There’s a part of me that wants to write this entire review through uncomfortable analogy. So I will start there: imagine Top Gun within the world of Enemy at the Gates. Or The Calculating Stars reimagined with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Sound fun?
So this is a first novel by a writer who also works in film and television and acts as a secret history (written in a godlike third person narrative perspective that hyper focuses on our lead character but also will dive into other characters who show up for cameos — I’ll explain). This novel is about a Russian boy who experiences a horrific scene of sexual violence in the opening chapter and this both sets the tone and the theme of ruthless Soviet supremacy over his life and body, as well as supplanting in him a kind of ever-present trauma that does not ever give him a sense of the future (and again acts as a kind of metaphor of Soviet ideology). So he becomes a pilot and earns his career, experience, and valor not in the “Great Patriotic War” of his adolescence, but in flying air defense missions during the Korean War, a war that the USSR was never officially a part of. So rather than having a great cause, like the fighter pilots of WWI, his purpose is built on personal glory of dogfighting. In these early sections we see him go against his comrades for glory, but specifically against named US fighter pilots — all of whom we recognize as the future astronauts of the space race. And from there, we follow our protagonist on his own journeys through the USSR cosmonaut program.