A deserter from the Red Army searches for his family in the woods of Russia.
Patriotism turned Nikolai Levitsky into a soldier; idealism turned him into a revolutionary after the Great War. But, sick of the fighting among the Red, White, Green and Blue armies, and eaten with shame for having left his family unprotected, Nikolai put his identity papers and his uniform on a dead man and left his unit to return home. When he reaches his village, where he left his wife and two sons, he finds a deserted house and piles of corpses with red stars branded on their foreheads. An old woman, the only survivor of the recent raid on the village, raves about Koschei the Deathless—the villain of the skazkas, the fairy tales Nikolai grew up with—who’s left his devil’s mark all around him. Nikolai’s encounter with two young women seeking revenge against the man they also call Koschei makes Nikolai suspect that the Chekists, an elite band of terrorists who enforce Bolshevism, wiped out his village and are now looking for him. After he takes shelter with a fellow refugee and his daughter, Nikolai learns how dangerous his presence is to his cautious hosts and dreads that the identity he’s hidden so carefully will cause even further harm. As he follows the ever fainter hope that he’ll find his family, the skazkas of his childhood color his quest: A hero in disguise with both human and animal traveling companions faces adversity in search of redemption and his heart’s desire.
Although the hero’s guilt becomes nearly as burdensome to the plot as to him, Smith (The Child Thief, 2013, etc.) adeptly builds both characterization and suspense in Nikolai’s race to find his family before his former comrades find him.