Red Traitor by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

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“There was not a moment of Vasin’s waking or sleeping days…where Vasin was not surrounded by reminders of the power of Lieutenant General Yury Orlov. He felt as trapped as a dragonfly in glass.”

Set in 1962, less than a year after the events of Black Sun in which KGB investigator Alexander Vasin narrowly averted a nuclear disaster, Red Traitor by Owen Matthews follows Major Vasin as his successful rise in the KGB has meant just so much more scrutiny from among its ranks. Following the threads (real and invented) established at the end of Black Sun, Vasin must maneuver GRU Colonel Oleg Morozov into revealing himself as a possible American spy while the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds in the Caribbean, all the while keeping himself abreast of the machinations of his own boss, General Yuri Orlov. The Moscow-based espionage plot that makes up half of the novel incorporates many of the themes, suspense, and gambits that made Black Sun excellent.

“‘That’s how our glorious Soviet Motherland works. Punish the innocent, leave the guilty at their posts.’”

To the investigative spy plot of Moscow, Matthews adds another plotline following submariner Vasily Arkhipov, who a year previous was among the only survivors of the K-19 submarine nuclear reactor accident that left most of his crew dead and him with a promotion. Selected for his prowess of surviving the traumatic ordeal of K-19, which has left him cautious of all things nuclear, Arkhipov is given fleet command of a secret group of submarines sent to run the US blockade of Cuba and, if threatened or cornered, to use the “secret weapon” of a nuke carried by each submarine. Paralleling Vasin’s “integrity vs party line” conflict from Black Sun, Arkhipov must avoid running afoul of the Party, embodied in his rival Captain Savitsky, while shrewdly trying to disobey orders and prevent nuclear war.

“In politics, there are things you do for show and things you do that really matter. The R-12 deployment? That matters.”

Though its deuteragonists never meet, Red Traitor moves back and forth between them to form a plot that is suspenseful and multi-faceted. Compared to Black Sun, which focused on the single location of secret nuclear facility Arzamas-16 to no less excellent effect, Red Traitor incorporates much more of the “historical” in the historical fiction, and the cinematic feel of the scene shifts—each foregrounded by place and date—shows Matthews deftly expanding his narrative style to meet the needs of his subject matter. Drawn from Matthews’s non-fiction work and from accounts of those who lived through the ordeal, the frequent details of KGB and GRU spycraft and the detailed descriptions of life on Soviet diesel submarine B-59 form a consistent setting that conveys one easily into the characters’ experiences. Though the scene-shifting form took a bit of getting used to, it ultimately made the dual-plot work well, especially nearing the book’s climax, and while the climax was not as cathartically hard-hitting as was Black Sun’s (possibly due to Red Traitor’s being more closely based on the history than the former book—and there, thankfully, NOT being a nuclear blast in the Caribbean), the book’s ending prepared the way for the Vasin trilogy’s third installment superbly.

“[An] idealist or a pragmatist, Sasha…What is your diagnosis of yourself, please?”

If Black Sun was a novel about Vasin’s discovery of the immorality of the system in which he is a cog, Red Traitor is a novel about his trying to uphold his own already compromised principles against the guttural, impulsive, self-centered chaos embodied by his boss Orlov—whom he is now fully aware he could become without difficulty. The book has many parallels, both within itself and with its predecessor: just as Vasin has his Orlov, Morozov has his boss Serov (no less unprincipled than Orlov), and Arkhipov’s conflict very much resembles many of the issues experienced by Vasin in Black Sun. All of these serve to reinforce the sense of oppressive, ever-watchful weight inherent in the Soviet system, where every success and favor comes with a hook (a consistent motif through the book).

Paradoxically, the frankness and irony with which Vasin and others admit the faults, if not malignity, of their system yield an air of dark humor to the book, even in its most tense moments. Drawing on his mother’s Russian humor described in Stalin’s Children, Matthews captures and maintains the fact that the Russian people and the Russian Soviet system were not synonymous. Another motif I found similarly endearing was the camaraderie of the sailors, whose easy manner, salutary superstition, and genuine friendship stood in stark contrast against the self-consciously forced comradeship of the book’s other relationships.

Though I have not read many Cold-War-Era spy or submarine novels, Red Traitor was an excellent read. I loved seeing Matthews’s utilizing elements from his non-fiction work for dramatic effect, as well as his expanding his novelistic style. The Author’s Note, wherein Matthews lays out exactly how much of the book is historically based (a vast majority of it is), was particularly useful, and I plan to recommend the book to my history students, as well as to anyone else who asks.

*Disclaimer: I received advance copy of the book from the publisher for review*


Good King Harry by Denise Giardina—Goodreads Book Review

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“Chivarly dead? Perhaps not! Perhaps it is the last battle to purify it. To rid it of hypocrisies ere this new age you speak of overtakes us.”—Earl of Warwick to King Henry V

In Good King Harry, Denise Giardina explores the life of Prince Hal/Henry V in the 14th and 15th centuries. Told in first person, the book covers Hal’s childhood, including his rejection by his father and his time at King Richard II’s court, his adolescent years campaigning in Wales against Owen Glyndwr, and his eventual ascension to the throne and retaking of English lands in France, ending the book with his death.

Throughout the story, Giardina explores the themes of courtliness and chivalry that characterized politics and war at the time, and how and why Harry would largely depart from both. She also shows the growing conflict between the Lollard movement and the English Catholic Church which would, a century later, become the Protestant Reformation. Generally following the historical timeline, though with definite nods to Shakespeare’s dramatizing of it (dividing sections with quotes from Shakespeare, including truncated version of some of King Henry’s great speeches), Giardina presents a compelling and sympathetic perspective on the conflicts and complexities of King Henry. Her Harry must maintain a balance between the courtliness of Richard II and the populism of Henry IV, as well as manage the transition out of the age of romantic chivalry while striving to maintain its best traits.

