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Dazzling Historical Fiction

By Miscellaneous | Books | July 17, 2009 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | July 17, 2009 |

Despite my love for Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s critically-acclaimed debut novel, I hadn’t been planning on reading its sequel, The Secret Speech. Child 44 followed the search for a serial killer who targeted children, and, even though math has never been my strong suit, I think it’s pretty obvious that fiction + serial killers = WIN. Who can argue with logic that rock solid, right?

That’s why I couldn’t help but feel let down when I read the blurb describing The Secret Speech. There was no mention of serial killers or dead children. Instead, I read about politics, speeches, and criminals. I was not intrigued. Nevertheless, when Mr. Stephens requested a review for Pajiba, I wasn’t going to refuse.

The result? Relief — not to mention a large helping of satisfaction. The Secret Speech is just as much of a page-turner as was its predecessor. And, for those who enjoy seeing murderers get their comeuppance, there’s plenty of that as well.

The Secret Speech picks up about three years after the events of Child 44. Leo Demidov has been granted his own homicide department, an astonishing turn of events given the State’s insistence that such crime is impossible in a Communist regime. Things are going well between Leo and his wife, Raisa, who now have no secrets between them. Their family life isn’t entirely perfect, however, as they struggle to create a home for their adopted daughters, Zoya and Elena. Considering Leo was responsible for the death of their parents, it’s not surprising that raising these two young women won’t be easy.

Life continues in this way until Nikita Khrushchev goes and ruins it with his “Secret Speech.” This speech, delivered to the 20th Communist Party Congress, condemns the brutality of Stalin and vows reform. Khruschev begins to release prisoners from labor camps and promises to end the atmosphere of political repression that has been the hallmark of Soviet life. Despite Khrushchev’s good intentions, everything is thrown upside down. The good are now bad, the bad now good.

No one anticipated that some released prisoners would seek revenge against those responsible for their imprisonment. Soviet bureaucrats begin to die, and Leo and his family become a target. Soon, Leo is racing through foul sewers and across icy seas to save his family from a gang leader who wants to exact revenge. Thankfully, Leo Demidov is a machine, never wavering despite injury after injury.

Yes, at times the reader must suspend belief a bit, as Leo has quite a few close calls, some a little too close for comfort. Some characters seem a bit too exaggerated, some scenes a bit too incredible. Thankfully, the plot barrels along, leaving the reader little time to care about such minor issues.

However, the novel’s real strength lies neither in its plot or its badass protagonist. The Secret Speech dazzles by showcasing Smith’s ability to clearly render post-Stalinist Russia without relying on wordiness or over-description. The constant fear and paranoia experienced by all Russians feels tangible, and readers can easily understand the calculating nature one must assume to survive.

Despite the novel’s frigid atmosphere, which makes it the perfect complement to a cold day and a warm fire, The Secret Speech is an excellent summer read. From beginning to end, The Secret Speech is gripping, providing intellectual depth without overly taxing the brain. The clear prose allows the reader to easily imagine scenes as they unfold, and the fast-paced plotting and short chapters help the reader quickly steamroll through this hefty novel. I’m looking forward to Smith’s next effort, serial killers be damned.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

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