In this blog I plan to do regular book reviews as well as mention briefly the goings on in my life.
Hopefully, with practice, these reviews (which are my own opinions) will prove helpful to you in your search for a good book.
The first book review is Tom Rob Smith's 'Child 44'
1950s Russia was a depressing place if we are to believe Mr. Smith. The story begins by setting up one of Smith’s many clever twists that reveals itself later in the book. Stalin’s agricultural collectivization about this time was causing much hardship and famine in the Ukraine. It was this deprivation that we later find out is the breeding ground for a very troubled antagonist. And beware, deprivation on a Russian scale makes North American deprivation positively upper middle-class, all brilliantly characterized through Smith’s fascinating characters and the hardships they face.
It is not until the mid-40s (pages, that is) that I figured out who the protagonist actually was. Perfect timing, a skill which this author excels in especially when it comes to character development and plot-advancement (excuse me if I mention this more than once). The book centres on the goings on in the MGB, the State Security force of Russia, and the atrocities and wrongful sentencing carried out by this clandestine organization. Fear is the order of the day. The MGB's main role is to conduct espionage, counterespionage, and to carry out a policy of supervision and surveillance while maintaining control and to prevent disloyalty.
Most devoted of all the secret police, and the one the Russians should fear the most—a man touted as the next leader of the MGB—is one Leo Stepanovich Demidov. Or is that antagonist? He's a barbaric man guilty of sending hundreds of Muscovites to premature deaths. Whether through torture, 25 years in the gulag, or a bullet through the back of the head. You get the picture. But in a clever way Smith makes Leo likeable.
He’s a brute, not in the physical sense, but in the blinded righteousness and complete willingness with which he carries out the State’s dirty work. He basically decides who dies, and who doesn’t. It doesn't matter if the accused is innocent or not. In fact, it's not actually Leo who decides who dies, but rather the State who hands him a list of suspects. It's his job to eliminate the least suspicious. Pick that man over there with the lisp. He’s clearly guilty of murder, who else would murder another human being except a man with a lisp? That’s the sort of stupid ideological thinking that drives the MGB. Premeditated guilt would be a good way to describe it. The state decides who’s guilty, and the MGB goons go out and round them up. It’s like that with the serial killer too, the one that Leo obsessively begins to track down forming the central theme of the story. The one that the state doesn’t believe exists—in a utopian society there are no serial killers, of course. Why would there be? Everything is provided for. Food, jobs, medical care. Heaven on earth. . .yeah right!
The book is in fact based on a real life serial killer.
Leo Stepanovich Demidov’s character arc is one of the greatest in modern literature and is a true joy to follow. If I was to fault the book, it is that the first half is brilliantly plotted and the second half I found slightly guilty of mechanical plotting, where all the first half twists and unanswered questions are answered a bit too cleanly and methodically. Many of them didn’t need answering, and certainly slowed the story down from its blistering pace Smith sets in the first half. Sometimes less is more.
The research throughout the book is first rate, capturing life in the former USSR with great vividness and fed to us delicately and beautifully through well-crafted characters; and, as stated in numerous other reviews, the plot is superbly suspenseful. I found myself looking forward to each reading. Even the page layout is refreshingly bland (I read the hard copy), like communist Russia herself. A page turner of the highest quality.
Verdict: Smith is guilty of writing a solid book and should receive 25 years of hard labour in the gulag for doing it on his first try. I scored the first half 5.0, the second half 3.5.
Overall: 4.2/5.0. I thoroughly recommend this book. I don't like the phrase 'a must read' but I think it applies here perfectly well. I look forward to reading and reviewing 'Agent 6' in the near future.