Book Review: Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (August 2015)

I recently read something that referred to Alan Furst as an anti-fascist writer. This is certainly true, but too narrow a description. In fact, this first novel of the Night Soldiers series is much more about Stalinism than Fascism. I think it’s more accurate to say that Alan Furst writes about the struggle of individuals to find some happiness in the maws of faceless, violent police states.

I gave Alan Furst’s most recent novel a fairly poor review. After reading that I decided to go back and re-read the first novel in the Night Soldiers series to remind myself why I am such a fan. I was not disappointed. believe Alan Furst wrote four novels before he hit on Night Soldiers with limited success. It is fortunate for the reading world that he didn’t give up.

Night Soldiers spans from 1934 to 1945 and from Bulgaria in the east to the United States in the west. It is largely about people caught within the spider web that was life for any Soviet citizen with any official status during the reign of Stalin. I think Alan Furst does a couple of things extremely well. First, he sets a great scene geographically. Wherever the characters find themselves their surroundings are vivid and clear. Even more important is how he captures the looking glass world of a Soviet intelligence official under Stalin. Denunciation and condemnation was more a matter of when than if. No one could be trusted. The logic was Byzantine and changed randomly and without warning. People living under that system generally ended up being reduced to a universe of one, trying to keep some inner part of their minds free from the apparatchiks trying to root them out, an almost incomprehensibly lonely place to be.

The story follows one of these people, Khristo Stoianev, a young Bulgarian who watches his brother beaten to death by Fascists. Khristo is seduced away to the Soviet Union and finds that he has an aptitude for the spy business. The novel for the most part follows Khristo through the Spanish Civil War, pre WWII France, and then the Second World War. I won’t tell you how things work out for Khristo. My advice is to get a copy and find out for yourself.

I felt kind of bad writing the poor review of Midnight in Europe because I am such an Alan Furst fan. I enjoyed re-reading Night Soldiers so much that I’m going to start working my way through the rest of the series again. One of the nice things about the series is that you run into the same characters in very different places, so if you decide to pick it up I recommend starting with Night Soldiers and reading them in order. You’ll enjoy them either way but reading them in order is a little more satisfying.

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