Delighted to welcome Dan Smith to Raven Crime Reads to mark the release in paperback of Red Winter which transported readers to the icy wastes of 1920’s Russia. Kolya has deserted his Red Army Unit to return to his wife and children, but finds his home village silent and empty. The men have been massacred in the forest and the women and children have gone. In this remote, rural, Russian community, the folk tales mothers tell their children take on powerful significance. The terrifying legend of Koschei, The Deathless One, begins to feel very real, as Kolya discovers as he embarks on a quest to find his wife and children, and tries to outrun the dark secrets of his past. Here, Dan explains the inspiration for this haunting and atmospheric thriller…
It’s not always easy to explain exactly where a story has come from. Often it starts with the smallest idea, not much more than a fleeting thought that takes root like a seed carried on the wind. But once it settles, it puts out its web and catches other ideas that happen to be blown its way. The seed of Red Winter came to me on the icy breeze that whipped across the snow in The Child Thief. There’s a moment in that novel when the main character is alone in the woods and remembers the stories about Baba Yaga that his mother told him when he was a child; stories his wife repeats to his own children; stories that encouraged me to delve a little deeper into the strange world of Russian folk tales.
I read many of these skazkas, about peasants making deals with the devil, corpses coming to life, cheaters being punished, witches, and lucky drunkards, but there was one particular character who stood out. Koschei the Deathless. He is a terrible, demonic figure who cannot be killed; a creature who steals the hero’s wife, forcing him to endure a series of arduous tasks in order to rescue his beloved. Koschei stayed with me, a shadow lying locked behind a closed door in my thoughts, until my own children turned the key and let him out.
One afternoon I was walking in some local woods with my family when my son suggested we detour from the track. We ventured away from the other walkers and pressed on into the thicker trees. We found ourselves deeper in the woods, where the gnarly trunks grew close together, and when the sun began to set, the cold air darkened and the world felt like a more dangerous place. Of course, I remembered the skazkas and, getting into the spirit of the spooky woods, I told my son and daughter about Baba Yaga and about Koschei the Deathless. Well, like Luka in The Child Thief, my skin began to prickle at the thought of there being something out there, watching through the trees, and I was relieved when we finally came out of the woods onto the path leading back to our car. Safe and sound.
Following his remarkable Ukranian set thriller The Child Thief, Smith returns with another foray into the dangerous and inhospitable territory of Eastern Europe, transporting the reader to the icy wastes of Central Russia 1920. From the very first page you are instantly filled with a sense of dread observing through a returning soldier’s eyes, a village lying still and silent with only the sounds of nature to fill the void. As Nikolai Levitsky observes the Marie-Celeste like environs of his former home, it becomes clear that something evil has cast its pall over the village; the men have been slaughtered and along with these men’s families, Levitsky’s wife and children are nowhere to be found. Could this really be the work of Koschei, the Deathless One, a terrifying figure from Russian folklore or is Levitsky’s fate tied to the consequences of a country in the grip of political and military terror…
What strikes me most about the book is the breadth and depth of Smith’s depiction of location and atmosphere, as we follow Levitsky’s cross country quest in search of his family. As a reader your senses are assaulted at every turn with the harsh and uncompromising nature of the landscape, chilling you to the core as the weather and terrain hamper Levitsky’s progress. In my naivety I believed that there are only so many ways of describing the biting conditions of a Russian winter, but Smith consistently implements such vivid descriptions of these surrounds that further embed themselves in your mind, constantly enriching your reading experience. Likewise, the grim realities of survival within these conditions are unflinchingly described throughout, so much so that you cannot look away and that touch on your humanity as to how people can carve a life for themselves with so much poverty and fear. Not only do they have to survive the daily grind, but find themselves unwitting victims in a turbulent and blood-stained period of Russia’s political history.
No character embodies these characteristics more than Nikolai Levitsky himself, a soldier and officer, now compelled to desert, who is cast into an emotional turmoil by the death of his brother, the disappearance of his family, and a man striving to come to terms with and escape from the horrors he has witnessed in the theatre of war. Levitsky is an essentially moral man, beginning to question his deepest held beliefs and assuming the role of a questing knight as his journey unfolds, and by his interactions with those the damaged souls he encounters along the way; Anna, a young girl who has lost her family, and with Tanya and Lyudmila, two fearless women who have their own reasons for tracking the Koschei. As their courses collide with the vestiges of Levitsky’s previous military life, there are powerful scenes of violence and heartbreak that are truly haunting, and which typify not only the propensity for immoral actions in a war torn country, but what betrayals people must stoop to in order to survive.
With its spare and uncompromising portrayal of the historical period, the intertwining of perfectly placed references to traditional Russian folklore, the harsh environment that chills you to the marrow throughout, and a cast of characters that cannot fail to engage the reader, Dan Smith has produced another remarkable thriller.
Growing up, Dan Smith followed his parents across the world to Africa, Asia and South America. Now living in Newcastle with his family, his writing is still inspired by all corners of the globe. His debut novel DRY SEASON won critical acclaim and an array of prize nominations, including a shortlisting for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award. His second novel DARK HORIZONS was followed in 2012 by THE CHILD THIEF and in 2014 by THE DARKEST HEART. Find out more about Dan at www.dansmithbooks.com Follow on Twitter @DanSmithAuthor