“Be First or Be Dead” by Nik Krasno and Alex Shaw

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Just when things look like they’re starting to go well for Ukrainian *businessman* (cough) Misha Vorotavich, Russia begins a full-on invasion of Ukraine, and Misha finds himself the scapegoat on both sides for all Ukraine’s problems. Misha has to act, but what is he going to do–go along with the cartel inciting violence in order to snap up shares cheaply, or try to rescue his beloved Ukraine from itself?

Now in his forties, Misha is starting to think a little more seriously about the consequences of his actions, but that doesn’t mean he stops cheating on his wife with random girls he meets in clubs, it just means he feels the occasional pang of guilt afterwards. I think he’d make a great reformed anti-hero in a sort of Raskolnikovian fashion, but first he’ll need to suffer first. He seems to be making the first steps down that path, so we’ll see how he develops if the series continues. As it is, he treats everyone around him, especially women, as objects to manipulate, which is probably a very accurate depiction of an oligarch’s character, but not very endearing. He does have a strong Slavic sense for the absurdly humorous or the humorously absurd, which infuses the entire book and lifts it out of the gloom and doom that could have otherwise taken it over. I’m not sure how well Western readers will “get” it, but it is strongly reminiscent of the blank-faced, tongue-in-cheek humor of Gary Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan” or “A Russian Debutante’s Handbook.”

The best aspect of the book for me is the depiction of the incredible mess that Ukraine and Russia have found themselves in as the result of decades of poor economic policies, with the disastrous post-Soviet efforts at privatization taking front and center. Western writers have a hard time even grasping the nature of the issue, offering superficial fixes and moralistic platitudes instead, but through Misha we see just how f****d up the situation is, and how Westerners who try to reform things just end up getting sucked into the corruption instead. Misha isn’t really a deep thinker, but he does spend a while discussing the pros and cons of capitalism vs. communism with the other characters, and ends up proposing a kind of enlightened, socialist feudalism as the best alternative. Marx may be spinning in his grave, but Misha may be right that this is the best option Ukraine has for fixing things. In the short term, Misha settles for taking control via violence, in a series of gripping action scenes.

The concept of a “guest star” appearance by another author is new to me, but it works well here, and the guest star chapter is a well done addition and introduces a new character, the enigmatic Aidan Stone. What role Aidan will play in the story as it unfolds will presumably be revealed in future installments…

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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