When a well-told tale comes from a first-time author, one imagines the author toiling over each word and becoming so intimate with each of the characters that the author knows the characters better than he knows his own family. Such novels are a pleasure to read, and Rik Stone’s Birth of an Assassin is one of those well-told tales that’s a pleasure to read.
Stone begins the tale at the end of the Great Patriotic War. His details of life in Russia take us back in time to the starvation days of the Stalin era when the only way out of a life of poverty and misery was to join the Soviet army. Jez Kornfeld is the only son of a peasant Jewish family with two younger and one older sisters. Jez dreams of becoming a Soviet soldier. He leaves home and travels to Moscow to enlist. When he asks some soldiers outside the Kremlin where to enlist in the army, the soldiers play a cruel joke on the naïve youngster and send him to Secret Police Headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square. At the Lubyanka, Jez bumps into a uniformed colonel and tells the colonel he came to enlist. The colonel, both amused by the kid’s obvious gullibility and impressed with the little twerp’s enthusiasm to become a soldier, sends Jez to boot camp where Jez meets and falls in love with Anna. After initial training, the colonel sends Jez to Spetsnaz for additional training and select assignments. Jez excels and is quickly promoted up the ranks to lieutenant.
Unfortunately, although he has killed men and women and even became a torturer of traitors at Lubyanka, Jez remains gullible. He is framed for murder and accused of operating a human-trafficking ring that sells women into prostitution. Jez learns what it’s like to be tortured himself in the basement of Lubyanka Prison. I won’t spoil the brilliant plot by telling how Jez meets Anna again, but I will say that complications ensue. Every time things seem to be going right for Kornfeld, complications develop.
What makes the story special isn’t the vivid detail and historical accuracy of the settings. It’s the brilliant characterizations. We care about Jez and his problems, and we want Jez and Anna to live happily ever after. But Jez is a hated Jew in Soviet Russia, a wanted criminal, and we worry about him incessantly. He has a lot going for him, but he had even more going against him. We cheer his occasional triumphs, and we weep at his disappointments and mental and physical anguish. Sometimes we don’t even care if he ever achieves happiness. We just want him to survive.
Birth of an Assassin may seem overly long and take forever to read, but we keep reading anyway. That’s my definition of a well-told tale. I hope Rik Stone writes new novels. I’ll be looking to buy them when they appear.