphan boys, cultivating those talents, and then placing them in areas where they can advance the cause of human progress. Unfortunately Lady Astair doesn't hesitate to do stuff like murder young wastrel aristocrats so she can get her hands on their money, for the cause.
  • Arc Words: "Azazel", first whispered by a mysterious assassin. It turns out to be the name of a secret society.
  • Call-Forward:
    • Lady Astair's prediction, about the violent, destructive ways that modernization and change will manifest themselves in the world if they are not managed, comes true in Russia in 1917.
    • The resident Mad Scientist at the Moscow Astair House waxes rhapsodic about how electricity will change the world in the 20th century.
  • Ceiling Corpse: A variant. Fandorin tackles Brilling and they go flying out a window and into a tree, the branches breaking Fandorin's fall. Fandorin gets up after hitting the ground and is surprised to not see Brilling anywhere—until he looks up and sees that Brilling is hanging from the tree, speared by a branch.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: For the whole series that is. The "white-eyed" assassin, who twice tries and fails to kill Fandorin in this story but does kill Fandorin's wife, is Achimas Welde, who later will be the main antagonist of the 4th Fandorin book, The Death of Achilles.
  • Detective Mole: Brilling, Fandorin's boss and mentor at Moscow PD, turns out to be a member of Azazel.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • Fandorin lacks his trademark stutter and his gray temples, both of which are symptoms of the trauma he receives at the end of this one. He lacks the habit of summing up evidence with "that is one, that is two, that is three", which is something he learns from his mentor Brilling in this book. He also lacks his affinity for Japanese culture and his faithful Japanese servant Masa, both of which are products of his diplomatic service in Japan soon after the time of this story.
    • He's rather more adolescent in this book, being badly distracted and bothered by the beauty of both Elizaveta and Amalia—Amalia, in fact, gets the drop on him in a confrontation by baring her shoulder and making a pass at him. Not seen with a sadder-yet-wiser Fandorin in later books.
    • The Winter Queen is also the only book in the Fandorin series in which Fandorin is the POV character from beginning to end. Most of the rest of the Fandorin novels either alternate POV between Fandorin and the villain, or, more frequently tell the story through a Supporting Protagonist who is the POV character observing Fandorin.
    • Amalia is a rare example of a Karma Houdini in the Fandorin universe. Fandorin often suffers, and his victories can be bittersweet or pyrrhic, but the bad guy almost always gets it. Not Amalia, however, who escapes punishment. (The Fandorin series would not have another Karma Houdini until the next-to-last Fandorin novel, Black City.)
  • Femme Fatale: Amalia, who tries to use her dark sexuality to seduce Fandorin.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: A scornfully nihilistic suicide note.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Brilling asks if Fandorin has sent the results of his London trip to the Moscow CID and Fandorin answers that he sent a "For your eyes only" envelope to Brilling. Fandorin misses the significance of this exchange.
  • Heroic BSoD: The very end finds Fandorin in a pretty serious one, staggering around Moscow in a daze.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Akhtyrtsev has just finished giving Fandorin a perfectly plausible explanation for the death of Kokorin—they were playing Russian Roulette on a dare from Amalia, because they were morons, and Kokorin lost. That could have ended Fandorin's investigation. Then as they're leaving the nightclub an assassin kills Akhtyrtsev and nearly kills Fandorin, letting Fandorin know that something very bad is afoot.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: How Brilling meets his end, stuck through by a tree branch.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: All the chapter titles, no doubt to evoke the 19th century setting in which this trope was the style.
    In Which Serious Unpleasantness Lies In Wait For The Hero
  • It Works Better with Bullets:
    • Count Zurov tricks Fandorin into committing a suicide of honor. However, it turns out to be a Secret Test of Character (whether Fandorin would really go as far as shooting himself), since Zurov's butler removes all bullets from the revolver while everybody's looking the other way.
    • Then later, Brilling insists on taking Fandorin's revolver and giving a better gun, a Belgian "Herstal" revolver. What Fandorin doesn't know is that the Herstal isn't loaded.
  • Karma Houdini: Lady Astair blows herself up, most of her other henchmen are killed, and even the white-eyed assassin eventually meets his fate three books later in The Death of Achilles—but Amalia gets away clean, never seen again after she retrieves the attaché case from Fandorin and hands him over to be murdered.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: Elizaveta, the first woman Fandorin's attracted to, is blonde with pale skin and gray eyes and she's prone to blushing, and she usually dresses in white. She's the supremely innocent daughter of a baron. Amalia, the other woman he's attracted to, has dark hair and "night-black eyes" and an "Egyptian oval face" and she wears scarlet dresses. She's an agent in a criminal conspiracy. The pairing is made even more explicit when Elizaveta and Amalia are sitting next to each other in Fandorin's dream.
  • Life Will Kill You: Count Zurov tells Fandorin about a friend he had once, an army officer who participated in the most brutal fights but died in peacetime of an accidental alcohol poisoning.
  • Mad Scientist: One of Lady Astair's crazier henchmen is Professor Blank, a German (naturally) who wants to use electric shock on Fandorin's brain to literally wipe out his mind and leave him an Empty Shell.
  • Milkman Conspiracy: The sinister Azazel conspiracy turns out be perpetrated by an international charity network for gifted children and the mastermind behind it is the sweet old Lady Astair.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: A huge scary thug is named John Morbid.
  • The Needs of the Many: Lady Astair's excuse, that the murders committed by her organization are all for the greater good of saving the world.
    "One cannot clean out the Augean stables without soiling one's hands. One man's life saves thousands, millions of other people."
  • Of Corsets Funny: The young, naive Fandorin buys a male corset after reading a newspaper advertisement about how stylish it is. It causes him great discomfort...until it saves his life by blocking an assassin's knife. In a Funny Moment, Ivan Brilling then decides that it was a brilliant precaution for Fandorin to wear it on a dangerous job and that the entire Russian police force should be issued them...
  • Orphanage of Love: Despite the fact that the Azazel society is all too willing to commit murder in order to advance its goals, the Astair Houses are Orphanages Of Love, raising young boys and bringing out the best of them, most of their wards growing up to be upstanding citizens who never murder anybody. Fandorin has an attack of conscience in the last chapter when he sees two homeless urchins, wearing ragged uniforms that mark them out as former pupils of Astair House.
  • Pocket Protector: Fandorin's life is saved when an attacker's knife is turned away by his corset.
  • Russian Roulette: Amusingly, called American roulette in Moscow. It turns out that the suicide in the opening chapter was actually Kokorin losing at Russian roulette.
    "Because of you and me, Kolya, they'll rename it Russian roulette, just you wait and see."
  • Shackle Seat Trap: "It was not by accident that I induced you to sit in that extremely uncomfortable armchair with the curved back." Lady Astair triggers the trap and Fandorin is shackled an instant later.
  • Starts with a Suicide: A man shoots himself in a public park.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: Fandorin solves the mystery and defeats the Azazel group, and marries his beloved Elizaveta. Then an assassin dispatched by the Big Bad drops off a bomb that kills Elizaveta just hours after the marriage.
  • Survival Through Self-Sacrifice: A young Erast Fandorin is manipulated by Count Zurov into playing a card game for his life — which he loses, because Zurov cheats. Nonetheless, Fandorin decides that since he was dumb enough to fall for that trick, he doesn't deserve to live, and shoots himself in the head with Zurov's revolver. However, this turns out to be a Secret Test of Character from Zurov, who, upon seeing that Fandorin really intends to kill himself in self-punishment (rather than in a fit of hysterical bravado, as he was expecting him to), has his manservant surreptitiously remove the bullets from his revolver before handing it over to Fandorin.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Brilling, although Fandorin still learns a lot from him, like his habit of summing up evidence by saying "Such and such, that's one. Such and such, that's two..."
  • Trivial Title: In the English translation only. "The Winter Queen" is a random reference to the hotel Fandorin stays at during his brief visit to London.
  • Tyke Bomb: In the first book, the orphanages network is making them in numbers. Notable exemplars are Anvar Effendi and Brilling.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Lady Astair's society is a very benevolent, well-intentioned group of murderers.
  • Widowed at the Wedding: The bad guys get their revenge by delivering a bomb which kills Fandorin's bride right after the wedding.
  • You Got Murder: The tragic ending.