The first book of the Birth of an Assassin series is set on the backdrop of post-war, Soviet Russia. In Moscow, 1947, young Jez Kornfeld, a Jewish citizen, enlists in a military recruitment drive to fulfill his starry-eyed ideals of what it is to be a soldier.
What Jez doesn’t predict is that he has enlisted in something far more sinister than the regular corps. When a sinister KGB operative takes special notice of young Jez he makes a decision that pulls the youth into a hideous world of murder and intrigue that he never dreamed of. It soon becomes clear that Jez has only one way out, if he decides to take it: to kill.
As with the second book in the series, The Turkish Connection, Stone shines in his heartfelt descriptions of both the true depths, rock-bottoms, and hidden gems of life on the streets, evidently born of some experience. The theme of young boys taken into secret, murderous operations is once more explored, and unlike the sequel, opts for a more classic setting of skulduggery.
The post-war Soviet Moscow setting is perfect for the story and is used well in all ways, with the Jewish heritage of the protagonist Jez never feeling like some cheap tactic of sympathy like some other stories. His evolution from the naive war-boy to a seasoned and desperate killer is slow but clear-cut from early on, and you see the spark in him that originally demands the attention of his to-be mentor. Both the setting and characters are rich, even if not fully explored, leaving a great deal of conjecture for the reader to expand upon themselves.
The plot is complex and full of important, small details, down to the exact orders and methods in which Jez finds himself carrying out his tasks. These details come down to blood and bone, with gory descriptions at times to make a potential reader wince. Compare with subtle and softer moments such as a hovering romance and flashes of hope throughout. While the history aspect is definitely strong, those without the interest can be safe in knowing that knowledge isn’t a barrier of entry to the novel, standing strong on its own story alone.
The cover of this installment is no less than gorgeous and completely fitting of the tale. Both The Turkish Connection and this original share a motif in their hooded, every-man young male protagonist, and this one has excellent composition with a singular light and a half-concealed agent standing menacingly off-center behind him. It is a cover truly worth praising and sticks out prominently and proudly among similar novels in a collection.
Birth of an Assassin is a very well-crafted piece that will appeal to a varied range of readers, if they can stomach some of the darkest parts of the story. While never egregious, some readers may find the subjects involved to be exploring more sensitive areas than they might prefer, given, if nothing else, the setting. To others, a satisfying historical thriller awaits.