Red Sky at Noon
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
When Benya Golden is sent to the Gulags for a crime he never committed, he joins a penal battalion composed of Cossacks and convicts. In July 1942, after enrolling in the Russian cavalry, he and his fellow convicts are sent on a mission behind enemy lines and told that the only way to redeem themselves and win their freedom is by either dying or being wounded in battle. As they strive to accomplish the mission and fight for their very survival, Benya quickly comes to realize that the only things he can fully trust in are his horse, Silver Socks, and the reality of the advancing Nazi troops as they push brutally through Russia.
The story focuses mainly on Benya, but also includes accounts from other people’s perspectives, such as Stalin or his daughter, Svetlana. By including real historical figures as part of the cast in his book, as well as events that actually did occur, the author combines real history with fictional characters, creating a seamless story that reads as if it really occurred. Montefiore alternates between writing in past tense and writing in present tense, for what reason I am not certain. I enjoyed his use of similes, which I believe serve to better illustrate the characters’ emotions and their perceptions.
What I liked most about Red Sky at Noon was how Montefiore made caricatures out of the Russian government and certain people the reader would already naturally dislike, exaggerating their most irritating mannerisms in a comical way and often portraying their actions as simply a way to achieve a selfish personal goal. This may not be appealing to some people, but I think it highlights well the flaws in these characters as well as the tyrannical rule of the Russian government during World War II.
I felt that the character development in this book was a bit weak. The only character that the author developed was Benya, and even then, only a little. It seemed that I knew as much about Benya at the end of the story as I did at the beginning. Montefiore did include flashbacks of Benya’s time in the Gulags, and while they did give me more information about Benya’s recent past, that information somehow did not translate into a greater understanding of Benya as a person.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for older readers. There is some strong language and a brief love affair between Benya and an Italian nurse, which contains some intimate scenes towards the end of the book, although without gruesome details. However, there is one brief scene in which physical sensations are described. In addition to making an entertaining read, Red Sky at Noon offers a chance to learn more about World War II from a Russian perspective.