TITLE: Night Soldiers
AUTHOR: Alan Furst
First, I can't believe how few books I read in 2010, despite rushing through the Millennium trilogy. Seven has to be one of my all-time lows (though there was the year I read only 3!).
Second, I adore Alan Furst's writing. He specializes in historical fiction set in pre-World War II to early-World War II Europe, usually setting the story in one or two locales, but in this, he expanded his scope to great effect. His research is excellent, as is his attention to detail.
Night Soldiers is a sweeping novel that follows the life of Khristo Stoianev, a young Bulgarian who, in 1934, saw his younger brother stomped to death by local fascists. Soon after, a Russian shows up, recruiting young men to the Communist cause. Khristo, having nothing to look forward to in his bleak town and caught up in circumstances beyond his control, goes with him. Trained by the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, Khristo excels at intelligence and counter-intelligence and is soon stationed in Spain, a country in the midst of civil war while Germany and Russia vie for influence. A dutiful officer of the NKVD, Khristo is no ideologue and when he's warned he will be swept up in Stalin's purges, he flees to France, where his life grows yet more complicated.
For much of the book, Khristo is a tool, a weapon, someone who is manipulated into playing a role. Yet despite the violence and dangers of the time, despite the conspiracies and conflicts, Khristo is a survivor, someone who longs to simply lead a normal life. By the time the story ends, in 1945, we've traveled throughout France, Spain, and Eastern Europe with Khristo and as I turned the last page and closed the cover, I was most reluctant to say goodbye to him.
If you haven't read Alan Furst, you should. And this is as good a book to start with as any.