REVIEW: Motherland by GD Abson (Natalya Ivanova #1)

Series: Natalya Ivanova

Book Number: 1

Read this book for: Russian setting, female detective, thriller, police procedural, contemporary mystery, kidnapping plot, complex thrillers

Quick Review: Dark, gritty and violent, this is a thriller that borders on noir, with an atmosphere that conveys the complex spirit of modern Russia.


The first in a gripping series of crime novels set in the seamier side of St. Petersburg, featuring sharp, yet compromised policewoman, Captain Natalya Ivanova. Student Zena Dahl, the daughter of a Swedish millionaire, has gone missing in St. Petersburg (or Piter as the city is colloquially known) after a night out with a friend. Captain Natalya Ivanova is assigned the case, making a change for Natalya from her usual fare of domestic violence work, but, because of the family’s wealth, there’s pressure for a quick result. As she investigates she discovers that the case is not as straightforward as it may seem.

MOTHERLAND is the first in a series set in Putin’s Russia by GD Absen, that follows Captain Natalya Ivanova as she tries to navigate the complexities of police politics while trying to properly serve justice. This is a thriller at its heart, but readers who are sensitive to extremely violent scenes may want to reconsider this, as there are moments that may make you squeamish.

This is the first in the series (the next novel is due out soon), and I’m looking forward to seeing it continue. There is enough of Ivanova’s personal background contained in this story that it will likely be an essential read for anyone wishing to read the remainder of the series.

The most unique part of this series and of this novel is the atmosphere that beautifully displays the complex nature of the Russian spirit and culture. Abson’s writing really shines here, because it breaks the Soviet stereotype so common to crime novels involving Russia, showing a truly modern, cosmopolitan country but not forgetting its past and quirks that are relics of that time. It adds to the gritty, raw feel of the novel overall, giving it an almost noir edge, where money is required to open certain doors, and with corruption commonly occurring in the ranks of authority. It also plays a huge part in the actual plot of the book.

The plot is relatively unlikely outside of the setting, but feels very realistic within it. At its heart, this novel is a kidnapping thriller, with really solid procedural foundations and a healthy dose of excellent detective work. It spans a huge gamut of crimes and themes, including police corruption, gang involvement, glamorous lifestyles, domestic thriller suspicions between spouses, personal danger, gun fights, and car chases. It is reasonably complex and wraps to a satisfying conclusion through a few decent twists and turns, and despite its slow start.

One of the other fantastic things about this novel was the choice of Captain Natalya Ivanova as the main character. There are not enough female detectives in crime novels, but the choice here is a bold one, also serving to break some of those Soviet stereotypes. Following Ivanova allows Abson to highlight areas of progress and modernization, and those places where things are still done the old way. Ivanova herself is also an interesting character: she is strong, liberated and are of herself in a way most often seen in the hyper-driven female detectives in some popular Scandinavian crime series (TV shows like THE KILLING, and THE BRIDGE). However, she also benefits from a great deal of nuance as a character, because she is not cold and emotionless like her Scandinavian counterparts. She cares about her career, but also about her family. She is willing to play within the corrupt system sometimes, while in other instances taking a stand against it. She feels very real, and is a pleasure to read about.

MOTHERLAND is a well-crafted thriller that shines for its atmosphere, setting and characters. Pick it up to read before the series continues in the next few months!

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