Mystery, Historical Fiction
Bloomsbury Publishing; July 26, 2022
384 pages (ebook)
7.75 / 10 ✪
I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Bloomsbury & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.
In Soviet Russia, the government monitored everything, but especially its own citizens. In 1937, Valery Kolkhanov was sent to Germany by the government to study biochemistry and radiology so that he could use what he learned for the benefit of his motherland. It was an educational and cultural experience that Valery never forgot, though it exposed him to more than he bargained for.
And then, in 1956, it got him arrested.
Jump forward to 1963, where we find Valery in a Siberian gulag, a Zek (a political prisoner) interred for that fateful time spent abroad. Time, if you remember, that the government sponsored. Serving his sixth year of a ten-year sentence, Valery’s priorities are food, warmth, avoiding frostbite, and keeping his head down—though he’s under no illusions regarding his future. He will die here; it’s just a matter of when.
Only the government still has use for him, it seems. Scooped up from Siberia, Valery is transported thousands of kilometers only to be dropped in another site, albeit a much different one. There are townsfolk and apartments, a lake and a reactor, scientists and guards. This, is Chelyabinsk 40.
Chelyabinsk 40, or simply City 40, is a radioecological research facility established to study the longterm effects of radiation on the environment, so that it might one day benefit humanity (i.e. the Soviet Union). Valery is but one of a growing population of scientists stationed at the Lighthouse, a scientific facility built to study the effects of the Event that occurred in the Techa River basin in 1957. An event that is never spoken of, but that left the lake and forest in a 40km radius heavily irradiated. But from what, no one is saying.
Even as Valery begins his research, he’s struck by so many more questions than solutions. In part due to the faulty data he’s been provided. Intentionally faulty, it seems. More than that, why is there so much radiation in the region? Or even, how?
Even more mysteries emerge the more he looks into it. Where is the radiation coming from, and why aren’t the citizens informed about it? Who are the mysterious people living in the forest, and why are they disappearing? What happened in 1957, and how does it relate to the present?
And if he’s to go fishing for answers to these questions Valery might not even live as long as he had had they just left him in Siberia.
That peculiar thing was happening, the one that had happened in Leningrad when Valery was young; everyone knew one thing to be true, but everyone was obliged to keep insisting it wasn’t. Gosh, of course everyone who’s arrested is guilty. Of course Truth only prints the honest-to-god truth, it’s in the name.
Of course the radiation is fine.
It was Sunday, and Valery was still curled up in a ball in bed, watching Albert turn his tank heater right up. On the reasoning that an octopus was the best person to know how warm or cold an octopus wanted to be, Valery had shown him how to use it and put an octopus-friendly lever on the dish, in case dripping shorted the electronics. It seemed to work, and it saved him from worrying that Albert would freeze in the night.
I’ll admit that I mostly just skimmed the prompt for this one before requesting it. An epic from the Cold War set in a mysterious town in the USSR. It got classed as science fiction and fantasy, so it was a shoe-in. Vibes of Wayward Pines and various Cold War spy thrillers. Therefore upon starting it I was curious about exactly how fast and loose it was going to play with history.
It turns out not very much.
Before reading this I was at least familiar with the Malak incident in Russia, which was at the time the worst nuclear disaster in history (it has since been moved to third—behind Chernobyl and Fukushima), despite the wider world not knowing much about it. Like, for example, what the hell happened, or how. Or why. But this book—despite being a work of fiction—fills in many of the blanks. Now, the story is still fantasy; Valery and Shenkov, Resovskaya, the octopus, pretty much the entire plot. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of what happened in it was real. The gulag may not have homed a chemist named Valery Kolkhanov, but it held thousands of political prisoners (and millions more), sent for the very real crimes of speaking English, have visited Europe, getting drunk and vocally disagreeing with the government, or getting outed by people they’d never met on charges that couldn’t possibly have been real. City 40 may not have been the scene of a thrilling plot like this, but it was the scene of a very real and very secretive nuclear incident, a radioecological research zone, and a real laboratory know as “the Lighthouse”. Sufficient that I was wondering how much would be real and how much would be fiction: the setting was entirely real; the history was entirely real; the plot was entirely plausible, but just as much fiction.
Natasha Pulley totally nailed the USSR vibe. Pretending everything’s fine even when everything points to the contrary. Paranoia is rampant. Everyone overanalyzing everything they say with the fear of being sent off to Siberia. Optimism also being a trip to Siberia rather than a bullet in the head. Women actually being contributing members of society, except where science is concerned. Communism and Russia seem to go hand in hand, except that the two together is almost completely nonsensical.
This was a slow build, one that took me longer than I’d’ve liked to get into. For the first third/half of it I had it pegged as a six star (out of 10) read. But as the mystery stretched, the story dug its hooks into me, and there was an octopus introduced—it gradually ranked higher and higher. So much so that I’d class this at about an 8—quite enjoyable and entertaining, but just ever so unfeasible.
This part, however, was easy for me to peg. For as much as I appreciated the romance, it was just hard to sell as anything more than a friendship. Yes, it was plausible, but not in a way that felt very real to me. Now, this might’ve been because I’d been immersed in the plot and the romance felt like a distraction from it, or it might have been that it felt like something inane—a budding friendship that just kept pushing the bounds of belief. Whatever the case, it was mostly this that I objected to. Sure, there were a few little things in the story as well—some of the language, the flashbacks—but the science seemed on point (I’m a physicist, not a chemist), and the story was wickedly entertaining, so who am I to argue?
A story set around the mysterious Malak incident in Russian USSR, the Half Life of Valery K takes place in a secret Soviet city where everyone is expendable and no one is safe. Radiation has crippled the countryside and permeated its citizens. And it’s up to the scientists of City 40 to stop it from happening again. An entertaining and immersive mystery once it gets going, the Half Life features strong characters and an interesting story, if a weak romance that only really takes over on its back half—like it was added as an afterthought to everything else. With vibes of Wayward Pines and every spy thriller set in the Cold War, this was definitely a book I’ve no trouble recommending, and an author I’d very much like to see more of!