Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Review: "The Secret Speech" by Tom Rob Smith

In this sequel to Child 44, British author Tom Rob Smith picks up with Leo Demidov three years after he's established the Homicide Division within the KGB, formerly the MGB. The Homicide Division is not held in high regard, but Leo cannot conscientiously work for the government doing anything else after the events in Child 44. 

The first scene in the book is actually a significant flashback to when Leo first started his work with the MGB. It is this scene that informs much of what transpires in The Secret Speech, and provides additional background for Leo. Initially, the link is unclear, but as events unfold the reader is pulled into the know. It's hard to forgive him for his blind obedience, but Leo's character is still pursuing his redemption; an arc that I imagine is resolved in the final book of the trilogy.

The speech referenced in title refers to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 address admitting Stalin's crimes. The speech is anonymously dropped off at a print press, deposited into every teacher's mailbox, and leaked through various other methods. At a time when propaganda and fear held the Soviet Union together, the speech was viewed as a serious threat. A threat that soon becomes clear when dead bodies start to turn up. Leo's team begins an investigation into deaths of previous MGB officers and other high ranking officials seemingly linked to crimes named in the speech. The speech is used as a catalyst to create social unrest, exposing these men who condemned their comrades to the gulags, torture, and death. It's clear that there is an underground movement taking place in an attempt to exacerbate the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Like the first novel in the trilogy, The Secret Speech is told from a third person omniscient perspective, allowing the reader to inhabit the minds of many different characters throughout the course of the novel. For those who read the first book, you know that at the end Leo and Raisa adopt the daughters of a couple who were inadvertently killed on Leo's watch. Leo's guilt and desire to make life easier for these girls now left in the horrible state orphanage system, and his wife's inability to bare children, lead to this decision to adopt.

The elder daughter, Zoya, remembers the death of her parents and cannot forgive Leo even though he tried to stop it from happening. Much of the story is propelled into motion when Zoya is kidnapped by Fraera, the leader of a vory gang. Fraera knows Leo, and the connection to first scene of the book is made, and she is seemingly punishing him for his crimes against her and her husband. Leo and Raisa both spring into action, their bravery matched by what we've already experienced in the first novel. Only this time, Raisa is hurt and is left out of most of the action in the story. This immediately disappointed me as a reader, as I believe Raisa to be a strong and interesting character. The focus shifts to Zoya, who is basically an angry teenager, and to Fraera, who is defined by her vengeance and little else.

Leo must pursue his missing daughter by himself by submitting to Fraera's demands. It's not that I don't like Leo, but he and Raisa made great partners in the first story. Leo's solo journey into one of the gulags to free Fraera's still imprisoned husband was a horrifying glimpse into what Russia did to hundreds of thousands of people. Smith is able to capture the historical significance without letting the setting override the main action. I will say that Leo is incredibly lucky in both books, and I don't know if that feeds into him just being a bad ass agent, or if we're just supposed to overlook his seemingly impeccable ability to escape every sticky situation just because he's the main protagonist.

Raisa makes some surprising character decisions while Leo is gone, and I don't think they were consistent with the relationship the two developed in the first book. Eventually, Leo and Raisa set out in pursuit of Zoya together, who has been located in Hungary participating in protests against the Soviet Union. But then they break apart again, and the reasons for Raisa's anger at Leo just feel weightless and un-grounded. Add to this the fact that Leo never reflects upon what happened with his brother in Child 44, and it makes you wonder if the first book was just a figment of your imagination.

The Secret Speech is much more politically motivated, and Leo seems more like a fly caught in a web. In the first installment, Leo and Raisa were driven by their own sense of purpose and seemed in control of their fate. Yes, that fate was ultimately death, but they had a crime to solve first. In this story, the involvement of the children seems to cloud their judgement, splintering their relationship after all they've been through and making it feel as though the growth that occurred in Child 44 was as breakable as a piece of china.

The plot was intriguing and the history is well researched, but I felt something lacking in the characters in this installment. Perhaps I liked Child 44 so much that I am holding my standards a bit too high, or maybe Smith just failed to deliver a convincing sequel with these same characters. There is a third book in the trilogy, but I'm not sure if I'm going to read it. Child 44 was perfect in many ways, and I almost wish Smith had chosen new characters to explore the social revolution following Stalin's death. It was a successful formula in the first story, but Leo and Raisa seem faded in The Secret Speech. I was entertained, but ultimately unimpressed.

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