Two brothers go out into the woods to hunt, one doesn’t come back. Years later, two brothers are playing in the snow and get into a fight; the younger one runs away in anger, never to be seen again. Flash forward to many years later, and we meet Leo Demidov, an officer in the Russian army under Stalin’s rule. During this period, even though crime soared and many suffered in poverty and starvation, it was imperative that the Russian government put forth a front of strength and success. No reports of anything that would undermine the government were tolerated, and any report of something as small as verbal dissent was harshly punished, often with a death sentence. When Leo is tasked with looking in the disappearance of the son of a fellow officer, he scratches the surface a problem that runs deeper than anyone realizes. Leo must not only track down what may be a serial killer, but he has to do so without catching the attention of the brutal government officials, many of whom he works with daily. To make matters worse a fellow officer, Vasili, seems to have a personal vendetta against Leo and works to undermine him at every turn, even as Leo attempts to prevent any more horrors from occurring.
This one was one I had heard quite a bit of buzz about, it was on a bunch of “best of” lists in 2012 and a coworker (whose opinion I value) raved about it. I’ve been sitting on this review for awhile because I had a very tepid response to it; it was just ok, and I had to think about why I felt this way. There are two major things I think that work against it (for me). Number one: there is a fine line between teasing out events for suspense versus letting them sit so long the reader forgets about them. Those first two lines in the summary up there? You don’t hear a peep about them until about halfway through the book. And this is not a short book. By the time we got back to them, I was like who is that again? Oh right, them. When things finally do get rolling it is very interesting but I felt like I had to run the marathon to get there.
Number two: I had a hard time connecting to the characters. It’s not that they weren’t interesting; they definitely were. However I think Smith presents them with a sort of cold detachment and I found it hard to really get invested in any one person, I just couldn’t connect even though I sympathized.
It’s possible that I just built up my expectations too much, but this book fell short for me. There is some truly brutal stuff in there that somehow just didn’t affect me like it should have. However, from what I gather, I may be in the minority in this opinion, so if this sounds like your cup of tea, I’d say give it a shot. It’s well written with some truly horrific things going on, but it just wasn’t for me.