Tony's Reviews > Eye of the Red Tsar

Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland
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's review
Oct 29, 10

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Read in January, 2010

This debut historical thriller takes the execution of the Romanov royal family in 1918 as the catalyst for its plot. (A word of warning to anyone with a an interest in or knowledge of the Romanovs and/or that era of Russian/Soviet history -- the author takes a great deal of fictional liberties with the known facts -- as is his right as a storyteller -- so don't expect one of those works of historical fiction that dovetails perfectly with reality.) The protagonist is a Finn named Pekkala who enlists in Tsar Nicholas' personal guard as a teenager, and is hand-picked by the Tsar to be a counter-terrorist investigator with almost unlimited powers and scope. However, in the wake of Bolshevik revolution, Pekkala is thrown into a gulag, where he spends the next decade. As the book opens in 1929, he is released into the custody of his Bolshevik brother and a a young political commissar. It seems that Stalin wants him to investigate the fate of the Romanovs, and establish whether or not they were all really killed.

The story switches back and forth between Pekkala's training and rise to a position of renown and influence in the court, and the investigation into the Romanovs. Unfortunately, the results never rise beyond being merely serviceable. Pekkala is a too-honorable-to-be-true man (as we learn in a very clumsy scene, he is rarer than one in a million), with photographic memory and all kinds of of useful skills, not to mention intelligent, brave, etc. He's a hero in desperate need of some flaws or really anything to make him interesting. As the story unfolds, we get quite effective portrayals of life in pre and post-Bolshevik Russia, which goes a long way to making the book readable. There's a palpable sense of how tenuous the Bolshevik's control of the country was, which contrasts nicely with a sequence set in a Potemkin village.

The plot is fairly run-of-the-mill thriller stuff, as Pekkala follows threads of information from point A to point B to point C and on to the inevitable twists at the end. Unfortunately, pretty much every reader will recognize the major clue that Pekkala is given several hundred pages before he does. There are also logical problems that crop up from time to time, for example, we learn that Pekkala was purposely not killed in the purges, but tucked away at the gulag in case Stalin decided to use him -- however, the job Pekkala was given at the gulag killed every other man who held it within a few months... The worst part of all is a surprise twist at the end that is wholly unbelievable given Pekkala's supposed skills as someone who notices details (not to mention, is intimately familiar with the people involved). So, despite the generally evocative atmosphere, the book has to be considered mediocre at best. But the era is interesting enough to me that I'd give the inevitable sequel a chance, in the hopes that some of the deficiencies of this first book have been improved upon.
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