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on 8 October 2013
By Simon Sebag Montefiore the eminent Stalin's biographer (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin), an historical novel set in 1945 Russia. It's a novel about love, family ties, adultery, youth, friendship, fear, hope, deception, psychological violence, secrecy, literature, privilege, Bolshevik faith and its implacable rules.
The author's passionate and profound knowledge of Russian history and his vivid and sophisticated imagination along with his natural talent as a writer generated an unforgettable novel.

The Soviet Union is celebrating the victory on the Nazis. An elite school. A group of teenagers, scions of Bolshevik grandees, forms the Fatal Romantic Club based on Pushkin poetry. A duel is enacted and two of them are mysteriously killed. Their friends are arrested on suspicion of being plotting against the government. On a world where also the members of the establishment live a precarious existence under constant pressure, Stalinist regime puts its unforgiving hand.

The children are forced to testify against their parents, and friends are put one against another. Every word can be used against them now and in the future. Inside and outside the prison a tangible fear, anxiety, and moments of intense longing and love permeate the lives of the characters. Interrogations, deception, suspicion, blackmail, punishment, made up conspiracies, fake truths, unveiled secrets, and hope. They all know what they might face and they all try to survive according to their own nature. Love, remorse, betrayal.

The plot is organized by narrative threads that merge at crucial times designing unexpected twist and turn. The reader is taken through breathless suspensions to the climax and then to the resolution or, instead, to a sudden change of scene. The author masterly drops clues of future events leaving the reader to quick conjectures along with an undeniable emotional participation. The story is crossed by a few leit motives: from the highest picks of culture with Pushkin's poetry to the blindest methods of the Bolshevik system, to love (a lot of romantic love).
Flashbacks, foreshadowings, and intersected brief episodes laid out as patches, create movement, a feeling of anticipation, an intriguing temporary sense of displacement. But the story flows effortlessly and the reader never looses his/her thread.

The sentences are short. The dialogues have rhythm. The style is synthetic, always effective, exquisite in the sequences and in the selection of the words.

The plot is inspired by some real stories. Literary characters and historical ones mingle seamlessly. SSM's familiarity with Stalin and the members and the life of the Politburo makes him confortable in bringing them alive. Stalin, tired, sarcastic, provocative, sadistic, always alert and ready to strike, ferocious also with his closet court. Beria, his top manager, fat, angry, competitive, morbid in his sexual tastes. Or the fictional characters such as Satinov, reticent, introverted, not in touch with his own feelings, struck by an unfamiliar passion. The movie star Zeitlin, beautiful, genuinely selfish, at time clumsy, prima donna in every situation. Or minor characters such Dr Rimm, viciously weak, consumed by the desire of belonging to the higher spheres. Or the 14 year old girl who sleeps with Beria whose face is not described, we are introduced to her only by her flat belly slightly wrinkled by Beria's weight.

The setting is evocative and accurate. The streets of Moscow after the victory on the Nazi appear in front of the reader's eyes. The Communist school. The interrogation rooms, the smell of sweat, urine and detergent, the grinding of the locks, everything is devised to break the prisoners. The precious description of the shabby dwellings of the lower classes that have a hole as a lavatory (and relative smells) shared by many families. And the blatant contrast with the large homes of the Bolshevik leaders inhabited by European furniture, paintings, maids and nannies.

It's simple. Simon Sebag Montefiore writes so well that reading his novel is, in the end, pure pleasure.
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on 30 September 2013
I almost never read historical fiction. I much prefer my history books to be non-fictional, and I do worry that my poor befuddled mind might end up conflating fact and fiction. However Simon Sebag Montefiore is one of my favourite historians and I found myself being sucked in to reading this, his most recent historical novel.

What particularly intrigued me was a recent newspaper piece by Montefiore which, though clearly a PR piece for this book, set out the original real historical background to the story. It detailed how two children of elite Soviet figures had ended up shooting each other and sparking a spiral of typically Stalinist paranoid investigation and quasi purge - but this time the terror fell first on a set of school children.

