Book Review: Michael Strogoff, by Jules Verne
A magnificent fete` is going on in Moscow, and the highest of Russian society are enjoying themselves there. The laughing, dancing party are as happy as lavish expenditure of wealth, fine food and music can make them, and the two newspaper reporters make careful notes of this- the one for the London Times, the other for his “cousin Madeline” in France.
But below the surface, they see that something is wrong- something which only the Czar and a few of his highest officers know about, and it is somehow connected to the fact that the telegraph lines to Irkutsk, Siberia, have been cut.
A huge army of Tartars- half savage, half Muslim Asiatics- have invaded Siberia, and are being helped and advised by a Russian traitor, Ivan Ogareff, an extremely intelligent and dangerous ex-colonel from the Russian army. He hates the Czar's brother, the Grand-duke of Siberia, and intends to win his confidence and then assassinate him, and destroy the country with his Tartar allies. The telegraph lines have been cut, and there is only one way to get the desperately important message to the Grand-duke: a royal courier!
Enter Michael Strogoff: A man with a frame and will of iron, but a heart of gold. Born and raised in Siberia, of Siberian parents, he had learned early how to survive in the harsh climate of the far north. Extremely intelligent, cool-headed, and courageous always, he was the perfect man for the daunting task.
He will go through tremendous, almost insurmountable dangers, but always driven forward at the best possible speed by the important duty he must perform, traveling incognito through Russia and Siberia.
He is joined near the Siberian border by Nadia Fedor, a young Livonian girl, traveling to join her father in Irkutsk, who is stopped by the Russian authorities when all Russians are forbidden to leave the country. It is here that Michael steps in, after accidentally meeting the girl in the train he rode up in. His special pass allows him to continue his journey (under an assumed name), and also authorizes him to take one or more persons with him. He invites Nadia to come along with him as his sister, since they are both going to the same place as quickly as possible.
He does this for two reasons: 1) Because he wants to do a kind action, and assist this brave, but helpless and poor girl to reach her parent, and 2) because no one would suspect the Czar's courier of taking his sister, or any other woman, along with him, and her presence will help prevent his incognito from being penetrated.
The journey is long and dangerous. Michael has many enemies and hindrances- from men to mosquitoes, to lack of transportation, to storms, swollen rivers, and fire. And who were the gypsies he met on the river steamer, near the beginning of his trip, who were so well informed as to the Czar's plans?
After being captured by the Tartars, it appears that all hope of ever reaching Irkutsk is gone forever, but the end of the story is surprising, in classic Jules Verne style.
I'll admit it right away- I really like this book, and most of Jules Verne's works. In fact, from a secular standpoint, it would be my favorite novel, only Ivanhoe sharing that place of honor with it. It is not perfect because Jules Verne, while it appears that he claimed to be a Christian, does not seem to have really been one. But a non-Christian can still write a very good story, and this is a good example of such a one.
The moral tone throughout the whole book is very high, and although mere morals are not enough to make a book a good or Christian one, it is always good to see them in a story. The writing style and language used are also very good. It is interesting, the characters are original and colorful- from the French reporter, Jolivet, who gathers news by looking round him and asking innumerable questions, to the phlegmatic, but kind-hearted telegraph operator, and the villainous traitor, Ivan Ogareff, and of course, Michael and Nadia themselves. The action and emotions of the characters are engaging, and of course, there is the classic “Verneian” ending- with the main character struggling almost despairingly against seemingly impossible odds, with a scientific phenomena taking a strong part in the surprise ending.
Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar, is also (like all of Verne's other books which I've read) very educational. Unlike most of them, it does not focus on scientific discoveries, or natural history, but on the people, land and occupations of Russia and Siberia, particularly the latter country. You see, as Michael travels post-haste across the mountains and steppes, the reader is also transported, in thought, to the same place, and is made to see the country as it was in the mid 19th century. The one anachronism is easily spotted- there was no Tartar invasion in the 1800's, though they were frequent in the medieval times.
The one thing I don't particularly care for in the book is an integral part of it. This is the unprotected Nadia immediately consenting to travel alone, for hundreds of miles, with a man whose character she doesn't know any further than a brief observation on a train would show her. Under the circumstances, it was pardonable, but I would consider most young ladies who undertook a similar journey quite unwise in the beginning, though of course later events fully bore out the original opinion she had formed of Michael. This is really my only criticism of the book, and overall, it is a great read.
Illustrated eBook: Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar (From Internet Archive. There is a PDF version of it on the webpage the above link will take you to.)
Project Gutenberg version: Michael Strogoff
Librivox recording: Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar audiobook (The reader is actually quite good- my first impression on hearing his voice was “Oh no, another of those monotone guys again”, but he does a very good job.)
Note: I do not at all recommend any films based on this book. I skipped around in the German/ French version, made in 1970, and it is garbage. They managed to completely ruin it, and particularly enjoyed removing all of Michael and Nadia's morals. Maybe someday a Christian filmmaker will make a decent version, but I don't think there is one out there now.