MYSTERY

The Half Life of Valery K.

Bloomsbury USA Jul. 2022. 384p. ISBN 9781635573275. $27. THRILLER
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British novelist Pulley (The Kingdoms), noted for her speculative fiction and fantasy titles, here builds a thriller on the true story of a 1957 nuclear explosion near Chelyabinsk, a city in Siberia. Even today, the scientific record of this horrific incident is uninformative. The potential for catastrophe in this still-secret radioecological research center is alarming. Pulley imagines a second disaster in her volatile alt-history exploration. In 1963, Valery K, a biochemist sent to the gulag for political crimes, is reassigned to a lab in the center’s “chocolate factory,” where radiation research is ongoing. Very quickly he catches on to the explosive dangers bubbling in the lake where waste from 1957 was dumped. The people in charge pooh-pooh his concerns but he snags the attention of the resident KGB director. In an awesome twist, the two heroes work to prevent another massive blowout.
VERDICT Scientific research, KGB shenanigans, queer love, and the heartache of suffering children are just a few of the enriching intricacies Pulley traces with intelligent wit and confident narration. A gifted writer of well-drawn characters, Pulley has given the nuclear noir genre a fresh and stimulating take on Chernobyl-style terror.
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