The Boy From Reactor 4 is Orest Stelmach‘s debut novel, having had some success with his short stories in the past. The author is a first generation Ukrainian-American, and he’s put his background plus a good deal of research about his mother country to excellent use in this lightning-paced thriller.
We meet Nadia Tesla, a Wall Street type who lost her job during the crash and became a part time PI. One day, she’s invited to meet an elderly main who claims to have known her father. She turns up to meet him and their conversation has barely started when a car pulls up and he’s gunned down. In his dying breath he whispers the words, “Find Damian, Find Andrew Steen… They all… Millions of dollars… Fate of the free world -.”
As the gunman is about to fire again, a man rams the shooter’s car and rescues Nadia. He claims to be a doctor but she sees through this false pretense and runs off to the nearest police station. Strangely, they’ve not been contacted about any shooting and she’s rudely given the brush-off. She does a bit of digging around, finding that her father had a brother called Damian back in the Ukraine, but he’s believed to be dead. Then, Nadia is grabbed by an old Ukrainian gangster called Victor Bodnar, along with Misha, a younger Russian who’s an even nastier piece of work. They’re angry with her for breaking up an art theft ring they’d been working and want compensation.
Intrigued by the old man’s dying words, she heads off to the Ukraine to try and find her long lost uncle, and she’s followed out there by Victor and Misha who believe that Damian Tesla stole $10 million from the Communists a few decades ago. They think he’s dead but that that Nadia will lead them to the money. Yet another bad man is waiting for her in the Ukraine too – Kirilo Andre. Kiev’s gangster number one, he’s also Victor’s cousin, though they hate each other. It turns out that Damian Tesla’s legacy isn’t money, it’s his son Adam, who was born in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Nadia’s mission is to find the boy and escape with him back to America. Adam might hold a very valuable secret and Victor, Misha and Kirilo want it.
The plot flies along with plenty of twists as Nadia evades her pursuers. They chase her through the catacombs of Kiev – the Monastery of Caves – where various saints lie. She flees to Chernobyl, dealing with the threat of radiation, and the crazy, dying people who inhabit the place. Even though it was evacuated decades ago, it seems a whole economy has grown up in the shadow of the reactors. When she finds Adam, they escape into Russia, still chased by the violent gangsters. Before long they’re heading out into Siberia, through places you’ll have only heard of if you’ve played the boardgame Risk.
The Boy From Reactor 4 is an intense read, delivered in 87 whip-smart chapters. It’s full of excitement, but the pace is too unrelenting. Sometimes, the author gives you the background at the very last moment before further lashings of action, so there’s little sense of depth. The chase across Siberia gets a little like the Keystone Cops, with the protagonist sneaking around the stations, swapping trains and hiding in cabins. The bumbling gangsters lose their menace by degrees each time they’re thwarted.
The most interesting thing about the book is the background of the gangsters themselves. They live by a code that goes back to the time of Peter the Great, when the thieves of Russia formed a guild with a complex set of rules which were handed on to subsequent generations in prison. A variety of gang tattoos from Russia and the Ukraine, along with the vorovsky mir subculture, are explained through Victor and Kirilo. Kirilo thinks Victor is not a real vor, he’s a bitch because he fought in Stalin’s army against the Germans.
This fast-paced thriller will take you around the world. It’s just £1.99 on Kindle right now, and during March the author is donating half the money raised by the book to the charity Chernobyl Children International.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars