Alan Furst's "Kingdom of Shadows" is a perfect blend of fact and fantasy. The book details the exploits and insights of Nicholas Morath, a Hungarian with connections to his nation's aristocracy and highest circles of government.
As the dark clouds of World War II gather over Europe, Morath is swept up in the effort to keep Hungary from becoming a German satellite - or war trophy.
The book lives up to its title. The nuanced plot threads its way through labyrinthine intrigues of Europe on the brink of conflict. And while many books use a cartoonish rendering of war as a backdrop for insidious plots and razzle-dazzle action, "Kingdom of Shadows" takes readers to a far more complicated place.
From Paris to Prague, Furst imbues his locations with wonderful touches of specificity. From Czech fortifications in the hills of the Sudetenland to the Continental cafes of Europe's major cities, Furst brings readers entirely into Morath's world. And in a way as understated as the book's hero, Furst carefully uses quiet details to build his riveting descriptions.
Many of the book's clever insights are plucked directly from the pages of history. But while historical detail provides a rich and fascinating background, the characters of "Kingdom of Shadows" are equally vivid. Morath's relationships with his Uncle Janos, a wily Hungarian diplomat, and his sizzling mistress are taut and convincing.
And Furst's description of Paris as a haven for exiles, emigres, and agents is beguiling, pulled off with the sort of subtle charm that is Morath's trademark.
If "Kingdom of Shadows" stumbles at all, it's from an excess of its own glossy charm. The book's characters are undeniably cool and admirable, but they're often hard to identify with. That aside, the book is a rare treat, a finely crafted spy novel with undeniable substance behind its smoke and mirrors.
James Norton is online news editor for csmonitor.com.
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