Following the success of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, it’s not surprising that 2010 brings a batch of novels that appear a tad copycat. With the cover of Eye of the Red Tsar, you can be forgiven for thinking this, but whatever you do, don’t let cynicism stop you reading this novel. On the surface, the similarities may appear rife: Stalin’s Russia and a plot involving brothers. However, the styles are quite different and Eye of the Red Tsar is stronger on plot, delivering a dénouement that is both credible and satisfying. So what’s it all about?
Inspector Pekkala is living in a gulag, working as a tree-marker, and has outlived the average life of a tree-marker through determination and ingenuity in extreme conditions. Previously, he had been the Tsar’s right hand man and given considerable powers, frightening to many. When the revolution came he was sidelined, thought by those fearful many to be dead. But one day, in that gulag, Pekkala is called upon, given a task and offered a reward. Stalin wants Pekkala to determine which men killed the Tsar and his family, and to locate the Tsar’s treasure. The task re-unites Pekkala with his long-estranged brother and trust, or the lack of, remains a question hanging over both in their renewed relationship.
The novel cleverly weaves Pekkala’s story with alternating chapters of backstory and those that show how the hindsight available in the present affects perception. And, sticking with perception, we are taken on an interesting car journey that highlights the extreme lengths achieved by Stalin’s regime to appear appealing to the western world.
Eye of the Red Tsar is not without its comic moments, either. Pekkala and his brother are accompanied by a newly appointed, young Commissar of the Red Army, Lieutenant Kirov. Unusual for an army man perhaps, but this Commissar is a bit of a foodie having previously undertaken some training as a chef. Kirov is both suitably unimpressed with the rations he is forced to eat as well as to be found very at home in the kitchen.
Is this a début? Well, herein lies another mystery for the author Sam Eastland is “the pseudonym of a British writer who lives in the United States.” And following that publishing trend of hide-the-author’s-gender, we have no idea if Sam is a man or a woman. My contact at Faber would not be drawn further and I only went as far as thinking of employing Stalinesque techniques of persuasion.
But what we do know is that Eye of the Red Tsar is the start of a series featuring Pekkala. More please. Given the ending of the first, I have no idea where the second might lead. Pekkala is above all a survivor, but also a very loveable human. He is both frightening for his skill of memory recall (and how he uses it) and engaging on an emotional level. He is the brother that simply had to fight for his life. As Pekkala emerges from his previous life, I – for one – want to learn more.
[With thanks to Faber for the proof copy read.]
PS: My guess is that the author is a journalist and male. Please read the book and let me know what you think!