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More than just a crime novel...
on 17 July 2013
Following last year's remarkable Ukranian set thriller The Child Thief, Smith returns with another foray into the dangerous and inhospitable territory of Eastern Europe, transporting the reader to the icy wastes of Central Russia 1920. From the very first page you are instantly filled with a sense of dread observing through a returning soldier's eyes, a village lying still and silent with only the sounds of nature to fill the void. As Nikolai Levitsky observes the Marie-Celeste like environs of his former home, it becomes clear that something evil has cast its pall over the village; the men have been slaughtered and along with these men's families, Levitsky's wife and children are nowhere to be found. Could this really be the work of Koschei, the Deathless One, a terrifying figure from Russian folklore or is Levitsky's fate tied to the consequences of a country in the grip of political and military terror...
What strikes me most about the book is the breadth and depth of Smith's depiction of location and atmosphere, as we follow Levitsky's cross country quest in search of his family. As a reader your senses are assaulted at every turn with the harsh and uncompromising nature of the landscape, chilling you to the core as the weather and terrain hamper Levitsky's progress. In my naivety I believed that there are only so many ways of describing the biting conditions of a Russian winter, but Smith consistently implements such vivid descriptions of these surrounds that further embed themselves in your mind, constantly enriching your reading experience. Likewise, the grim realities of survival within these conditions are unflinchingly described throughout, so much so that you cannot look away and that touch on your humanity as to how people can carve a life for themselves with so much poverty and fear. Not only do they have to survive the daily grind, but find themselves unwitting victims in a turbulent and blood-stained period of Russia's political history.
No character embodies these characteristics more than Nikolai Levitsky himself, a soldier and officer, now compelled to desert, who is cast into an emotional turmoil by the death of his brother, the disappearance of his family, and a man striving to come to terms with and escape from the horrors he has witnessed in the theatre of war. Levitsky is an essentially moral man, beginning to question his deepest held beliefs and assuming the role of a questing knight as his journey unfolds, and by his interactions with those the damaged souls he encounters along the way; Anna, a young girl who has lost her family, and with Tanya and Lyudmila, two fearless women who have their own reasons for tracking the Koschei. As their courses collide with the vestiges of Levitsky's previous military life, there are powerful scenes of violence and heartbreak that are truly haunting, and which typify not only the propensity for immoral actions in a war torn country, but what betrayals people must stoop to in order to survive.
With its spare and uncompromising portrayal of the historical period, the intertwining of perfectly placed references to traditional Russian folklore, the harsh environment that chills you to the marrow throughout, and a cast of characters that cannot fail to engage the reader, Dan Smith has produced another remarkable thriller, that is easily worthy of a place in my best reads of 2013 so far. Superb.