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Night Soldiers: A Novel
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200 of 203 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 25, 2001
With "Night Soldiers", Alan Furst began a sequence of espionage novels set in the Europe of the late 1930's and early 1940's. Note that I said "sequence" and not "series". Only two of the six novels published thus far feature the same hero, but all are connected by time and place and the recurrence of certain secondary characters who step from the shadows in various books. Although, perhaps there really is one constant, recurring central character -- the city of Paris. Inevitably, Furst's heroes sooner or later pass through Paris.
Alan Furst's greatest skill perhaps lies in his ability to create an all-pervasive sense of Europe caught between the terrors of facism and Stalinism. "Night Soldiers" takes us from Bulgaria to the Soviet Union to Civil War Spain to France to Eastern Europe again. Mostly the story is seen through the eyes of Khristo Stoianev, initially a Bulgarian lad recruited into the Soviet NKVD, eventually a spy, a criminal, and a partisan. The emphasis is not on spy-thriller type "action" (although "Night Soldiers" does contain a healthy dose) as much as it is on covert operational technique (for which Furst's work deserves very high marks for authenticity). It may be that the book is a little overly ambitious, with Stoianev becoming ensnarled into an improbably broad range of events in several countries, but it provides an absorbing portrait of a continent gone mad.
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96 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2003
Night Soldiers is one of Alan Furst's longer novels, a fact that was most pleasing to me as I was carried along by the compelling story. I encountered him a few years ago in my never ending search for new authors of espionage/intrigue stories and have read all but his most recent novel. Reading other reviews I'm reminded that Mr. Furst approaches this genre much as Eric Ambler did, taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary circumstances. But as much as I've enjoyed Mr. Ambler's work, I find Alan Furst's writing more nuanced. He exhibits the skill of the finest writers in his evocation of place. I was transported over and over again into the world he created with his words. I appreciate the fact he brings his readers into locales not often explored in this genre. We visit Bulgaria and Spain in this book and Hungary/Poland in the Polish Officer. And his presentation of pre-war Paris is magical. As a student of history I am especially fond of writers who give me a grounded experience of both time and place. Alan Furst does both extremely well. If you haven't read him, do. If you have, you surely need no encouragement to read more. (If you like Alan Furst, you might want to check out Robert Littell whose most recent book is Company - a Novel of the CIA.)
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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2003
For those of you unfamiliar with Alan Furst, he currently writes espionage thrillers set in Europe between the mid-1930's thru WWII. I say currently because Furst did write some earlier novels unrelated to this, but most people know him for his WWII era spy novels, of which Night Soldiers is the first.
Another feature of Furst's novels is that no matter where they start or end, all of the books wander thru Paris at one time or another... and not just the City of Lights and Romance, but the dark underside of Paris also. Furst also likes the have some consistency between his later books, so usually there will be one character who will apppear again in another book, perhaps with a different face...
Night Soldiers is the story of Khristo Stoianev. The story begins in Bulgaria of the 1930's. Khristo has the misfortune of watching his brother killed by local fascists. After this, he himself is marked and so it is with some convenience that a Soviet agent recruits him to go to the Soviet Union. Khristo undergoes training at a KGB school for foreigners, and makes contacts that will follow him through the book. He also has early exposure to the mindless horror of the purges...
From the Soviet Union Khristo goes to Spain... and from Spain to Furst's stylized pre-war Paris. Unfortunately, to say more would be to spoil too much of the plot. Khristo's story wanders through WWII: the plot twists, turns, and is sometimes a little farfetched but is always exceptionally well written, atmospheric and engaging. Furst occasionally will make a small historical error but its never enough to interfere with enjoying the read.
I've read all of Furst's WWII books, and Night Soldiers was my absolute favorite. I was tempted to give it a four stars because of few small historical errors but I'll stick with five! Don't take the history as absolute gospel but enjoy the book as you would a few hours watching Casablanca. It really is the same type of experience.
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2010
I have read seven of Alan Furst's eleven (as of 2010) spy novels in rapid succession, so I think it useful to offer these general comments on them as a group, not on "Night Soldiers" per se. But I link this review to "Night Soldiers" because I consider the latter to be the best of Furst's spy tales. It was his first, and it is the longest. That gave him scope to write not just a good spy story but a great novel portraying the deformation of human character entailed in the making of a Soviet KGB (actually then an NKVD) agent. In that regard, the novel draws inspiration from Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," a defining novel of totalitarianism published 70 years ago, which Furst acknowledges as deeply influencing him. "Night Soldiers" is a worthy successor to "Darkness at Noon," and that is major praise, indeed.

