This is a remarkable historical novel. It is 1942, and the battle of Stalingrad is just beginning. Benya Golden, a Russian Jewish writer, has been imprisoned in the Gulags for a crime he didn’t commit, doomed to die in the dreadful conditions. But then he is offered a strange chance of redemption – by joining a penal battalion of criminals and murderers who are ordered to fight the Nazis. By shedding their own blood in battle they are promised their freedom. The odds of success are unlikely, but Benya chooses to join the Russian cavalry. On a hot summer day in July 1942, they charge a line of German tanks, breaking through into enemy territory.
This is when the novel is at its most terrifying – Benya behind enemy lines, not knowing who to trust. Nazis, Cossacks, Italian, traitors or friends? But then he meets an Italian nurse, also alone and desperate after the death of her husband – and it turns into one frantic ride to stay alive.
The novel also has a subplot concerning Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and her love affair with a much older man – and the scenes switch from the beautiful but terrifying grasslands of Central Russia, and the Kremlin. Both Stalin and Hitler are characters this sweeping historical novel, that has a tender love story at its core, a contrast in many ways to the horrors the novel details. This is an action novel, with survival, courage, life, and death on every page. It’s an extraordinary real life time in history, and the author has created believable and compelling fictional characters that show the depth and transformation of love, even in the midst of darkness. This novel is extremely well-written and is highly recommended. I thought the ending was pitch perfect – truly outstanding and very well considered.