Soviet Spotlight: Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland

Recently, I mentioned in my review of Jenny Smith’s first novel The Sultan’s Seal that even through I wasn’t overwhelming satisfied with her debut novel, I didn’t want to give up on Smith as a novelist. I’ve seen writers improve over time. In that same review, I gave the example of Alan Furst. In my opinion, the later novels of Furst’s Night Soldier series are superior to his earlier ones. Therefore, I’m more than willing to explore the later novels of Smith’s Kamil Pasha series since I have a feeling the quality of her work has improved as she’s learned from her experience as a writer. Just as the old cliché goes, practice makes perfect.

This belief of mine that novelists can, and do improve upon the quality if their work through practice and hard work was reinforced recently. In a round about way it once again has something to do with Alan Furst. Not long ago I praised a particular novelist as one Alan Furst fans could also embrace. That novelist is Sam Eastland

I found Eastland’s Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense the kind of novel Alan Furst fans could love. Set in the USSR during the first year of WWII, it’s the fast-paced story of a former Tsarist special investigator who’s been ordered by Stalin to find a long hidden supply of imperial gold. The novel’s main character Inspector Pekkala, a mature, intelligent and daring figure who’s also an ethic outsider, resembles many if not all of Furst’s protagonists. With the action taking place in the USSR of 1939, Furst fans would surely find favor with Eastland’s choice of time and place. After reading Archive 17, I’m thinking if you love Alan Furst, then Eastland is your man.

After enjoying Archive 17, I went in search of the more books from Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala series and I’m happy to report that my local public library has a number of them in stock. Upon discovering this, I selected the first novel in the series, Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense. Just like I did with Archive 17, I burned through Eye of the Red Tsar in what seemed like mere days. However, unlike Archive 17, I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. But just like with Jenny’s Smith’s Seal of the Sultan I was not left completely disappointed. Far from it. With Smith’s novel, I merely suspected that her later novels could be better. After reading Archive 17 prior to Eye of the Red Tsar seeing the difference in quality between the two novels I knew for sure that Eastland has improved over this career as a novelist.

Published in 2010, Eye of the Red Tsar begins in 1929, roughly 10 years before the events described in Archive 17. Pekkala has been freed from the Gulag on Stalin’s orders in hopes he can solve a trio of painful and lingering mysteries: exactly who ordered the execution of the Romanovs, where are the bodies hidden and is there any truth to the rumors that one member of the royal family escaped harm and his still alive. In search of answers Pekkala must dive not only into the wilds of Soviet Eurasia, but also that nation’s painfully guarded past.

Even though I didn’t like Eye of the Red Tsar as much as I did Archive 17, I’m wishing I would have started with this novel because it’s the first book in the series, and therefore contains a lot of Pekkala’s backstory. Just like Archive 17, I found it fast-paced and entertaining. But my major gripe with Eye of the Red Tsar is its ending. Unfortunately, I can’t give any details without throwing out a spoiler or two. Let’s just say I found the novel’s thrilling conclusion a tad flawed and leave it at that.

But please let us keep in mind the bigger and more important things. Writers can, and do improve as they hone their craft. I’ve seen this with Alan Furst, and now with Sam Eastland. In addition, I’m hoping to see it with Jenny Smith. And even with me being left a slightly disappointed with this one particular novel by Sam Eastland, he’s still a novelist Alan Furst fans can enjoy.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

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