But after "Night Soldiers," Furst began to write books not 450 pages in length but 250-300, and has done so in fairly rapid succession. In sum, I suspect he "went commercial." And thus the later books are not really compelling as literature. But, they ARE tremendously entertaining and beautifully crafted. I've gotten "hooked" on them, even though I almost never read fiction.

Their theme is the same: Furst writes about people who, by accident or profession, are caught up as spies or resistance agents in the maelstrom of Europe (especially France and Eastern Europe) during the late 30s and the WW II era. His books offer many pleasures. First, he has the settings and details of pre/trans-war Europe down cold, and so the atmosphere he creates is totally convincing and enveloping--it's rather like "seeing" the movie "Casablanca" in print. I was first introduced to his books by "The Spies of Warsaw," which centered on a pre-war military attache there and his exploits. As a retired US diplomat, I was mightily impressed by how well Furst had "gotten" the workings of an embassy and the bureaucratic squabbles of its relationships with the "home office." That told me he really had absorbed and understood the background context of his novels.

Second, Furst is a master of plot and of interweaving several different chains of human stories towards a final end, and he is deft in bringing even minor characters to life with a few vivid strokes. It is a pleasure to see that craftsmanship at work. Third, he is understated, often implying facts rather than hurling them in one's face, which is to say he respects his readers' intelligence. There is an elegant economy to his writing style.

So Furst's novels are generally highly entertaining and a "good read," even if lacking in the kind of deep "message" he delivered in "Night Soldiers," other than the message that human beings sometimes act with quiet heroism and do so for a variety of reasons.

Furst does not like to repeat himself, so the books are not a series depending on one character. Indeed, he has repeated a leading protagonist in only two of his books, that of Jean Casson in "The World at Night" and "Red Gold," and those novels should be considered together as one, because the first spends about half its length setting up the character and context of Casson, whose plot potential "blooms" most fully in the second novel.

If Furst's books have a (minor) weakness, it is in his portrayal of sex. One has the impression he feels compelled to include such episodes as part and parcel of the spy novel genre, or as a humanizing or human interest element in his characters. These scenes are done with taste and discretion, but I am rarely convinced he is comfortable with them or that they really "fit" into the novels other than as a felt obligatory inclusion. They often feel awkward, if not gratuitous. But they usually are over rapidly (which heightens my suspicion that they are "by the numbers" episodes), and then one re-embarks on the intricate, but very realistic spy plot twists and turns which make the books a joy to read.

As noted, I've read seven of Furst's spy novels (and eventually will read the others). Here are my recommendations as regards those I've read:

Best: Night Soldiers
Next best: Dark Voyage; The Spies of Warsaw
Still good: The Polish Officer; The World at Night; and Red Gold (the latter two achieve their full potential only if read as a pair)
Less recommended: The Foreign Correspondent (less engaging because there's not enough happening and the stakes don't seem that high).
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2005
Alan Furst is the anti-LeCarre. John LeCarre is still mired in the 1960s nihilism which holds that Communism, Fascism and Democracy are all moral equivalents, so that it doesn't matter who runs the world. That's all well and good as long as you have an English Channel between you and the sonderkommando and you have no moral compass. Alan Furst takes the exact opposite view, that there are things worth fighting for and that consent of the governed is preferable to genocide and torture. Furst writes better than LeCarre, too.

