Natasha Pulley’s latest novel, a historical fiction thriller that is based on real historical events, is set to publish on June 23rd, 2022.
It’s 1963 in the Soviet Union, Valery wakes up in his prison camp bunk in Siberia. A KGB van drives up to the camp and Valery is transported to a secret research facility.
The facility, known as the Lighthouse within City 40, is in the middle of an irradiation zone – think Chernobyl and it’s surrounding areas. Valery notices the dying flora along the road towards City 40 and is pretty certain he’s supposed to become a human guinea pig for irradiation tests. Fortunately for him, he’s actually supposed to follow up on his biology/biochemistry work in the field.
To cut a long synopsis short, Valery meets his former mentor Dr Resovkaya at the Lighthouse, as well as KGB man Shenkov, who might shoot Valery at the slightest misstep. Yet, instead of just intimidating Valery, Shenkov seems to care for him and even starts helping him uncover a conspiracy about the facility that has been blatantly obvious to Valery from his first moment in the restricted zone. And just like a Matryoshka doll, there is another conspiracy hidden beneath the first, and maybe one more underneath that one. It’s soon clear that Shenkov and Valery are destined to find each other, but, in typical Pulley fashion, there is at least one woman blocking the way to their happily ever after. Here it’s two, Shenkov’s wife Anna and Valery’s mentor Elena Resovkaya.
For the first time, since we started this blog, I’m at a loss for words. I was looking forward to reading this book and hence very happy when I was approved for an ARC. Now that I have finished, I just don’t know how to review and rate the book.
Well, I should preface this review with some information. I really like Pulley’s style of writing, her books manage to draw me in every time, despite knowing that there’s certainly going to be at least one female character that is supposed to be the bad guy (or better gal) who is sabotaging the M/M romance. Further, I have lived behind the Iron Curtain and, although that doesn’t make me an expert in Soviet culture, I wish this book had had at least one sensitivity reader, because the anachronisms and cultural/language missteps were jarring and jarringly obvious to me. Last but not least, the book was listed under Sci-Fi, which is probably for its science content.
Here are just a few very basic things which make rating this book so very hard for me:
- The anachronisms and cultural/language missteps that might have been bread crumbs for the big Sci-Fi plot twist weren’t bread crumbs at all. They were annoying and took me out of the story every time they happened. Some examples:
- people were boiling water for tea or coffee in their offices in electric kettles – not 100% certain, but 95% sure people didn’t use electric kettles and especially not in their offices
- kitchen roll was mentioned – definitely not in general use
- TV remote controls – I’m still laughing about this one
- people driving to work in their private cars – public transport to work; if a family owned a car, they’d most likely use it for long distance travel
- expressions like “oi, mate”, “btw”; referencing James Bond
- Valery is a bit of a sociopath. He’s supposedly unable to read social cues, yet he manages to manipulate the people around him using social cues. He suffers from PTSD and is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, but plunges ever deeper into the danger zone. Well, like any good anti-hero would do.
- Shenkov is this tough KGB guy, who shoots people (off page) for remarking that the Kremlin might be lying to the people at the Lighthouse and City 40. Yet he’s a softy at heart who, strangely, never shows any remorse at having to kill. He’s obviously just following orders. He also loves his four children dearly and would turn heaven and earth to protect them.
- Anna, Shenkov’s wife, is a brilliant physicist who agreed to have children with Shenkov only when he takes care of them. She would probably leave her children and husband behind without a second thought should the opportunity arise.
!!!Big Spoiler to the Ending ahead!!!
To punish Valery, Resovkaya manages to nap Shekov for her radiation poisoning trials. Valery must rescue him from being used as a human lab rat. Together with Anna, who has just told Valery that she has terminal cancer and is going to divorce her husband, they come up with a plan to use radiation poisoning to free Shenkov and a bunch of other people from Resovkaya’s top secret radiation poisoning lab within the top secret lab facility. Lo and behold, Shenkov and Valery make it out of City 40, but terminally ill Anna and her four children, one of which is dying of leukaemia, stay behind. Valery and Shenkov then get a new life under witness protection in the UK where they live happily ever after.
Shenkov, who would die for his family, leaves them and never looks back? Never wonders whether they got out of City 40? Doesn’t turn heaven and earth to get them to join him? Anna suddenly likes taking care of her children so much that she wants to spend her final days with them, and is certain she can protect them from whatever trouble will come her way after the stunt they just pulled? Valery is just fine with … all of it?
See, at a loss for words.
2.5/5 Harpy Eagles
Anachronisms abound. I started out enjoying it but is quickly slides into nonsense. It is quite difficult to manufacture a nuclear explosion which many countries still cannot do. 1967 TV remote control, Land rovers in the USSR, wtf indeed!
Jarring, right? Wonder why no one thought it might be a good idea to do some fact checking and have a sensitivity reader.