Setting: It ranges from Moscow, USSR to New York, USA, to Afghanistan, and to Pakistan.
Story: Leo Demidov is a secret policeman who leaves the force to build a family. When that family is caught up in the Cold War, and tragedy visited upon it – I’m trying not to spoil the plot – Demidov is sucked back into become part of the state security apparatus, and begins a long journey to discover the truth behind that tragedy. The story draws on the big, bad, Communist bogey man of 1950s USA, American racial tensions, and the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan.
Good Stuff: The author knows his Soviet Empire well, and superbly recreates the intrigues, suspicion, doubt, and danger of daily life. The moral standards of right and wrong are shaken to their core, as good men do bad deeds and bad men do good. Truly a living nightmare. But Smith does an equally good job of bringing to life the scenes elsewhere; Afghanistan and Pakistan are probably better done than the USA, ironically.
More Good Stuff: As well as the backdrop and atmosphere, Smith infuses his characters with life. Certainly Demidov – which may be a pun of a name, methinks – comes across as believable and realistic. Jesse Austin’s character – the American lover of the Soviet Union – is also top notch. And it’s important to stress that Smith crosses the gender divide with equal care and attention. Demidov’s wife’s character is a little gem, and the Afghan secret policewoman he befriends, Nara, is another.
Also, but no less significantly, the plot is well constructed and carefully revealed. There are few twists and surprises, but enough to satisfy most readers.
However, it’s Smith’s ability as a storyteller, a crafter of tales, that shines through the 500 plus pages of this book.
Not So Good Stuff: Demidov’s move from USSR to Afghanistan is difficult to believe, as is the justification for his arrival in the USA. This may be because Smith has failed to infuse the reader with that extra bit of detail to authenticate these events, or through the reader’s lack of empathy or understanding. And, probably on a related front, while Demidov’s personal journey is interesting, it will not carry every reader along; this is not a page turner in the sense of revelation following revelation. It may be that the book is a bit longer than it needed to be. Finally, and most worthy of note, this is the final part of a trilogy. Child 44 and The Secret Speech are the preceding books, and I wish I had read them first.