Saturday, May 24, 2014

Red Shadow by Paul Dowswell


Russia, 1940. Fifteen-year-old Misha’s life is about to transform when his father is offered a job in Stalin’s inner circle. They move into a luxurious apartment in the Kremlin, but doubts about the glorious new Russia quickly surface. Misha realises that the secret police can do whatever they like. His own mother is arrested and sent to prison, but Misha and his father daren’t complain. Then as German troops advance on Moscow, the atmosphere in the Kremlin ignites. Misha and a friend find themselves at the heart of a battle against the mighty state in this powerful evocation of one of the most turbulent places and periods of the 20th century, told by a master storyteller.


Life in Stalinist Russia at the onset of World War II was a time of fear and uncertainty. Even if your father was one of Stalin’s most trusted advisors. Dowswell paints a gritty, realistic and well researched portrait of the political intrigue that seethed behind the Kremlin walls just prior to the Nazi invasion. The plot twists and turns carrying the reader on a rollercoaster ride that seems destined to end in darkness. 

Dowswell’s well-drawn characters draw the reader into the midst of the chaos and paranoia as the bombs begin to fall. Friends and neighbors disappear, spirited away by the Black Ravens. The story plays out against a rich background of vivid images and memorable secondary characters.

The story line also pays tribute to those few courageous individuals who are compelled to stand up in the face of oppression and help those who are unjustly persecuted. The many layers and storylines of this novel blend together seamlessly. I look forward to reading more works from this talented author. 

About The Reviewer - Nancy Bell is an award winning author, editor, a horsewoman, wife, mother and grandmother who lives near Balzac, Alberta with her husband, four horses, two ponies, various dogs, cats and whatever else happens to wander into the yard. 


Paul Dowswell set himself quite a task in writing Red Shadow. It’s no wonder that he struggles a bit before finding his footing. Historical fiction is tricky enough to write for an adult audience. Putting historical events into a young person’s point of view, in hopes that history will call across time to modern youth --- that’s even harder. Add to this the challenge of presenting a wartime story, in this case one without a clear enemy, leaving the protagonist (and the reader) in constant emotional confusion.

Protagonist Misha, a Soviet teen during Stalin’s rule, lives a fairly luxurious life in the Kremlin. Yet his mother is snatched by the police and presumably “liquified” for being an “enemy of the people.” Every day Misha and his friends must decide what is safe to say, and to whom, lest their candor lead to their demise.

The Nazis are marching toward Moscow. Yet it isn’t Hitler’s troops that prove the greatest threat to Misha’s survival. Rather, it’s Stalin’s government, turning against its own people in paranoia that crosses over into madness.

In trying to pull the reader into such a politically and psychologically complex world, Dowswell overcompensates at the start. The first quarter of the book is densely encyclopedic. What should be highly-charged scenes (like the arrest of Misha’s mother in the prologue) are reported clinically, without believable emotion.

However, by the second half of the novel, Dowswell gains confidence. He trusts in himself, his readers, and his characters. There’s more action and psychological truth, and less historical detail for its own sake. 

Red Shadow turns into a breathless tale about a dizzying time in Russian history. Dowswell deserves praise just for approaching such a tale in a YA novel. And, on the whole, he triumphs over the challenges. Would that the people of Moscow had fared as well against the two despots who tormented them.

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