In some ways, Night Soldiers is my favorite Furst novel. One follows the course of his protagonist's life for eleven years, so the reader gets to know the character and watch his development. As Khristo, the hero, goes from Bulgaria to Moscow to Spain to Paris to Prague and then down the Danube, his attraction to, and later, his disenchantment with, Communism are clearly understandable.

Furst also tells the story from the viewpoint of a number of other characters, which is an interesting effect. Best of all, it is the longest of the Furst novels, which allows the reader to stretch out the pleasure of one of these great works of literature.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2006
This is my first reading of an Alan Furst novel and I am overwhelmingly pleased. By far, this is the best spy novel I have read in a very long time. It reminds me of Graham Greene and Robert Stone. It is told with such nuance, historical detail and sympathy to tragedy that it holds you throughout.

The book is also a wonderful construction in story telling. Furst's novel is essentially about Khristo and the friendship he makes while training with the NKVD, how they become disenchanted and their lives during Europe's upheavel during through the 1930s and 40s. But the story is really told as five novellas. The first tells of how Khristo is recruited, his training, has friendship and his relationship with different mentors. The second involves his betrayal during the Spanish Civil War. The third has him trying to live an independent life in Paris before the war, and how he is drawn back into the shadowy world of espionage. The fourth involves his life with the French Resistance. The final story involves a trip into Eastern Europe as German armies flee Russia's advance as Khristo tries to his old mentor defect; and so we see World War 2 end as the Cold War begins. Throughout these stories the main character Khristo matures. We see the world through his eyes and those closest to him. Through that vision we see the horror of war, the tragedy of wasted life, the simple sins that undue us, and yet also the redeeming elements of human nature.

The espionage is wonderful, the spycraft seems right, but what works for this story is less the elements of genre but the elements of literature. You have richly drawn and sympathetic characters. Even the minor characters stand out as real people. The historical detail and flavor is authentic and rich. It is flavorful, as if you have gone back in time and can feel, smell and touch, as if you've gone back through a time machine.

