Honed by years of fighting in the war in Chechnya and months of torture which resulted in the loss of his foot, Alexei Volkovoy has become a legendary figure in Russia’s black market. At his side is the enigmatic and exotic Valya, his lover and body-guard. Her beauty and slight frame hide a dangerous ferocity which equals Volk’s, forged through years of abuse. Together they navigate the dangers of a lawless Russia, shifting allegiances and an underworld where nothing is as it seems.
Volk owes allegiance to two equally deadly masters: Maxim, a psychotic Azeri kingpin, and “the General,” a military commander. Both have commissioned Volk to steal a long-lost painting from a hidden room within the Hermitage Museum - the luminous Leda and the Swan by Leonardo Da Vinci. Unfortunately for Volk, his masters aren’t the only ones seeking Leda and it will take more than luck to get out with his life – and the painting.
Volk’s Game is the debut thriller from Brent Ghelfi, whose extensive travel is evident in the compelling portrait he paints of life in modern-day Moscow and St. Petersburg. Against this backdrop, Ghelfi positions his modern-day Robin Hood, a “wolf” (the meaning of Volk’s name in Russian) who shares his ill-gotten gains with military widows and amputees less fortunate than himself. The weekly visits of “mercy” he makes, and the flashbacks to the six months spent in captivity in Chechnya, are the only windows Ghelfi provides into his character, yet they provide insight into this troubled anti-hero.
A gangster with scruples, Volk knows that the distinctions he makes (he doesn’t trade in children) mean little within the broader picture: “contemplating the sad truth that I use children in the same ways he [Gromov] does. My reasons may be different, and pictures and petty crimes might not be as horrible as forced prostitution and slavery, but the price of wasted lives is unchanged no matter what they are used to purchase.” As exciting a ride as the central mystery is in Volk’s Game, the part which makes the book impossible to put down is the inner battle Volk fights daily between his natural violence and his hidden compassion. He flips on a dime, one moment exacting horrific retribution on an enemy and the next he spirits away the neglected baby of a drug-addled prostitute, determined she’ll have a better life.
Through everything Ghelfi throws into this merciless ride, Volk is still shown with to possess human weaknesses. He may possess a super-human ability to battle through pain but he is still affected by his love for Valya and his scruples – weaknesses which can ultimately be used against him in the race for the Leda.
Inevitably, readers may wonder if Ghelfi means Volk to be a mirror for the current state of Russia, portraying the two sides of a country attempting to adjust to the aftermath of decades of war, corruption and poverty. An open and “compassionate” country to visitors willing to leave behind their money, the violence against her citizens and those who “cross” politicians is the stuff of legends.
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Publication Date: June 12, 2007
Book Website: volksgame.com
tags: books book reviews mystery Brent Ghelfi Alexei Volkovoy debut novel