Volk's Game by Brent Ghelfi

In discussing the soon to be released Volk’s Game by Brent Ghelfi I wanted to take a slightly different approach (as if I had a standard approach around here). I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast different reviews; a sort of “dueling book reviews” (see here and here for movie review examples of this format).

Let’s allow the publisher start things off. Here is the publicity book description:

A firefight reverberates through Moscow’s dark, rain-soaked streets; shattered glass and screams echo in the air. In the lawless ways of Russia’s capital city, the gunmen melt away into the night. Two men are dead, the targets not what they seem. A shadowy figure lopes along the riverbank outside the Kremlin walls. Known to all as Volk, a battle-hardened veteran of Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya, he prowls Moscow’s grim alleyways, a knife concealed in his prosthetic foot at all times. As both a major player in the black market and a covert agent for the Russian military, Volk serves two masters: Maxim, a psychotic Azeri mafia kingpin with hordes of loyal informers; and a man known only as the General, to whom Volk is mysteriously indebted.

By his side is Valya, an exotic beauty charged with protecting her lover from his unsavory associates. Valya is the most dangerous weapon in Volks arsenal. Together they are commissioned to steal a long-lost da Vinci painting called Leda and the Swan from St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. Ledas ethereal radiance is undeniably captivating and incalculably dangerous. Volk must choose which powerful man he will betray in order to escape with the painting and with his life. With the high-octane rush and vivid intensity of a feature film, Volks Game delivers at every turn, announcing Alexei Volkovoy as the boldest hero of a new generation.

Next up, Publishers Weekly:

Former attorney Ghelfi’s impressive debut introduces a compelling antihero, Alekei “Volk” Volkovoy. A brutal killer maimed in Russia’s war against Chechnya, Volk leads two lives—one as a powerful gangster with a hand in virtually all underworld rackets, the other as a covert military operative. When Volk gets the chance to steal a previously unknown Da Vinci painting, Leda and the Swan, which has been concealed beneath another painting in a St. Petersburg museum, Volk enlists the aid of Valya, a beautiful assassin, in plotting the theft. After an ostensible ally sabotages the operation, Volk seeks vengeance. The twists and turns accumulate at an almost dizzying pace, building to a satisfactory resolution. Frederick Forysth fans will appreciate the crisp writing. This thriller could mark the start of a successful long-running series.

Last but not least, Kirkus Reviews:

In this testosterone rampage, a super-studly master thief pulls off gonzo caper in post-Soviet Russia. Having absorbed every cliche of Bond-knockoff tale-telling-the outsize villains, the world-weary cynicism, the sexy girl-debut novelist Ghelfi breathlessly parlays them all again. The girl is comely Valya, whom protagonist Volk (the name means “wolf”) meets cute as a “mud-masked Chechen fighter dwarfed by the smoking Kalashnikov she carried.” Volk is a “Special Forces wunderkind” who loses a leg in combat after weathering five years of the “assault of rapists, skin-fillet artists, flesh-burning pyromaniacs, and other assorted torturers.” The former foes become squeezes and then a sort of Hart-to-Hart on amphetamines: boy/girl desperadoes. Guns for hire, they’re enlisted by rival Very Bad Guys.

Their mission impossible is to break into the Hermitage, St. Petersburg’s ultra-secure treasure trove of big-name artworks. Under a canvas by the obscure Pierre Mignard, a stunner has been discovered-one of the 15 paintings actually done by Leonardo, the only artist-since the canonization of Dan Brown-of whom popular entertainment knows the existence. Volk/Valya have to nab it. Moonlighting from his day job of manufacturing porno, Volk constructs a head-spinningly elaborate game plan, requiring Valya’s “renting an ancient four-seat Moscvitch, two Lambretta scooters, and a skiff, buying secondhand clothes and scuba gear, and arranging drop points.” Predictable betrayals, sex scenes and violence ensue. Lurid, if not original.

All three give a good chunk of their word count to plot description. They all tell us this is a fast paced thriller set in mafia dominated world post-communist Russia with a lead character shaped by the war in Chechnya. Sex, violence, betrayal, etc.

But is it any good? Obviously the publisher thinks so: “With the high-octane rush and vivid intensity of a feature film, Volks Game delivers at every turn, announcing Alexei Volkovoy as the boldest hero of a new generation.”

PW calls it an “impressive debut” and notes “The twists and turns accumulate at an almost dizzying pace, building to a satisfactory resolution. Frederick Forysth fans will appreciate the crisp writing. This thriller could mark the start of a successful long-running series.”

The rather snarky tone of the Kirkus review gives the game away but a conclusion anyway: “Predictable betrayals, sex scenes and violence ensue. Lurid, if not original.”

So if I had to pick one of these takes which one would I choose? I would have to say the Kirkus. I found the violence and sex a little over the top as well. I agree with the publisher that the novel has a filmic quality to it. Unfortunately, I don’t mean this as a compliment. Like so many movies these days, the book has a lot of action but less substance. I agree the pace is relentless and the twists and turns keep coming, but in the end I am not sure there is much to the book except violent action. I like a little thought to go with my thrillers.

And I think this is where things can be subjective. One’s taste has a big role in the enjoyment of these types of genre novels. If you don’t mind a strong dose of sex and violence – Kirkus’s lurid – then you might enjoy Volk’s Game more than I did. Similarly, some reviewers seemed to have enjoyed Volk as an anti-hero while I found his character hard to understand. For example, Ghelfi tries to give Volk a softer side – helping out widows and former soldiers – but he remains a cold bloodied killer who makes his living off a crime and porn. Ghelfi gives him an art history degree, and gives him some passionate emotions surrounding the painting at the heart of the plot, but I am not sure I buy “the dark and sadistic but with a humane core” image.

Since I have mostly stolen quoted other’s reviews for this post, let me end it with someone else’s conclusion as well. I think Karm Holladay sums it up rather well:

What is there to like about Volk’s Game? A lot, actually. The writing is good, and the action fast-paced. The underpinning of detail is incredible: you really feel like you walk the streets of Moscow, seeing the sooty raindrops hit the cracks in the sidewalks, the drunken beggars tug frayed sleeves down over chilled wrists, and the pigeons streak the statues of Communist heroes with droppings. The military and criminal stuff all rings true. The dialog crackles with slangy energy. Volk is intriguingly complicated, and the plot itself contains even more twists than his troubled psyche.

What is there to dislike about Volk’s Game? Only the violence, which goes far beyond the average level in mystery fiction where people merely get shot and die. Volk tortures a woman in one scene, and a man in another. Elsewhere, we hear about even worse events, including something happening to a stolen-goods distributor that I can’t even mention on a family-friendly website. If that weren’t enough, villains cut off someone’s foot just for the heck of it.

However, if you can say, “Eh, it’s just fiction!” and take it all in stride, you’re in for a good read.”

I think that is probably a fair balance between the short reviews noted above. Volk’s Game won’t be confused with literary fiction, and it is heavy on the violence, but it does offer some fast paced entertainment.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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