This is a commendable effort, richly detailed and elegantly written. If you enjoy period literature or even a good well written spy story, this is what you should read.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2002
Alan Furst explores pre and war time Europe though the eyes of Khristo Stoianev in his book Night Soldier. Khristo is a Bulgarian youth who watches helplessly as his younger brother is kicked to death by Nazis. Feeling powerless he hooks up with revolutionaries. Soon he must flee from Bulgaria and journeys to the Soviet Union to train as a spy. Night Soldier's is a chronicle of his life through a turbulent time as Khristo journeys through Europe.
Furst tells this story of intrigue and war with great skill. The story begins with the brutal death of Khristo�s brother and continues from one war torn setting to another. It appears that there was no place of peace and hope for the people of this time and place. Furst clearly defines the brutality of the period and the difficult moral choices which the people of Europe were faced with. He has peopled the story with intriguing characters who react with courage, strength, cunning, avarice and fear. Many like Khristo are trying their best to see their way through these years to survive.
Khristo is an ever interesting character. First driven to do what is right he is given a taste of the difficult choices in the life of a spy, when a lover betrays him and his superiors request that he take care of her. He soon finds the Russian tentacles under Stalin to be as evil as the Nazi's who he is fighting. He would like to elude them both and tries to, but in a warring Europe it is no easy task.
For those interested in stories set in WWII or tales of intrigue this book is recommended.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 30, 2001
Espionage thrillers {the well written ones,anyway} are always compared to John le Carre. These books are different, more of a crooss between Graham Greenes morally ambiguous thrillers and Charles Mccarry's wonderful Paul Christopher series, and are quite brilliant. In NIGHT SOLDIERS ALAN FURST takes up the sweep of WWII in europe through the eyes of a Bulgarian named Khristo Stoianev.{Night soldiers are spies.} After watching Fascist militia stomp his brother to death, Stoianev embarks on a journet through Russia,barcelona and Madrid in republican Spain, Vichy France, and eventually,back home. The narrative is filed with fascinating historical oddities{the Sovites in Spain robbing 64 million pounds in gold from Spain, then decaring two days later to have discovered massive reserves in the Urals} the labrynith of the NKVD duplicity{the way they set traps is brilliantly presented}.Mr. Furst has obviously done massive research on the history of this era, and it shows. the Spanish civil war in all its crazed glory is etched perfectly, as again the Soviets play games with their own. This is an excellent book,written from the perspective of one of the lesser known countires involved{bulgaria}. Morally unsure if not ambiguous,this is front rank writing, Period.Highy recommended
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 21, 2002
I am fascinated by the books written by Alan Furst. They are all uniformly excellent, and they weave many tales of the Eastern and Central European theaters of World War II, both before its beginning, and then during the war itself. This book is in the same mold, with a dark, brooding atmosphere, and the scent of betrayal behind every action. There is no way for the protagonist to tell who is trustworthy among his aquaintances and comrades, he just must move forward with what he has planned to do. There are, occasionally, love interests in these books, but they are peripheral to the main thrust of the plot, and in this book, unlike some of the others, there is a consistent plot. There are disparate threads of storyline throughout, but they all appear to come together eventually before the book ends. It's clear from these works that the Europeans of that era were much different from the American actions, and what we learn from reading these works is that there was betrayal, but much heroism, during this most tragic of human conflict. I hope that the author continues to write many more of this type of book, for I will definitely read all of them.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2002
Those coming late to the game, like me, are perhaps dimly aware of Alan Furst's prominence, lately, as _the_ World War II spy thriller writer. He's far too young to have any firsthand knowledge of the war, but he spent some of his early life in Paris, a city prominently featured in many of his novels, and he has clearly drank deeply from the well of mid-twentieth century fiction and autobiography. Hemingway, Orwell, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn, certainly, but also, I think, Sholokhov, Sartre, Babel, and other writers who lived through -- or died in -- Europe's cataclysmic struggle with Communism and Fascism: Furst seems to have read them all, digested them and managed to put them back together in a very compelling manner.
Night Soldiers follows a young Bulgarian man, Khristo Stoianev, who is recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1934. By a stroke of good luck, Khristo takes to the NKVD's training extremely well; his bad luck, though, is to be on hand just as the Stalinist purges get underway. The purges catch up to him in revolution-torn Spain, where he has been dispatched to infiltrate the Republican side. This first section of the novel is absolutely brilliant; Furst's re-creation of Stalinist Moscow and Civil War-era Spain glitter with telling details, and the growing weight of suspicion, betrayal and counter-espionage press on the reader as on Khristo himself, forcing one ahead faster and faster with the novel.
Furst's characters are also well-drawn, if rather familiar from the war and espionage novelists of years past: the world-weary Russian spymaster, drinking away his fear; the naive American drawn into a dark world beyond her ken; the jolly Eastern European emigre with a well-worn grudge and a secret plan for revenge. Furst falters somewhat in the later portions of the novel, after Khristo has fled Spain, languished in a Paris jail and joined up with the French Resistance in the struggle against the German occupiers. Here Furst seems to tread water a bit, in particular with the character of an American counterpart to Khristo, similarly drawn into the struggle almost by accident. Things pick up again toward the end, as a last mission draws Khristo -- now in the service of the OSS -- further east, back toward his home, across war-torn Europe.
Furst's novels tell the sort of untellable stories that one can only imagine from the obituary pages, as the last survivors of those years silently pass away. And they tell those stories very well, combining genuine literary talent with a gift for drama and suspense -- if the mainstream thriller moves to meet Furst halfway, airport bookstores will be a much better place.
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