FIELD OF MARS
Viking Canada,
an imprint of Penguin Group Canada, Toronto, 2005
Hardback

ISBN 0-670-04532-2

Cover design by Paul Hodgson

It is 1913 and the world is a dangerous place. The Great Powers are locked into a frenzied arms race, the decadent Ottoman empire is in retreat, and the Austrian and Russian Empires intrigue ceaselessly to further their own ambitions. In St. Petersburg, the weak Tsar is preoccupied with his afflicted son and has isolated himself from his starving subjects.

Pyotr Ryzhkov, a government agent , is used to keeping his head down and minding his own business. But the immediate cover-up of the death of a child prostitute, which he happens to witness, drives him to probe into what he is sure is murder.

As he investigates the cover-up of the murder, Ryzhkov probes the inner sanctum of power from his own superiors in the secret police to the interlocking interests of St. Petersburg’s military and business families. His dogged pursuit eventually leads him to uncover an international conspiracy to overthrow the Tsar and destabilize Russia – a high-stakes plan that threatens his country and his life.

Urgently paced, intensely felt, and wonderfully atmospheric, Field of Mars is a remarkable thriller about a society on the cusp of cataclysmic change.

Praise For

“Lets get one thing said first: This is one hell of a historical thriller. ”
– Margaret Cannon , The Globe and Mail

“A vivid reconstruction of the complex politics of the period which still resonate today”
– Sunday Telegraph

“An alternative history to get your conspiracy theory brain cells working”
– Ladsmag

“Field of Mars (A Game of Soldiers) is an engrossing thriller in which an apparently unremarkable crime leads to the highest echelons of Russian society in 1913. With every twist and revelation, the suspense grows, and the reader is carried along by a narrative full of incident, character, and period detail. Stephen Miller paints in bold strokes on a large canvas. Once you start this book, you won’t want to put it down.”
– Peter Robinson

Reviews

Margaret Cannon – The Globe and Mail

Lets get one thing said first: This is one hell of a historical thriller. Actor Stephen Miller (Lt. Zack McNab on DaVinci’s Inquest) knows how to construct characters and build suspense. He’s also done a yeoman’s job researching the Russian empire in 1913: everything from Dada cabaret to haute-monde couture.

He also has an actor’s sense of place. We are there, in the midst of Petersburg, 1913, and as we know, but the characters do not, the modern world is about to be born in the blood and iron of the First World War.

Miller’s plot is simple. A child prostitute is murdered. The case is covered up because high officials are involved. A policeman refuses to forget the murder, follows the clues, falls into a web of conspiracy and treason. Will he survive?

That said, there are lots of tricks in this book. Pyotr Ryzhkov is no ordinary copper. He’s an investigator with the Okhrana, the feared Tsarist secret police. The plotters are not revolutionaries, but ultra-conservatives, greedy for power. The chase that takes Ryzhkov to the powder-keg of the Balkans has eerie overtones of today.

In fact, the whole setup seems vaguely familiar: a huge empire with Middle Eastern aspirations and a seemingly unconquerable army blunders into a local war between two smaller countries and is forced into a major conflagration leading to a world war. Tsar Nicholas, invincible in his divinity and stupidity, seems remarkably modern, as do the courtiers and apparatchiks surrounding him.

Miller is bound to be compared to two other mainstream crime authors: Boris Akunin and Martin Cruz Smith. Despite the date and the secret-police plot, Miller is not attempting the charm and dash of Akunin. He’s far closer to the darkness and desperation of Cruz smith, but he’s not there yet.

My only complaint, and it is minor, is that Miller has a tendency to overwrite, repeat and list. These are all problems that can be and should have been rectified with judicious editing. A good pruning would make this book tighter and leaner. But Miller is an author to watch. We have a lot of characters surviving in this book, all of whom still have a war and a revolution to come.


Joe Wiebe – Vancouver Sun

Stephen Miller’s novel is more than a thriller, it’s a masterpiece of historical fiction.

Examining the author photo on the new novel Field of Mars, fans of the excellent TV series DaVinci’s Inquest will recognize it as Vancouver’s own Stephen Miller. But they may find it hard to imagine the quirky character he plays – that of bumbling traffic inspector Zack McNab – as the author of any book, let alone such an accomplished, complex, finely wrought and literate work.

Field of Mars is a masterpiece of historical fiction. The world Miller evokes – its Russia in 1913 – 14, the lead-up to the first World War – and the characters who reside there are vibrant and alive.

Although the story is saturated with historical detail, it flows forward effortlessly. Strong, complex characters are anchored by a thriller plot that rises above the genre’s conventions to probe the psychological and sociological implications of one of the most important years in 20th century history.

At the centre of the novel is Pyotr Ryzhkov, a St. Petersburg gorokhovnik – that is, a member of the Internal Agency of the Okhrana, Czarist Russia’s secret police. He’s “the one who cleaned up the trash, swept the mess of the empire into the corner, and then saluted his betters as if nothing had ever been there.”

For Pyotr as for most of his colleagues, family life is futile. Internal Agents are on call 24 hours a day. All he has to look forward to is a life spend in anonymous service to the Czar; he’s “a kind of necessary rat, a creature devoid of status, respect, or glamour. Something vile, ruthless, and efficient.”

As the novel opens, Ryzhkov leads a troika of agents assigned to follow Blue shirt (better known as Rasputin, the Mad Monk) who has the ear of the Imperial Family – and probably the bed of the Czarina, too.

Their job is to guard him from foreign agents or revolutionary elements. This boils down to keeping him out of the newspapers – a difficult task, considering his popularity and notoriety as a philanderer.

They’re watching Rasputin at a high-society brothel when a child prostitute falls from an upper window to her death. While his partners hustle Blue Shirt out of the building, Pyotr manages to get a look at the girl and notices marks around her neck.

Pyotr Ryzhkov is a truly classic character, a morally driven hero whose efforts are thwarted at all turns by the rigid classism and autocracy of the society in which he lives. When the girl’s death is called a suicide, in spite of clear evidence of homicide, he sets out to uncover the truth, putting his own life at risk. As he investigates, he inadvertently becomes ensnared in a web of conspiracy that rises to the pinnacles of Russian society and eventually leads to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the advent of the Great War.

Along the way, Ryzhkov falls in love with Vera Aliyeva, a prostitute who witnessed the girl’s murder. When he tracks her down, Vera has quit her old life and become a dancer at the Komet, a nightclub that draws the literati and the artistic set because of its politically charged dance shows.

Although she has all the earmarks of the clichéd hooker with a heart of gold, in Millers hands Vera is a complex pre-Revolutionary woman caught between the ancient Russia and the modern one.

There are other great characters here too. They include Ryzhkov’s two partners – big loyal Kostya Hokhodiev and young ruthless Dima Dudenko – and the high-society conspirators strategizing to topple the Czar and profit from the ensuing chaos.

The other great character is the city of St. Petersburg. Miller describes it so vividly, you’d think him a lifelong resident. He gives us everything from the feel of the cobblestones underfoot to the sounds and smells of the factories and canals and the always-encroaching swampland on which the city was built.

Judging by the depth of research he describe in his acknowledgements Field of Mars was a labour of love for Stephen Miller. It has paid off: His book is an engrossing, insightful, entertaining and though-provoking novel – easily one of the best Canadian books of the fall, if not in all of 2005.


Excerpts from a Q&A with Stephen about Field of Mars/A Game of Soldiers by Ian Bailey – On Books, Vancouver Province


Why a mystery?

“Largely because that’s something I think I can sell. It’s something I can get into the marketplace, and get in front of readers. I wouldn’t exactly, necessarily call it a mystery. I wanted to approach the genre aspects of it like John Le Carre approaches the genre aspects of the spy novel, or Graham Greene. I’ve been trying to aim for a higher, in my mind what is sort of a higher, literary standing.”

What is your writing routine?

“I get up in the morning and I have my tea and I might look at the newspaper. As soon as that’s done, I’ll go up and turn on the computer and then I’ll work until lunch. If I’m working on a movie or something, I’ll put the thing on my laptop and I take it. Usually in between the time when I’m doing makeup and wardrobe and having to actually go to the set, there’s usually time in there or time during the day when I’ll just sit down. I can basically get through a chapter a day.”

Does your work as an actor help you write?

Being an actor, you spend your occupational life trying to understand what makes people tick, and trying to simulate that behaviour. Being a novelist, you’re trying to describe that behaviour in a way that will almost evoke those feelings in the reader if you can pull it off. I think it makes it easier to carry the feeling from one side to another. You can maintain it in your mind while you’re putting it down on the page.”

What’s more satisfying, writing a novel, TV or film script?

“A novel is wonderful. It’s like, ‘I’ve finished this novel and this novel is the novel and that’s what it is.’ When you’re writing a film script or a proposal for a TV thing or a treatment, it’s like being an architect. It’s like a blueprint. The real horrible thing is to spend the time working on the blueprint and the drawings and the renderings and then the contractors never show up and the builders never build the thing and it only exists as some paper in the drawer.”

Differences between acting and writing in terms of rewards?

“The nice thing about acting, either on stage or on film, is if you do it right, you’re social. You get to hang out with a lot of people and that whole thing that you hear people talk about, how the crew came together as a family, that does happen if you’re on a movie or in a play for long enough. It’s very social and healthy that way. And you also get to enact whatever this person you’re pretending to be goes through. You kind of get your ya-yas out in acting. But it’s always somebody else’s words and it’s somebody else’s movement and you’re not in control of it. You’re only in control of it at that last final moment where you give it to the audience.

“With a novel, it’s your project but you’re all alone.”

Who would you cast as the hero Ryzhkov in the movie version of Mars?

“Clive Owen. Because he can be really nice but he can be really scary and he really does look like he doesn’t give a f---, and he’ll turn and walk right out of the room. It doesn’t bother him. He’s a very ballsy guy but he’s quiet about it. He’s not a showoff and I like that.”