By: Alan Furst
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.
This is not my first Alan Furst novel–that would be Mission to Paris (review)–but this was the first book I had ever heard of by the author and it has long been on my wishlist. Well last year I finally got around to picking it up and reading it 😀
Night Soldiers is quite the epic tome set in Europe leading up to and through to the end of World War Two. Normally historical fiction set around this period either chronicles a family during this period, like in Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge (review), but otherwise focuses fairly closely to one country or a contained period of time. Night Soldiers however covers both fronts of the Second World War, as well as precursor events like the Great Terror and the Spanish Civil War, all through the eyes of a Bulgarian. It’s quite the feat, not to mention an interesting perspective as Bulgaria is one of those countries that gets swept through events when you think about the Second World War. So like The Invisible Bridge it was interesting to read about the war and the political struggles from the perspective of those who did not belong to the great powers (even if Khristo does move around quite a bit throughout the novel).
I really felt for Khristo as he is swept through events starting with the murder in his hometown by local fascists. From there, as the book blurb above mentions, he is eventually recruited by the NKVD, is sent to Spain, bounces off to France to escape the purges, and gets caught up with the resistence there. He meets plenty of characters along the way, some of whom make appearances later on where I least expected. On the flip side, because I was reading this at work and got caught up with the busy-ness of the Christmas season and schoolwork, it was difficult at times to recall some of the characters and where I had met them before…But that’s more of a personal issue with me at the time. Nonetheless it’s quite the scope of a novel to experience as Khristo, as a result of the times and where he’s been swept through, struggles to reconcile who he’s become and where his future lies after the war.
Overall Night Soldiers was a great read and definitely did not disappoint. It’s the perfect balance of an espionage thriller with historical fiction, tracing through events of 1930s-1945 Europe with all of its upheavals and displacements. Readers of both genres, and readers who never read an Alan Furst novel, should definitely check this title out.