In his U.S. debut, British author Mercurio traces the fictional trajectory of a Soviet-era cosmonaut from orphan to military ace to moon-lander.
After his entire family dies in World War II, Yefgenii Yeremin winds up in a Stalingrad orphanage. Between his indifferent overseers and his sadistic fellow wards, there’s not much to recommend the place. Luckily, Yefgenii has a head for math, which catches the notice of the orphanage director and wins him a ticket to flight school. From there, it’s on to Korea, where the young man makes a name for himself as perhaps the greatest fighter pilot Russia has ever seen. His lust for glory, however, eventually leads to disgrace, and at the war’s end, Yefgenii is sent away to a far-off Siberian posting where it’s expected he’ll while away the rest of his career out of sight and out of mind. Except, of course, he doesn’t, snagging instead a spot in the cosmonaut-training program through a series of happy coincidences (or perhaps unhappy, in the long run). Mercurio ably crafts long, delightfully lyrical passages, but he also overwrites. Beyond matters of style, the primary problem here is Yefgenii. As we follow the cosmonaut from childhood through his final venture in space as an aging hero, he betrays almost nothing about himself except his ambition. The author displays high ambition, covering themes of duty, disgrace and redemption, and Yefgenii’s story possesses a certain grandeur. But the character himself is a cipher, a prop to build a plot around.
The protagonist never quite comes alive, and so neither does the novel.