Reviews of The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

The Half Life of Valery K

by Natasha Pulley

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley X
The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
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  • Published:
    Jul 2022, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Kingdoms, an epic Cold War novel set in a mysterious town in Soviet Russia.

In 1963, in a Siberian prison, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive: the right connections to the guards for access to food and cigarettes, the right pair of warm boots, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life so he won't go insane. But one day, all that changes: Valery's university mentor steps in and sweeps him from the frozen camp to a mysterious unnamed city. It houses a set of nuclear reactors, and surrounding it is a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within.

In City 40, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he's expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises. Why is there so much radiation in this area? What, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?

Based on real events in a surreal Soviet city, and told with bestselling author Natasha Pulley's inimitable style, The Half Life of Valery K is a sweeping new adventure for readers of Stuart Turton and Sarah Gailey.

Excerpt
The Half Life of Valery K

Sverdlovsk was an ugly industrial city. Outside the airport, it was so warm that there was a misty rain glinting on the steps and the lamp posts and the bonnets of the taxis. There was no need for a coat, even. He was staring at the film of water moving under someone's windscreen wipers when the KGB lady hailed a taxi and put him in it.

Immediately Valery was enfolded in the glorious smell of hot leather and vodka, and what must have been a dab of furniture polish inside the heater. He moved along the back seat to leave room, but she didn't get in; she was going to Moscow. Valery twisted round, taken completely by surprise. Wherever he was going, it wasn't standard practice for the KGB to just leave a prisoner alone with a random cab driver.

Again, he wanted to ask what was going on; but if she slammed his fingers in the door, his bones would turn to powder.

She shut the door and thumped on the roof. The driver set off.

Maybe the driver ...

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Reviews

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Caught between the requirements of the Communist state and his own conscience, Valery embarks on the most desperate gamble of his life. Can he and Shenkov escape City 40? At what cost? Together, they confront an imminent man-made disaster and inhuman scientific experiments while finding in each other those things they thought were lost — hope, love and redemption. The Half Life of Valery K is a vivid evocation of the Cold War era with a plausible premise, beautifully rendered characters, clever dialogue, well-researched science and a satisfying ending. Readers should make space on the bookshelf and return to this deeply human story again and again...continued

Full Review Members Only (673 words).

(Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
Pulley's broad perspective distinguishes her work from that of more-routine thriller authors. Studded with memorable characters and deepened by its exploration of thorny moral issues, The Half Life of Valery K is gripping popular entertainment with a pleasing intellectual heft.

Daily Mail (UK)
Pulley's impeccable prose, vivid and shot through with tenderness, lends a glint of lightness to this unsettling story.

Booklist (starred review)
From state tyranny and crimes against humanity to ingenuity and valor under deadly pressure as well as humor and forbidden love, Pulley's brilliantly conceived, vibrantly realized, and complexly suspenseful tale is all the more resounding in the glare of Russia's recklessness at Chernobyl during its latest, horrific invasion of Ukraine.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The provocative, unsettling latest by Pulley revolves around a horrifying and secretive research project deep in the countryside of the Soviet Union in 1963...Her dark humor, which turns on the blind faith given to Soviet authority figures despite their outlandish claims, combines with complex characters and a clear understanding of radiation science to yield an explosive blend. The chilling result feels all too plausible.

Library Journal
Scientific research, KGB shenanigans, queer love, and the heartache of suffering children are just a few of the enriching intricacies Pulley traces with intelligent wit and confident narration. A gifted writer of well-drawn characters, Pulley has given the nuclear noir genre a fresh and stimulating take on Chernobyl-style terror.

Author Blurb Vaseem Khan, author of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
Pulley adds to her impressive oeuvre with another exquisite novel. Many of the author's trademarks are on display here: a finely-drawn period setting, a vein of dark humor, a plot blending historical fact and fiction, and a protagonist seeking to do the right thing in the face of a brutal political machine. An illuminating and immersive historical tale.

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Beyond the Book

The Kyshtym Nuclear Disaster

Map showing radioactive traces in the area of the Urals after the Kyshtym disasterWhile Chernobyl may be the first incident that comes to mind when someone thinks about nuclear disasters in the 20th century, this event actually had a precursor in the USSR: the "Kyshtym disaster" of 1957. Basing her novel The Half Life of Valery K on this event, author Natasha Pulley's fictional "City 40" is modeled on Chelyabinsk-40, or as it is known today, Ozersk.

Nestled in the Ural Mountains in the Chelyabinsk Region, Ozersk is home to one of the biggest nuclear facilities in the Russian Federation, the Mayak Production Association. Established in 1948, Mayak played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program, responsible for producing plutonium and tritium, as well as highly enriched uranium. Russian state ...

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