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Certainly not the great spy novel it was heralded as...
on 15 August 2013
I bought Night Soldiers by Alan Furst because I was looing for a good spy novel and this was up there in various charts and top tens of the best spy novels of all time, along with Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John le Carré. I have to say that I was hugely disappointed. On the plus side, it does have some interesting observations about Soviet spy craft and the historical setting is, of course, fascinating and very dark and threatening (hence the two stars). However, the novel is too long and very badly written. For example, in the few action sequences it is very difficult to understand what is actually happening because of the naive and artless writing style. Key elements are missed out and so the slower reader (like myself presumably) is left having to go back and re-read sections trying to figure out who had done what to whom. Further the story is told in a most laconic, one might say annoying, style where for many pages nothing at all happens, occasionally punctuated by clearly important - but difficult to discern - meetings in dark alleys between people the reader often fails to recognise. This is brought to bear particularly in the way the author introduces a new character and gives several pages of their back story - the German fighter bomber pilot in Madrid is a good example - and then immediately kills them off. This happens all the time as detailed characters come and go through the life of the hero (Khristo Stoniev), but who serve no long-term function in the story - the American Robert Eidenbaugh (alias Lucien) is a prime example - and just disappear with no explanation. Furthermore, there are huge, and probably highly unrealistic, coincidences in the book where the hero luckily, and by accident, meets someone useful or when an almost invisible clue is left to attract his attention - as with the name of the partly sunken barge on the Danube, one of the biggest rivers in the world at night. These do not help an already weak story. Thus the novel is more Khristo Stoniev's life story in the twisted world of intelligence. It does not seem to possess (or if it did I missed it) a connected, espionage-based plot in the style of Len Deighton or John le Carré. There is, towards the end, some attempt at a plot involving the appropriation of Soviet intelligence by the Americans (I'm not giving anything away here), but this opportunity is, because of its lack of detail or conviction it wholly fails. The whole story could have been about this and it would have been much more interesting. There are many missed opportunities. The Belov 1935 group is a great plot idea but again this evaporates into dust rather than becoming a central plank of the book. Finally, the ending is hugely anticlimactic. No plots are revealed, no explanation as to who did what to whom or why, nor why Khristo's life went in the direction it did. Thus, if you like long life stories that take place in the 30s and 40s then this might be your cup of tea. If however you like well-written espionage novels with plots, twists and turns then I recommend you look elsewhere.