This account is a compelling and captivating piece of historical fiction, and I would imagine it would be as enjoyable for readers who are not familiar with Shakespeare’s Hal as it was for this one who is.

A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum—Goodreads Book Review

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If I were to teach a class on Rachel Barenbaum’s debut novel (it would heartily stand up to such a thing), I would instruct students to look for two things: character conflict and layering. Really, those are the same thing. As Barenbaum reveals more about her characters and their values, their implicit and explicit conflicts become more and more visible, and we become more and more invested in the outcome. Before I knew it, I found I had been subtly drawn into the plot, and I enjoyed watching how Barenbaum did it.

Miri’s initial conflict is excellent: the first female surgeon, she assumes a lot of pressure, not only from the lives under her hands but also from the precedents she will set for future women and Jews in medicine. Her fiance, Yuri, too, has staked his reputation on her ability, to say nothing about her relation to her brother, Vanya, who has his own barriers to break. That all of this is set in Russia at the cusp of WWI makes the conflicts deeper and even more poignant.

Barenbaum’s prose is very subtle: she quickly builds context around the Jews’ plight without needing too much broad exposition of the times (I read her novel while halfway through rereading a work by Dostoevsky; the contrast in style was interesting to say the least). Having had to deal with it in my own writing, I greatly admired how much she must have resisted the temptation to include more than the few but consistent hints that, nonetheless, open whole other aspects of her characters. At first I thought she was a bit free with her rhetorical questions, but I soon realized they were probably the best way to drive the narrative without compromising the characters’ limited perspective. Her voice is consistent throughout the novel, and it’s very easy to fall into a rhythm with her story without being distracted by the narrator.

Barenbaum’s description of Kovno and the other locations (including several one-shot, time-period-specific moments) made me wonder at how much she must have researched the pre-WWI Russian Empire and visited the sites, or whether she had merely taken poetic license; both possibilities only increased my enjoyment of the book. Indeed, it made me want to travel to the sites to check and experience her descriptions of the locations and the weather for myself, as well as to do homage to the people represented by her characters (which might be an indicator of good historical fiction). Her incorporation of both Jewish and Russian folklore into the story further drew me into the settings and conflicts of the times, especially with the historical hindsight without which it’s impossible to read the novel. A sucker for the historical part of “historical fiction,” I found myself wanting through the first quarter of the book a more explicit description of Czarist Russia, but then I realized Barenbaum had provided it–in the form of the soldiers surrounding the Jewish characters. Again, though she could probably tell me all I’d wish to know, she only includes enough detail to tell her characters’ stories, and her plot benefits from that excellent-because-invisible discipline.

The contrast between Russian folklore and the paradoxical science and Jewish folklore of Vanya and Miri is an interesting theme. Whatever unnuanced dismissal of mysticism one might expect from the book is (again, subtly) undercut by Barenbaum’s division of the chapters and sections by the Jewish months and festivals. In other words, if one wants a simple “superstition vs science” division between characters and values, A Bend in the Stars might not be the book to read (or it might be the perfect book to read). By Barenbaum’s narration (and this might be more than a bit of interpretation on my part), the supposed “superstitions” of the main characters’ Jewish folklore are what give their lives structure, for good or ill, and it is these aspects of their identity — at times deeper than their respective expertise in surgery or astrophysics — which give them the tools to overcome the many obstacles that come their way in those areas.

In sum, I’ve already recommended A Bend in the Stars to several friends, both bookworms and science majors alike, and I hope it continues to gain traction in the reader community. Barenbaum’s use of character conflicts to drive the plot is exemplary, and I look forward to seeing what else she produces and how she grows as an author.

Black Sun by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

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Owen Matthews’s Black Sun follows Major Alexander Vasin as he investigates the apparent suicide of a scientist at a secret Soviet nuclear research facility. Throughout his investigation, Vasin questions whether it’s possible for men and women to be consistently good in an amoral or immoral society. With well-placed backstory, unexpected friendships and attractions, and the myriad pressures of being a member of a post-Stalinist KGB which nonetheless carries the previous generation’s scars, Matthews layers Vasin’s conflicts to create an entertaining and compelling historical thriller that does not hide from the contradictions—nor the virtues—inherent in its central characters.

Vasin’s internal struggles parallel the concrete need to uncover the circumstances surrounding young Fyodor Petrov’s gruesome death-by-radiation-poisoning while evading the official forces trying to place roadblocks in his way. Whether the brute authority of General Zaitsev and his secret police or the contemptuous erudition of Professor Adamov, the forces of the secret facility Arzamas-16 seek to halt Vasin’s investigation through the strangling officialdom of Soviet Russia—in which, to their chagrin, Vasin is himself a professional.

Matthews’ family relations and his background as a Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek provides an intimate and well-researched setting for Vasin’s experience, not only in the meticulous bureaucracy that encourages the maintenance of palatable lies but in the chronic need to keep at least one eye over one’s shoulder. Counting day-by-day up to the test of an untried and unprecedented nuclear device, the story’s structure leads up to a climax that is worth the steadily building conflicts of the preceding chapters. Whether for the thrill of Vasin’s investigation, the historically immersive setting, or the ironic dark humor that provides the only medium for such a subject matter, Matthews’ work is an excellent read.