Dan Smith’s previous novel The Child Thief, an intense thriller set among the Bolshevik-infested forests of 1930’s Ukraine, was one of my novels of 2012, so I had high expectations for Red Winter. And I’m glad to say that it more than lived up to them. Set in central Russia during the 1920s, an especially tumultuous period for a country which has rarely been settled, it sees Smith reprising some of the themes from his previous novel, the brutality of extreme political ideologies and the power of family ties.
Red Winter opens with a deserting soldier returning home to rejoin his family and bury his fallen brother, but after days of arduous trekking through snowy forests fraught with danger, and with his old life within touching distance, Kolya makes an unsettling discovery. His village is abandoned, his house empty and showing signs of a speedy, possibly forced departure. He is fully aware what the Red Army is capable of, he has worn that uniform and swept through villages like this, and he knows that many of his former comrades do not share his sense of human decency.
A lone woman remains in the village, filthy and emaciated, driven to the point of insanity, and she takes Kolya into the forest to show him the aftermath of the massacre which emptied the village. The men have been killed in unspeakably terrible ways, their corpses left to rot where they fell, bearing star-shaped brands. The old woman claims it is the work of Koschei, The Deathless One, a demonic figure from Russian folklore, but Kolya is a rational man and sees a human hand behind the brutality.
With no trace of his wife and children to be found he clings to the slim hope they have been taken prisoner, bound for the work camps or worse, and resolves to track them down, following the trail of destruction which Koschei has cut through the frozen countryside. He isn’t the only person on Koschei’s tail though and his status as a deserter makes him a potential target for any soldiers in the area; it’s hard to conceal the mark which command leaves on a man, and so he must use all of his guile, and the skills which made him a formidable officer, to maintain his liberty long enough to find his family.
Once again Dan Smith has produced a first class historical thriller, which will satisfy the most demanding of crime fans, while exploring the consequences of unchecked military might and the persistence of the human spirit. Smith’s prose is crisp, his sense of pace flawless and his appreciation of the mundane terrors of warfare nothing short of masterly. In Kolya he has created a fascinating character, flawed and conflicted, with dark secrets he isn’t ready to face, but from the very first page you will find yourself rooting for him, gasping at his heartbreak and cheering the triumph of his spirit.
I read this book in a single sitting – not something I do very often – because I simply couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page. Red Winter is utterly compelling and genuinely unsettling.