In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.
Can the action of this opening sentence be the foundation for excellent character development? A resounding yes. What better way to describe the motivation for a young man to want to fight for the NKVD, Stalin's secret police? Yes, there is some violence in this book, but not so much that you feel bloodied yourself.
The novel is well-written combining characterization and plot. As with most spy novels, one must pay attention because not everything is as it seems. Furst reminds us with:
But nothing here was what it seemed. Even the gray stone of the buildings hid within itself a score of secret tints, to be revealed only by one momentary strand of light. At first, the tide of secrecy that rippled through the streets had made him tense and watchful, but in time he realized that in a city of clandestine passions, everyone was a spy. Amours. Fleeting or eternally renewed, tender or cruel, a single sip or an endless bacchanal, they were the true life and business of a place where money was never enough and power always drained away. And, since the first days of his time there, he had had his own secrets.
With this novel, I was given greater understanding of how much was lost by those who fought in WWII. Not just those who gave their lives, but, as importantly, by those who lived through it day by day, both civilians and those who served their governments in covert activities. The mute agony of these places - themselves lost in the silence of the endless, frozen land - would finish him if he permitted himself to feel it, so he had, by self-direction, grown numb, and now felt nothing about anything. There was no other defense.
I have awarded this 5 stars and I might be feeling generous today. But certainly it is at the 4/5 line, either top of one group or bottom of the other. I've already ordered the next in the collection, Dark Star
, I might as well give it the benefit of the doubt.