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Book Review: A Storm in the Blood by Jon Stephen Fink

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The first line of the press letter that accompanied my copy of A Storm in the Blood said it best. “Jon Stephen Fink is a man obsessed with heroes and villains.” Having just finished reading Fink’s Further Adventures, I was beginning to suspect that this obsession was as paradoxical and tangled as true obsession often is. Fink may write about heroes and villains, but in his fiction, the white and black hats are traded throughout the story. Ultimately, he captures the hero and the villain in each of us. A Storm in the Blood is no exception.

Set in Edwardian London, A Storm in the Blood imagines the unknown events surrounding a real-life terrorist attack. In December of 1910, a group of Latvian revolutionaries were discovered by the London police while breaking into a jewelry store. The deaths of three policemen at the hands of the revolutionaries became known as the Houndsditch murders. Later, police and military surrounded a house on Sidney Street, where some of the revolutionaries had taken refuge. When the siege ended, one man whom law enforcement had anticipated finding had disappeared. Peter Piatkow — alias “Peter the Painter” — thought to be the ringleader, had vanished.

In this post-9/11 era, one would expect that any story depicting extremist terrorism would have the terrorists as its villains. In A Storm in the Blood, however, Fink shows us that life is far more complicated. With a close-third person point of view that shifts from one character to the next, Fink shows us that the answer to “how did we get here” is “because we are human.” By depicting the domestic details of the lives of these revolutionaries, Fink reveals how human nature and human error lead to disaster and violence.

Not an apologist, Fink does not laud or condone the actions of his characters. Yet, he shows how even those innocent in the eyes of the law can propel events toward cataclysm. In A Storm in the Blood misunderstanding, intolerance, chains of circumstance, misplaced ideology, and petty jealousies and betrayals weave the fabric of destruction.

When ideology and the need for survival collide, violence and extremism are born. Fink imbues A Storm in the Blood with disturbing parallels to modern terrorist threat and social politics. In A Storm in the Blood an immigrant group is marginalized, and forced into an insular society. Those within this group who hold strong political ideals, power, or prestige direct events which are fed by the mistreatment and mistrust of the outside world.

Rivka, a teenage refugee, flees Russian persecution in Latvia where she has become wanted through a misunderstood attempt to save her father. Arriving in London, she is welcomed into a group of Latvian revolutionaries with a socialist agenda. Initially, Rivka is uncomfortable with the role she has been given as a revolutionary heroine, and keeps herself aloof from the group’s politics. However, after being swept up in a mass arrest of women as she passes a suffragist rally, Rivka is abused at the hands of the British police. This mistreatment is the catalyst that sends Rivka onto the side of the radicals.
The character of Peter epitomizes Fink’s complex approach toward good and evil. An historically noted terrorist, Peter should be one of the bad guys. Yet, the character of Peter the Painter comes across as sympathetic. Fink draws the portrait of a man caught between ideals and ideology, torn between camaraderie and love.

Although it is far darker in tone than Further Adventures, I found A Storm in the Blood to be more readable. Fink’s depiction of immigrant life in Edwardian England is compelling, and his pacing is flawless. Without overwhelming, the action grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

Yet, A Storm in the Blood is far more than a thriller. As the events unfold, Fink shows how violence and fear combine to produce an atmosphere where guilt is presumed and all members of a group become tainted by association. His newspaper clippings show how media fuels the fear and xenophobia. The parallels between the treatment of Latvian Jews in London at the time of the Houndsditch murders and the treatment of Muslim immigrants in many Western societies today become obvious. In the end, one is left wondering how societal factors contribute to terrorism. There are villains and heroes in all of us.

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