cover image Red Sky at Noon

Red Sky at Noon

Simon Sebag Montefiore. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $25.95 (416p) ISBN 978-1-68177-673-6

Montefiore’s third novel in his Moscow Trilogy (after Sashenka and One Night in Winter) is a stunning World War II story set on the bloody Russian front outside Stalingrad in July 1942. Benya Golden is a Jewish writer and political prisoner unjustly convicted of treason and sentenced to 10 years in the gulag. Stalin organizes criminals, convicts, and political prisoners into penal battalions known as Smertniki, the Dead Ones, who are thrown into battle as cannon fodder to be redeemed only by combat death or wounds. Benya is assigned to a penal Cossack cavalry regiment that becomes trapped behind enemy lines after a disastrous frontal assault. Only Benya and six other men survive the attack. They link up with a band of partisans, not knowing they are part of a high-level Russian deception plan involving Stalingrad’s defense. Ambush, capture, escape, interrogation, and execution await the Smertniki, as the Germans and their Axis allies and the Russians slaughter each other. Benya’s brief, intense romance with an Italian nurse gives him hope where he expects only death, but there is one more mission he must complete before his life is redeemed. (Stalin and his daughter Svetlana play a role in this story, too.) Montefiore’s immersive portrayal of the Eastern Front makes this a gripping, convincing tale. (Jan.)