Inspired by true events, The Half Life of Valery K takes readers to 1963 Soviet Russia, where a secret project threatens nuclear disaster.
Scientist Valery Kolkhanov has spent years in a Siberian gulag focused only on his own day-to-day survival. When he is summoned for a special assignment, he assumes it will be his execution, but instead he finds himself in the strange community of City 40. The top-secret city is surrounded by a forest ravaged by radiation, and Valery’s former mentor wants him to assist her in studying the long-term effects of radiation on the environment.
Elated to be free of the gulag, Valery embraces his assignment at first, but eventually he begins to suspect he’s not being told the truth about City 40. The radiation appears to be much more severe than it’s said to be, and Valery believes the residents of the city and potentially the entire Soviet Union are in danger.
Valery’s every move is monitored by KGB agent Konstantin Shenkov, an enigmatic man who becomes an unlikely ally. As Valery uncovers more secrets surrounding City 40, he and Shenkov find themselves drawn together in a forbidden attraction.
Natasha Pulley expertly reveals the mysteries of City 40 piece by piece, along with the secrets Valery himself is keeping. Valery knows his feelings for Shenkov would get him thrown back in the gulag if discovered, and the two men play a dangerous game hiding both their relationship and their investigation from the authorities. Valery is also something of an unreliable narrator, often questioning his own sanity as the events around him become more bizarre. Readers will be forced to question whether his insights into City 40 are accurate or the result of a mind plagued by nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Based on the Kyshtym nuclear disaster of 1957, The Half Life of Valery K is a compelling window into a terrifying and lesser-known aspect of the Cold War. With unexpected twists, a paranoid atmosphere and a fascinating narrator, this novel is a superb work of historical fiction as well as an excellent mystery.