When I first saw the summary of this book, I was stoked. A historical epic that touched upon some of my favorite topics, Jewish culture in Russia and Cossacks?! Plus, it reminded me a lot of my friend Tete's book in progress, "70 Fierce Years."
Admittedly, the first two chapters were great. The action and prison scenes are vivid, and Benya (the protagonist) is mostly a mystery, so we want to read more about learn about him. Unfortunately, the book fell flat after the first two chapters.
First, Benya is flat. Besides being scared of killing and death (since he's a writer), he doesn't have many defining characteristics. We only get more details about Benya's personality, way of speaking, and backstory until page 200 something (the book is approximately 400 pages long). This wasn't a good choice, in my view, because while it keeps us curious about him, we aren't invested in what happens to him. The first half of the book shows us tons of violence and action, but we can never answer the question, "Why should I care about Benya? Who is he? What kind of person is he?"
Second, Svetlana (Stalin's daughter) is more interesting than Benya as a character. I really liked how the book explored her relationship with her family and how she goes from trusting her father to realizing his flaws (and how scary he can be).
Unfortunately, I didn't think Svetlana had to be in the story. She felt like filler - how exactly did her story tie in with Benya's? At the very end, they do meet and interact for a brief period of time, but otherwise, they have no impact on each other. Same with Svetlana's love interest, Lev. He had no reason to be in the story.
Third, the romance was poorly written. It was just there for the sake of being there. Both couples - Benya and Fabiana and Lev and Svetlana - were unconvincing. Other than being physically attracted to each other and having some interesting conversations, I didn't understand why they wanted to be with each other. The author tells us over and over again that they had never met someone before who understood them so well, but he just tells us this instead of showing us. Yes, both pairs have great conversations, but there's more to attraction than conversations and sex. It just felt like filler, like another box to be checked off because every historical epic has to have steamy romance, right?
Fourth, many parts of the book made no sense. For example, the author failed to adequately explain why Fabiana suddenly rode off with Benya, even though she knew she was betraying her people in doing so. It seems like she only did this because she loved the conversations she had with him and she felt attracted to him. This feels incredibly unrealistic, especially since Fabiana is a mature woman in her mid-thirties who is part of the Italian war effort. She knows what's at stake!
Finally, there's too many characters. Right from the get-go, we're bombarded by names, names, names! Yet, most of them aren't adequately developed or given a personality other than the bare basics. As such, when they die, we don't really feel anything. What could've been a riveting, moving historical drama becomes a stale "laundry list" of historical atrocities, deaths, action scenes, and love scenes.
All in all, the author did a great job on research. However, research doesn't make a great novel. Characters and dialogue do. And he needs to work on his characters and dialogue. Much of the dialogue, especially between Lev and Svetlana, is utterly unconvincing.