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"Night Soldiers" by Alan Furst

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Author Alan Furst calls it “near history.” Night Soldiers provides us a view with near-miraculous clarity of war-torn Europe in the 1940s, and this glimpse comes to us courtesy of Khristo – a nineteen-year-old Bulgarian youth who grows up by a river, watches Fascist thugs murder his younger brother, and falls into the war himself in the clutches of the Soviet secret service, the NKVD. This satisfying excursion into World War II espionage has every feature you’d want: intriguing insights into the tradecraft, a closely imagined story of a Soviet purge of its security service (Khristo is sentenced to life in prison as a result), close-ups of the cruel and genocidal regimes lording it over Europe at the time, and even a dabbling into the hero’s love life.

World War II nearly kills Khristo; he is one of the few survivors from the close-knit group that trained together in Moscow. Mr. Furst spares no effort in portraying the wasted Europe of the time, either. Protagonist Khristo suffers time and again in various circumstances and for various reasons, just like the devastated continent. In fact,
we witness the damage done over time to the man and the place, as in parallel. That’s what remains with me after finishing this book: I remember and feel the near-death escapes, heroic perseverance, and lost opportunities for happiness. Night Soldiers is packed with diverting secondary characters, too, from Khristo’s lover in Paris, to the American adventuress fighting in the Spanish Civil War, to the stout woman who pilots the tug boat that carries Khristo to freedom.

This is an extreme page-turner. Outcomes for characters are always in doubt – some make us sorry we liked a character, but overall, Mr. Furst has cobbled together a highly satisfying yarn of suspense, featuring fully nuanced heavies, and intrepid heroes.
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