Red Winter by Dan Smith (Book Review)

red winter
Red Winter by Dan Smith is a harrowing, desperate novel of pain and betrayal in the cold and unforgiving winter of Central Russia. Kolya has returned to his home village, the dead body of his brother carried on the horse by his side, to find the village empty. Kolya has lost faith in the army he serves as the Red Terror scourges through the Russian countryside. Families are torn apart and whole communities are murdered, tortured or taken to slave camps by the army.

“…Galina put her hand to her head and tapped it with the gnarled knuckle of one finger. ‘Remember,’ she said. ‘Remember, remember, remember. Oh.’ Her movement was sudden and she reached out to grab me once more. This time she grasped my forearm with one hand and reached up with the other to touch my cheek. She brought her close to mine. ‘Don’t let him take me too.’
‘Who?’
She spoke with urgency, lowering her voice and putting her lips to my ear. ‘Don’t let him make me go with the others.’
‘Where did they go?’ I asked, trying to keep my voice calm despite the questions spinning in my head. ‘Who are you talking about?’
She loosened her grip on me and put a hand to her mouth. ‘Don’t let him take me.’
‘Who is he? Can you remember? You have to tell me-‘
‘Koschei,’ she said. ‘The Deathless one.’

In the remote countryside of rural Russia the myths and horror stories of old folk tales is coming to life. As the legend of the terrifying is visiting village upon village, torturing the men, beheading others, stealing the boys old enough to fight and raping the women. The women, it is said, the women he likes to drown.

“…The tableau of death before me was as shocking as anything I had seen during the course of the war. I had grown all too aware of the appalling things that one person could do to another, but I had never seen such a variety of atrocity in once place. Most perpetrators of this kind of extermination tended to stick to a preferred method. There were those who flayed their victims while they were still alive. Others opted for crucifixion or hanging or a simple bullet to the back of the neck. Some liked to impale their victims or roll them naked in barrels punched through with nails. I had even heard of men and women forced to stand naked in the cold while water was poured over them, a few drops at a time, until they became ice statues frozen in death…”

Kolya sets out on a chase after the Deathless One. His wife and two sons, taken from the village. He can only hope that they still live. But as Kolya searches for his family, his past is slowly on his trail as well and will the truths of who he is keep him from reaching his family in time?

This novel is up there with such powerful war and survival dramas as the Searchers and the Road. A deserter from the army, Kolya must come to grips with his own actions in the war and the consequences that have upon him and his family as he searches to save them and perhaps in doing so, redeem himself. Red Winter brings to the forefront the true axiom of the brutality of war; one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

The writing is superb, building upon setting and pace, the plot moves steadily along until it becomes a powerful momentum and the hopelessness of Kolya’s journey becomes apparent to everyone but him. Smith has written a novel of such intensity that it will become difficult to find its equal this year. This is the kind of novel that has been lost to the market as of late as everyone seems to be reaching out for the much lighter fare. That is too bad because this is the type of story telling that is worth standing up and taking notice of.

A terrific read!

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