In 1963, in a Siberian prison, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive. But one day, all that changes: Valery's university mentor steps in and sweeps him from the frozen camp to a mysterious unnamed city. It houses a set of nuclear reactors, and surrounding it is a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within. In City 40, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he's expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises. Why is there so much radiation in this area? What, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?
Exhibiting all the storytelling skills that made her earlier books so readable and popular, Pulley also offers a piercing study of how a police state deforms individual psychologies, personal relationships and professional ethics ... A KGB officer is among the many three-dimensional characters who give Pulley’s narrative human coloring as it hurtles through one horrifying revelation after another toward a bravura (albeit implausible) climax ... Pulley’s broad perspective distinguishes her work from that of more-routine thriller authors. Studded with memorable characters and deepened by its exploration of thorny moral issues, The Half Life of Valery K is gripping popular entertainment with a pleasing intellectual heft.
A compelling story told in a conventional way ... Pulley’s clear, detailed writing style, along with the many-pronged span of this novel keeps the pages turning. The story is interesting, but the storytelling is somewhat bland. Valery is your typical blinkered genius: a character whose naivety (years in a gulag have left large holes in his knowledge) paired with supernatural intelligence, serves the plot but feels like a trope. There is also a love story wedged awkwardly in, along with some forced references to gender politics. And while the book’s attempts to capture the paranoia of living behind the Iron Curtain are adequate — rooms are bugged, characters speak in code, and so on — the prose never mimics this paranoia, and we don’t feel quite as mired in layers of deception as we should. The stakes bear only the illusion of grandeur. The mystery isn’t all that mysterious. Problems resolve themselves neatly. Far too neatly.
Galvanizing ... Pulley’s brilliantly conceived, vibrantly realized, and complexly suspenseful tale is all the more resounding in the glare of Russia’s recklessness at Chernobyl during its latest, horrific invasion of Ukraine.