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4.4 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 29 May 2017
Really loved this book - so interesting
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on 19 August 2013
This atmospheric chase/quest thriller, set in the forests of 1920s Central Russia, gripped me until the very last page. The tension increased to such an extent I was forced to take a peek at the ending - something I don't usually do.

Kolya, Smith's driven hero, is a man of his time. Ex Red Army, he's flawed, conflicted, and not always likeable, but, tellingly, children and dogs like him, and you can't help but root for him as he searches, through hardship and horror, for his missing wife and children.

Smith is a dab hand at creating complex, believable characters of both genders and all ages, and his forest in Winter, which infuses this novel, is almost a character in its own right. As for his depiction of Russia post Revolution, descending fast into barbarity and disillusionment, it feels authentic and convincing.

I hadn't read any of Dan Smith's books before, but on the strength of 'Red Winter' I shall be looking out for them in future.
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Set in Central Russia in 1920, the hero of Dan Smith's latest gripping novel 'Red Winter' is Nikolai Levitsky, a soldier who, having had more than his fill of the brutality of war, deserts his army and with his mortally wounded brother, Alek, sets off to make the journey home to the village of Belev, where his wife and two sons live. After many days travelling, aware of the likelihood that he is being tracked down, Nikolai finally arrives at his home only to find the whole village is deserted, apart from Galina, an elderly deranged woman who tells him that the menfolk from the village have been taken into the forest and tortured and murdered, but she cannot tell him what has happened to his wife and children. Galina goes on to tell Nikolai that the person responsible for the massacre is Koschei, The Deathless One, a monstrous being from Russian Folklore, but Nikolai knows this is the work of someone human - a depraved and despicable person, but human nevertheless.

When Nikolai enters the forest he finds Galina's husband's body; he has been beaten, beheaded and branded with a star and when Nikolai goes further into the forest, he discovers the rest of the men, all brutally tortured, murdered and branded. Nikolai, sickened by what he has seen and desperately worried about the fate of his wife and children, sets off to track down 'Koschei' knowing that he will do whatever it takes to find his family. And whilst Nikolai is tracking 'Koschei', a group of ruthless men are tracking Nikolai and they are not that far behind him - but who will be caught first and is there any hope left for Nikolai's wife and children? (No spoilers - we learn all of this early on in the novel).

As in his previous novel:The Child Thief, Dan Smith has written an intense and gripping thriller, which is very rich in atmosphere, and one which imparts just enough information about the political situation of the time without being too heavy-handed. It was also very interesting the way the author showed how Nikolai was forced to examine his own behaviour and to confront his own part in the campaign of terror that was sweeping across his country. In addition, Dan Smith's description of the approach of the harsh Russian winter and the way he built the tension throughout his narrative was very chilling. I read this book in one sitting, totally drawn into Nikolai's story, and although I did not find this novel quite as disturbing as The Child Thief it certainly made for an unsettling and very compelling read.

4 Stars.
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on 23 January 2015
Good plot idea but the story labours. The writing is weighed down by over lengthy descriptive passages and the hero agonising over just about everything. Its over authored and under edited. I read this book and listened to some as an audiobook and at one point during a 55 minute drive all that happened was that the characters moved from a barn to a house! Description to build atmosphere and to draw the reader into the experience of the characters is one thing but this goes well beyond that, being told of every flick of the ear of the hero's horse just becomes tiresome and frustrating. The same applies to hearing about the hero's moral doubts about his past. Ok we get it! We don't need it repeated in every chapter. Nor the laboured and again oft repeated descriptions of his realisation that "family are the most important thing".
Overall good story but too frustrating for words. When I reached the end my primary emotion was one of relief. I doubt I will bother with the authors next book.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 September 2013
1920, central Russia. It is bleak, cold, dark, it is densely forested and there is a murderer roaming freely, executing locals and branding them with a red star. It is a time when the country is in turmoil, no-one can be trusted, no-one is giving anything away. All the factions, whether Red or any colour of the rainbow are fighting each other, changing sides and being duplicitous - it's a scary and uncertain world, with a very uncertain future. Russia is a country that has suffered years of "confiscation and requisition".

Much of the feel of this book is reminiscent of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, as people wander in search of meagre food rations and shelter; the devastation of the surroundings is palpable. This is a country on the edge, the inhabitants living on adrenaline, looking out for the next danger, and the next attack. It is a bleak and stark landscape.

Nikolai Levitsky, known as Kolya, has deserted from the army, and has brought his mortally wounded brother Alek to the family izba, where he anticipates finding his wife Marianna and his two boys. But their home is deserted. Galina, their neighbour is in hiding, and is distraught at the brutal murder of her husband, so much so that she takes her own life in front of Kolya by walking into the nearby lake and drowning herself. Gradually, it becomes evident that a watery death is a common occurrence amongst the women victims. The name of Koshei starts to be thrown about, linked to the gory deaths - he is a mythical figure of terror, a legend, a nebulous character from old fables, yet he seems all too real in the terror he is visiting upon the people of Central Russia. He seems particularly focussed upon Kolya. Kolya is driven to plough onwards to find his family and to solve the mystery of the sadistic killings, trekking and riding through the snow-bound landscape, the snow that "..covers everything, from the Autumn mud and the flame-coloured leaves to the sounds of the forest and the bodies left in the wake of armies and oppressors. Marianna always told me that God sent us the snow to make our country beautiful; to hide whatever ugliness we created for ourselves'...

Red Winter is a riveting novel that transports the reader to the harshest of climates, in the depth of Winter, and has gained many accolades.
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on 10 August 2013
I am very happy with this book. I think it is better than The Child Thief, the plot is fuller and the historical details even more facinating. There are plot twists that will keep you reading and the bleak atmosphere of the Ukranian forests and steppe during the Russian Civil War really comes through. Violence is sudden and terrible as in these horrible times. A very good historical thriller - and I write this as a lover of the genre.
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on 24 February 2014
I had read a number of reviews that praised both this 'Red Winter' as well as Dan Smith's other, similar, novel, 'The Child Thief' and commenting that 'Red Winter' was the better of the two. So, having read and thoroughly enjoyed 'The Child Thief', I settled down to 'Red Winter' expecting great things. I was disappointed.

Firstly, these two stories are so alike as to be interchangeable; it's as though Dan Smith could only think of one plot line and so stuck with it. All of the salient elements of one book are in the other, including good men doing bad things and vice versa, redemption, a brutal regime, people aren't who you think they are, monochrome settings with a splash of red (the blood), a highly skilled hero, manhunting and being hunted, children and childhood etc, etc etc. The only difference is that, this time, there's a dog too.

There is one element that puzzles me still. It becomes apparent within the first few pages that the main character's brother is with him but is dead. In this situation there is great potential for a teasing story line in which the 'what happened?' question can open up gradually and be important. Yet that doesn't happen here at all and there is no real explanation about those events beyond the mundane. It's a waste. Then there's the ending. I can't give the game away but suffice to say that I can think of several more appropriate endings for a story this bleak. The ending of 'The Child Thief' was brilliant and left the possibility of a further adventure and I would much rather that Dan Smith had used his next novel to continue that story than to write 'Red Winter'.

Had I read this book first, then I have no doubt that it would be a 'five star' review here now because 'Red Winter' is a gripping tale with a bleak and chilling core. All of the good stuff that makes 'The Child Thief' excellent, and as reported in my previous review of that book, is here in some measure too, so I can't allow my disappointment to push me into giving this book less than four stars. Yet none of this is quite as good as 'The Child Thief' and, for some reason, the story here seems to be just that bit flatter and less engrossing and I certainly didn't feel quite the sensation of risk and jeopardy to the main character as I had in 'The Child Thief'.

