Perhaps the greatest success of the novel is Powers’ ability to get inside Leonid’s head, to paint a portrait of the psychological whiplash he’s endured throughout his life ... Powers is unafraid to probe the confounding, often darkly comic answers to these questions, even if the answers are sometimes frustratingly uncertain. This attention to emotional detail, combined with a powerful supporting cast and a masterful sense of historical table-setting, makes First Cosmic Velocity a delightfully complex page-turner for space enthusiasts and fans of alternate histories. You will never look at the space race the same way again.
First Cosmic Velocity...is an absolute gem of a book, a tale of tragedy disguised as triumph. It is a beautifully-crafted work of literary genre writing—part historical fiction, part sci-fi, with hints of family drama and magical realism thrown into the mix as well. It’s a story unlike anything you’ve read, told from a perspective unlike any you’ve experienced ... Everything about First Cosmic Velocity works. The concept is outstanding and the execution is exceptional. The attention to detail is phenomenal, allowing for a clear and vivid picture of the behind-the-scenes chaos of the Soviet effort ... the characterizations are sharp, capturing the inner turmoil of those struggling with the moral and ethical ramifications of the work being done—and the willingness to push through in the name of scientific achievement and nationalist glory. What Powers does so beautifully is immerse the reader in the world that he has created.
First Cosmic Velocity is a cleverly conceived and beautifully delivered novel that looks at the struggle for space supremacy from the Soviet side of the Cold War ... The darkness and gravity of the narrative is mixed with stirring prose and dialogue that make First Cosmic Velocity a novel of ideas from the Cold War era.
... [a] low-key yet stirring, black-humored debut novel ... although Powers does not minimize the canonical looking-over-one’s-shoulder paranoia or the brutal power hierarchies, the dominant effect of the book is intimate and personal and fabulaic ... has a lot of gravitas, mixed with a Catch-22 vibe at times. And although there’s not a lot of ancillary speculation outside the central novum, the narrative offers plenty of cognitive estrangement ... Powers’s plot is low key and subtle and slow-moving, save for a couple of vivid and tense moments of crisis, both involving technological disasters ... Overall, the tale is a Kafkaesque parable of the seductive power of lies in the service of bold and worthy aspirations ... the story of breaking through the veils of identity that stiflingly enwrap us and blinker us, in public and private, and seeing the stars for the very first time.
... accomplished, emotionally rich ... As unlikely as this premise may sound, Powers creates a compelling, deeply engaging story about the value of human life under the pressure of politics ... Powers skillfully handles the complex emotions and relationships among the individuals in this top-secret program, which makes for a very satisfying read ... An impressively realized work that will be welcomed by those interested in literary fiction, Cold War history, and early space programs.
In his debut novel, Powers masterfully evokes postwar Russia and his inventive plot offers moments of tenderness and grace along with interjections of dark humor. Themes of family, home, and identity are explored with great pathos and psychological acuity. The dichotomy of national ambition versus the day-to-day heroism of citizens is a timely and timeless reminder of what makes a nation great. For fans of Anthony Marra.
At the outset, I found the author’s use of official titles, the lack of real names, and the initial cardboard characterizations to be a potential liability. But as Powers develops the grounded Leonid’s earthly journey, we begin to discern a slow and steady reveal of the man’s skepticism, increasing self-awareness, and drive for connection and freedom ... defied my predictions. I thought the novel was going to be a satirical narrative of conspiracy theories that would concretize my simple view of Russians. Instead, Powers’ story about identity, individuality, and family is quite moving.
Powers’ writing style is delicate and almost otherworldly ... each word is carefully chosen, every sentence deliberately flowing into the next ... this novel feels more like it’s drifting through space than moving along a clear orbit. Even so, scenes centered on the characters’ emotional lives are touching, and the dreamy tone brings a touch of fantasy without pushing too far into whimsy. A lovely and hopeful story from a promising writer.
Powers...endows his stoical, driven characters with distinctive personalities and the capacity to reflect philosophically on their charade ... Powers’s deadpan depiction of the ruse that drives his tale and the historical figures duped by it will give readers pause to wonder if it really is that improbable.