Author: Alan Furst
Genre: Historical Spy Fiction
Recommendation: Good read even for those new to the genre.
Summary: Khristo Stoianev witnesses his brother get killed by the local fascists and gets recruited by an NKVD agent to be trained as a secret agent for the USSR. He is trained in Moscow and then sent to Spain in the middle of the civil war. There he becomes more involved in intrigues until he has to flee Stalin's purges and runs away to Paris. But his adventures are far from over.
Reactions: This is not the genre I am familiar with. I was recommended Night Soldiers after singing accolades to The Shadow of the Wind which could also be called a historical novel, albeit not nearly as definitively. Night Soldiers follows Khristo from 1934 to 1945 and provides glimpses of various momentous WWII events.
Furst does very well with the setting. In addition to providing some necessary background to the events, he also manages to portray the mood of the era very well. For example, Khristo's first impressions of Moscow:
And though the Moscow of his dreams - grand boulevards, golden domes - was as he had imagined, it shared the stage with a riptide of ordinary life. For every glossy Zil or Pobeda that disgorged important-looking people into important buildings, there seemed to be ten carts pulled by horses: the carts piled high with coal or carrots, the horses' breath steaming from flared nostrils, the red faced draymen drunk and cursing like maniacs. The streets were crowded with old women in black dresses and shawls, bearded Jews in back homburs, Mongolian soldiers with flat, cold faces. [...]
Yet, a moment later, turning the corner into Arbat Street he saw, he was almost certain a ballerina. His spirit swooped, that such glory could exist on earth.
I enjoyed reading descriptions of various places, meeting a various cast of character Furst narrates, following Khristo's insight into the politics of spying. At the same time, the reading went fairly slow. I spent several weeks on this 450 page trade paperback. Partially, the slow reading came from the need to keep track of various characters in the book. Partially, it was due to the structure that moved away from Khristo every so often to introduce a completely new cast that eventually would make a connection with the main plot. I didn't feel there was any particular climax to the plot, but sustained level of interest that comes from feeling invested in a character.
One aspect I enjoyed about Night Soldiers is that it's not written in a sentimental way. While the overall mood is far from happy, a lot of scenes that could be turned into tearjerkers are instead treated as facts of life at the moment. While I really felt for the characters in some of the scenes, especially towards the end of the book, I am glad that I didn't end up feeling completely depressed by the end of the novel. Combined with seeing Inglorious Basterds last weekend, this has been a great WWII period immersion. Recommended.