Militia captain Alexei Korolev is still living with the ghosts of his last major case when Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD security service asks him to investigate the supposed suicide of a young woman, Maria Lenskaya. He has little choice in the matter since the directive has come the Commissar for State Security, with whom she was having an affair. With good reason, Korolev fears political cases; this is after all the period of Stalin's great purges, and a wrong step by Korolev will have knock on consequences for his family and colleagues. Moreover, the young woman died on the film set of The Bloody Meadow that is being shot at an agricultural college near to Odessa on the Black Sea. A thousand kilometres outside of Korolov's usual patch of operations, and in the heart of Ukrainian resentment at the ravages of collectivisation, his presence as investigating officer is hardly welcome. Quickly establishing that Lenskaya was, in fact, murdered he starts to try and determine who killed her. The case though is not straightforward and seems to hint at a conspiracy against the state.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ryan debut novel, The Holy Thief, so I had high expectations for The Bloody Meadow. It's a good read, but doesn't quite match the quality of the first book in the series. The Holy Thief had a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere, with a very tight plot. The Bloody Meadow is more expansive, felt a little looser in the plotting, and Korolov as a character is little developed in terms of backstory and personal life. And because there is a lot going on and there is a big cast, the development of characters in general is a little bit too much surface and not enough depth. There are also some unlikely coincidences, which enable a couple of characters from the first book to appear in the second. That all said, the book does have historical richness and The Bloody Meadow is an enjoyable read, and if I hadn't read the first book I'm sure this review would read more positively than it might seem. To be clear then, I am still recommending it as worthy of a look and my sense is that this is a series with a lot of potential. Personally, I hope the third book is set back in Moscow, allowing a further engagement with the militia and pathology characters from the first book. Regardless of setting, I plan to read it.