Without giving away too much of the plot of this book, almost every character finds themselves falling into very dark times and no one gets a perfectly happy ending.

Stalin comes across as by far the most convincing and rounded character as you would expect for a writer who has produced two of the best histories of the man. However the completely invented politburo member Hercules Satinov does transform quickly from a stock character into a very sympathetic figure who, by the end, is a much more interesting character than the intended heroine Serafima. Indeed I became much more worried about the fate of Satinov's 6 year old daughter Mariko than I did about Serafima.

In summary not only did it manage to sneak past my doubts about historical fiction, it has made me want to go back and read properly Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar again to remind myself of the facts of the original story this was based on. Normally I would not do so, but on this case I thoroughly recommend anyone to read both the factual and the fictional accounts of this tale.
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on 3 May 2014
This could have been half the length, what was the editor thinking of? Slackly written, - would Russians really have compared falling spring petals to spaceships in 1945? Too many characters, new ones introduced willy nilly, old ones not properly developed so that this reader struggled to keep interested in the interruped narrative.
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on 17 October 2014
The portrait of Russia created by Simon Montefiore is as accurate and adequate as would be a novel set in modern England based on Daily Mail' articles translated into Mandarin by a Chinese who never travelled abroad. Both bigger picture and small details are excruciatingly wrong. Putting aside the portraits of political figures, which are obviously stereotypical, it is details that make this book so laughable: a six year old who addresses her beloved father as "Hello, papasha" ("Oy, dude"), both high officials and school children being addressed by their diminutive names (Dashka, Senka, Mitka) which would be widely inappropriate anywhere but in the closest family circle, the school fees in Moscow in 1943 - really? Unfortunately the literary side of the novel fall short of any reasonable expectations too, though the writer is obviously popular. Waste of time.
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on 30 September 2013
It is the most amazing plot and it kept me up late reading it. However, for me there was something missing that would have made it a really good book and I think it was that the characters weren't written that well. I almost feel bad writing that, because for many people who don't know much about Stalinist Russia this is a good entry point. I still think that the author is an excellent historian but sadly this is an average novel.
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on 7 June 2014
This proved to be a very disappointing novel. I had expected much better storytelling and writing from a renowned historian. I had hoped it would prove to be a challenging read - and it was not. I find it hard to understand the fine comments gleaned from reviewers and wonder if they had actually read this romance or just assumed that because it was by Simon Sebag Montefiore, it must be good.
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on 7 October 2013
Very disappointed in this novel.. you are introduced to characters who appear to have no inner lives and come over as one dimensional. The character of Andrei who opens the novel intriguingly is quickly dropped, the big plot point (the murder) is never satisfactorily explained, the author goes off in disjointed tangents dropping in historical titbits but never satisfactorily integrating them into his lumpy narrative. I found the characters to be empty ciphers and there were huge gaps in the storytelling. A jumble of half baked ideas are strewn throughout the novel, never merging to form a believable narrative. Pity because the background setting is a fascinating one.
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on 6 April 2014
Poor novel. The idea, the concept, provides a basis for an excellent novel. However, the characters are weak and undeveloped, the plot is trivialised. Its life under Stalin for the under-10s. Writing lacks maturity and vitality. It is apparently based loosely on real events but lacks credibility. Even the title sounds like a children's book.
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on 25 January 2016
I bought this book almost three years ago and have just decided to read it in the last week.
Fascinating, well written and compulsive.
I fell in love with the majority of characters and really felt their true emotions.
It is like a fine wine, enveloping the reader as it takes it's course.
Enough said,just read it.
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on 24 June 2014
Based on the blurb and on the first half of the book, I was expecting this to be an historical spy/detective story, or at least an interesting story about an interesting character, but it actually turned into a very simplistic plot, and badly written.
It's a shame, because the choice of setting and era were extremely clever and could have been exploited so much better.
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