· Gripping & Well-paced
I didn’t see it as more than what it is – a thriller – and so I didn’t expect it to be a literary feast of poetic prose or beautifully nuanced writing. I expected it to deliver a gripping and well-told yarn and delivered it did! I thought it was particularly well-paced with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter to keep you panting for more. In fact, I did notice at some particularly exciting parts that I was shallow breathing – literally waiting with bated breath to find out what happens next! It felt like I was watching a Hollywood action movie, but in text form.
Unlike KK who’s veteran of this genre, I couldn’t quite predict the twists and turns (e.g. I didn’t see the link between the gruesome episode at the start of the book with what happens in the end. How blur!). Hence the book largely retained its element of surprise for me.
· Sufficient Character Development
I also appreciated Smith’s attempt to flesh out his central characters somewhat, giving the readers a better feel for the characters. It then became easier to root for Leo and Raisa, once an emotional attachment is formed. This to me is one of the major plus points of the book and separates it from other less worthy reads in the same genre which at best only provide 2-dimensional caricatures of its protagonists.
· Historical Context
Another scoring point for me was the historial context in which the story was set: Russia in the 1930s – 1950s (From Pre-WWII to the death of Stalin, just before the Krushev and the Cold War). As a self-confessed history buff, background knowledge on the oppressive communist and dictatorial regime of the era made the dangers faced by the protagonists seem even more real and threatening.
· Unauthentic Voice
One of my main gripes about the book is its voice. It does not sound authentically Russian. It’s like a Hollywood movie set in Russia where everyone speaks American English. For sure, you have the Russian names, locations and the odd Russian phrase and terminology thrown in here and there to give it an air of authenticity but Smith’s not fooling anyone. I felt that Smith missed the cultural nuances which shape the way a Russian would think and react, and hence missed the opportunity to lend greater weight to his work.
· Unrealistic Characterisation
Many a times have I rolled my eyes at the schizophrenic characterization of Leo. One minute he’s a murderous MGB operative, the next minute he suddenly develops a conscience and actually gives a toss about the welfare of the two girls orphaned after the murder of their parents. In addition, having been a poster boy (literally!) of the totalitarian regime, it seems utterly unrealistic for the scales to suddenly fall off his eyes and for him to see the system for what it’s truly is. And what makes him suddenly bothered about social justice and stake everything to apprehend the serial murderer when he’d personally hunted down and approved of the torture of countless ‘spies’ or ‘traitors’ of Mother Russia? As for Raisa, why would a savvy survivor like her suddenly stake her life to help with the investigations?
· Unrealistic Plot
I too felt that the ending was a bit trite and predictable. However, as with Hollywood movies, you’ve got to have the mandatory happy ending, no matter how implausible it may be in reality.
In short, if you are willing to suspend logic at times and overlook certain flaws here and there, I personally think it’s an entertaining read, especially if you’re in between flights or waiting at the doctors. I think it fully met the requirements of its genre – which is to thrill and entertain. I won’t go so far as to say the book has improved my general perception of the genre, but it was a nice change from my usual fare. Current bedtime reading happens to be Wollestonecraft’s treatise on the Vindication of the Rights of Women!