Coming in June Red Sky Noon

Red Sky At Noon by Simon Sebag Montefiore June 2017 £16.99

See Meet the Author .

What is the difference between historical fiction and fictional history? After reading this novel, I’m not sure it matters. Here we have, published this month, the third in a trilogy set in Russia during the Second World War, of which the first two, Sashenka and One Night In Winter, have already won critical acclaim, but which (unlike Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy) stand alone rather than needing to be read in chronological sequence. Benya Golden, a Russian-Jewish middle-aged writer, finds himself caught up in the atrocities involved in the German advance of 1942 towards the River Don and Stalingrad. He has been enrolled in a brigade of Shtrafniki, Stalin’s ‘penal battalions’ of imprisoned Soviet citizens released for cavalry training, owing to the shortage of tanks. The action swings between the broad grassy plains where the fighting is taking place, and the city of Moscow where Stalin's daughter Svetlana is feeling the stirrings of adolescent passion.  Dr Montefiore handles the plot like an old hand. The easy pace of the writing and dialogue belies its dynamic intensity. The characters spring into life and remain consistent yet surprising. There is a considerable cast of participants, some historical like Stalin, Beria and others, but mostly fictional or based loosely on real people. There is plenty of wanton cruelty and there are interludes of love, but none are described merely for their own sakes. The author’s credentials as a first-class historian allow confidence in the essential verisimilitude of the narrative, though in the Author’s Note at the end he insists 'it should be enjoyed as a novel, no more, no less.' Anyway, it’s no mere potboiler. Within a short fragment of human history (adjusted to suit the story) all humanity is here, whether in the relentless struggle for national and personal domination or in the still greater forces of freedom and love. It’s hardly War and Peace (for one thing, some of the language could be said to lack Tolstoyan gentility), but it shows impressive versatility from a writer and TV presenter who has given us Catherine the Great and Potemkin and The Romanovs and much elseI shall definitely turn up to hear the author himself later this month. If there’s room. By Mark Greenstock