So, on balance, if you've just bought this book as your first Dan Smith novel and are now looking at this review, then don't worry, you'll enjoy this book. But if you are wondering which of the two books to buy first, then go with 'The Child Thief' and don't bother buying 'Red Winter' afterwards, at least for a few months.
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on 16 September 2013
Dan Smith's previous novel The Child Thief, an intense thriller set among the Bolshevik-infested forests of 1930's Ukraine, was one of my novels of 2012, so I had high expectations for Red Winter. And I'm glad to say that it more than lived up to them. Set in central Russia during the 1920s, an especially tumultuous period for a country which has rarely been settled, it sees Smith reprising some of the themes from his previous novel, the brutality of extreme political ideologies and the power of family ties.

Red Winter opens with a deserting soldier returning home to rejoin his family and bury his fallen brother, but after days of arduous trekking through snowy forests fraught with danger, and with his old life within touching distance, Kolya makes an unsettling discovery. His village is abandoned, his house empty and showing signs of a speedy, possibly forced departure. He is fully aware what the Red Army is capable of, he has worn that uniform and swept through villages like this, and he knows that many of his former comrades do not share his sense of human decency.

A lone woman remains in the village, filthy and emaciated, driven to the point of insanity, and she takes Kolya into the forest to show him the aftermath of the massacre which emptied the village. The men have been killed in unspeakably terrible ways, their corpses left to rot where they fell, bearing star-shaped brands. The old woman claims it is the work of Koschei, The Deathless One, a demonic figure from Russian folklore, but Kolya is a rational man and sees a human hand behind the brutality.

With no trace of his wife and children to be found he clings to the slim hope they have been taken prisoner, bound for the work camps or worse, and resolves to track them down, following the trail of destruction which Koschei has cut through the frozen countryside. He isn't the only person on Koschei's tail though and his status as a deserter makes him a potential target for any soldiers in the area; it's hard to conceal the mark which command leaves on a man, and so he must use all of his guile, and the skills which made him a formidable officer, to maintain his liberty long enough to find his family.

Once again Dan Smith has produced a first class historical thriller, which will satisfy the most demanding of crime fans, while exploring the consequences of unchecked military might and the persistence of the human spirit. Smith's prose is crisp, his sense of pace flawless and his appreciation of the mundane terrors of warfare nothing short of masterly. In Kolya he has created a fascinating character, flawed and conflicted, with dark secrets he isn't ready to face, but from the very first page you will find yourself rooting for him, gasping at his heartbreak and cheering the triumph of his spirit.

I read this book in a single sitting - not something I do very often - because I simply couldn't tear my eyes away from the page. Red Winter is utterly compelling and genuinely unsettling.
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on 24 August 2016
Red Winter is an entertaining suspenseful read that gallops onward page after page and hardly allows those to catch their breath before another action packed scene charges the reader's vivid imagination. Set in 1920 Russia the reader is immediately introduced to the ghosts that haunt our narrator's mind. Returning from the blood soaked fields and passage of battle, all Kolya desires is his family and the comforting sounds of civilian life. Sick from the images and realizations of war he returns only to find his village eerily silent and his home empty. It is only when the bone-chilling night falls that Kolya begins to suspect the silent woods beyond the village may hold more secrets than answers to the mystery of the disappearance of the inhabitants of Belev and that folk tale monsters may be real...

In the end, this was an entertaining thriller that mixed atmosphere with action and pulled the tale of Koschei, The Deathless into a mystery that had this reader sneaking away from real life to her kindle at any available opportunity. The dramatic styling of The Child Thief (another novel by Mr. Smith) continues in Red Winter. Whereas the reader was entranced with the grisly collaboration of a kidnapping, the consequences of unleashed paranoia and the tale of Baba Yaga in The Child Thief; Red Winter takes on the realizations and horrors of war, the limits of a father's and husband's love with the tale of Koschei, The Deathless. Set in similar time periods and the snow howls and screams across the pages in both, Red Winter is completely different than The Child Thief. Different in many positive ways but still the disappointing negatives I found with The Child Thief were again found in Red Winter mainly predictability, repetitive actions or thoughts and a lackluster ending. Still I eagerly look forward to sneaking away from real life and joining another journey into the snow encrusted pages with another cleverly blended tale of Eastern Europe and Slavic Folklore from Mr. Smith.
*I would like to thank Pegasus publishing and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read and enjoy Red Winter
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