Friday, October 31, 2014

Review of Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988, Phoenix)

Vidin, Bulgaria, 1934, Khristo Stoianev witnesses his brother being kicked to death by local fascists.  A couple of weeks later he is sailing down the Danube towards the Black Sea on his way to Moscow.  There he starts to train as an agent for the NKVD, discovering a rare talent for field operations, and forming a close bond with a small group of other recruits.  After proving himself in a regime full of tests - some obvious, many less so - he is sent to Spain, where he works with Republican forces.  As Madrid teeters on the edge of falling to Franco’s forces, Khristo is warned that he is about to become the victim of one of Stalin’s purges and he takes flight to Paris.  There he finds work as a waiter, hoping that he can avoid those searching for him, and that the growing threat of war will dissipate.  But trouble always seems to find him and once again he has to rely on his tradecraft and old friends to survive.

Night Soldiers is the first in Alan Furst’s series of espionage novels that take place in 1930s and 40s Europe.  It’s an ambitious book charting the adventures of Khristo Stoianev between 1934 through to 1945, starting with the death of his younger brother, killed by Bulgarian fascists, and his recruitment by a Russian agent.  The story then switches to his training by the NKVD in Moscow, followed by a posting in Spain, then flight to pre-war Paris, followed by his war years.  Criss-crossing Europe and playing games with soldiers, spies, and others, Khristo lives a life full of incident whilst trying to stay in the shadows.  Furst is an excellent storyteller and the narrative is expressive and engaging throughout, and full of historical detail.  The characterisation is well realised, with some very nice interactions and points of departure and reconnection across the story.  The first half of the tale, up to Khristo’s time in Paris is excellent, being tight in focus and absorbing.  The second half, however, is much less convincing, with the storyline becoming stretched and thin in places and the denouement fanciful.  The story in the end became too expansive and reliant on unlikely threads and connections.  Nonetheless, Night Soldiers is a very good read, full of intrigue, adventure, friendship and dark encounters.

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