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Originally published August 9, 2013 at 5:10 AM | Page modified August 9, 2013 at 10:57 PM

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‘The Age of Ice’: locked into an eternity of cold

J.M. Sidorova’s fantasy novel “The Age of Ice” imagines the life of a Russian prince of the 18th century who discovers he has the ability to withstand freezing temperatures and that he can never die. Sidorova reads Wednesday, Aug. 14 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

J.M. Sidorova

The author of “The Age of Ice” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14 at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).

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Erratic as a jagged crack, a revealing flaw in the matrix of its world, the life of debut novelist J.M. Sidorova’s hero stretches across continents and centuries.

“The Age of Ice” (Scribner, 416 pp., $26) opens with Prince Alexander Velitzyn’s account of his conception in St. Petersburg’s famous Ice Palace, constructed in 1740 by Russian Empress Anna Ioanovna (a historical episode lending credibility to this fantastic tale of a man immune to the cold and death).

Velitzyn and his twin brother, Andrei, experience childhoods typical of 18th-century Russian nobles, but as the prince matures, he realizes he has the superhuman ability to withstand the freezing temperatures that plague his northern home.

Seeking a rational explanation for his oddities, he takes up with an eccentric lone researcher, then joins an ill-fated scientific expedition to discover the nonexistent Northwest Passage. But answers elude him. So does the escape from the question of why he exists, escape he hopes to find in warmer latitudes. He travels to Persia, India and Afghanistan, only to land in the midst of violence; betrayal and massacres force him to face the best and the worst of human nature while asking himself which, if any, of these qualities he can claim as his own.

Velitzyn is an appealing character: handsome, shy, passionate yet reflective, by turns paranoid and reckless. His matter-of-fact description of fighting his way into the besieged East Russian town of Orenburg makes sense of the outsized, mythic version of the same events told by those townsmen; running madly through a surprised group of attackers armed with a cannon, he chases off a horseman by pelting him with snowballs.

Later comparisons to the legendary dragonslayer Siegfried only embarrass him; his brother’s newly widowed wife Anna comes to his rescue with offhand jokes about laundry techniques for removing bloodstains. Velitzyn’s helpless love for Anna is one of a series of romances doomed by his literal frigidity — the higher his arousal climbs, the lower his temperature drops. Even the pair’s eventual accommodation to this amatory obstacle succumbs to the prince’s other big difference from his fellow men: his immortality. Velitzyn’s slowly dawning comprehension that he must live while those he loves die makes him especially, poignantly memorable.

Sidorova, a research professor at the University of Washington, uses maps and a four-page dramatis personae to help readers follow this sprawling story. But it’s her easy, elegant language that gives us the best means of appreciating what she’s done in “The Age of Ice.”

Ice metaphors interlock to form a persistent underlayer of poetry that never intrudes itself unnecessarily. Delicacy, danger and beauty are invoked at will by Sidorova’s natural-feeling prose.

Other factors working in favor of a popular reception for this Seattle-based author’s first effort: familiarity, because of her Russian birth, with her hero’s place of origin; an evident fondness for accurate yet engaging history from a non-Western point of view; professional background in the cellular biology of aging. Knowledge, affection and skill combine to draw readers in and drive them forward through frozen steppe and burgeoning city, through trading post, fortress, intrigue-riddled embassy, sweltering prison and all the myriad settings in this eccentric jewel of a novel.

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