-Review by Kazza K
Paulie's Tale is quite a lengthy book at around 440 pages, and spans from 1975 through to the end of the 90's. It starts out (in what was Yugoslavia) with Ismet and Parveen, two young people who live the old way on farms, but decide to run away to marry - one family is Albanian, the other is mixed - the mother is Muslim - so there is discord from the parents about them marrying. Then, several years later, Ismet and Parveen are married and have a son Pavle (Albanian) Paulie (Anglicised). Pavle has...abilities, which worry his mother, but on a trip from the city to the farm, to see their parents, grand parents and a great grand parent, Pavle's abilities come out -
The Baba turned to them. "This boy is favoured with gifts, she announced. He is like me and my sister whom some called a witch....She could sense things others could not. She could cure sometimes with just thoughts and inflict pain sometimes too.
"Ismet, you must bring him to me every six months. I will help him learn to control them"
Ismet looked at his wife. Parveen sat with tears in her eyes. She nodded, "I thank you, Baba. I feared he was damaged somehow. Now I know he is well."
Ismet and Parveen live in the city as Ismet is in the Serbian army. They try to make sure Pavle's abilities stay in the family but it becomes known through events - it's hard to cover up certain things when you are young. Eventually, as Pavle grows, he is taken to a special school, one for gifted children. Only the school isn't all it is made out to be. The people who run it aren't the nicest and have 'challenges' that are to be met by the children - all of whom have different abilities, including Pavle. Here, at the Institute, twelve year old Pavle meets eleven year old Kirrill, and they become fast friends and lovers as time passes. There are other boys, including Alexei, who uses his abilities to prey on children in a sexual manner. I have to say there is a very dark undercurrent during their time at the Institute. You know that Kirill is being sexually abused by one of the professors, and then there is a scene of on-page rape. It is short but it is there.
The boys escape after a while. They go to Pavle's parent's who spirit them away to Ismet's parent's farm, but know it is only a matter of time before the authorities come and take them away. If Ismet lies he will be in all kinds of trouble, being in the Serbian Army. The boys get to have some time away, but Kirill decides to run when they are sat down and told by Pavle's family they will be going back the next day. When Pavle is taken back it isn't to the Institute but to another place for gifted children, the Academy. Kirill follows Pavle and decides he doesn't want to live without him, so he gives himself up and goes to the Academy with Pavle. Thankfully the Academy is nothing like the Institute and the Professor who runs it, Gustavo, is a decent man. He does things outwardly to make the local authorities feel that they are strict, but within the campus things are pleasant. Here Pavle and Kirill are bonded lovers, even though they are still young. They have a symbiotic connection through their gifts. It is now 1994 and outside the war is very real; Pavle and Kirill wonder when it will come to them and what they will do -
The Serbian Army was in the process of exterminating the Albanian Muslims and driving them southward into southern Kosovo. At the Academy it was a different world. They were sheltered from reality here.
"It looks so bleak," Pavle said. "I wonder if all the chaos will reach here."
"I would count on it," Kirill said. "I don't think we have much more time here. The central University at Pristina is under siege. It is just a matter time before they come here."
Pavle rubbed his face with his hands. "We can go back to my family. My dad is somewhere killing Muslims, or more likely trying to avoid killing them. My mum is half Muslim. The last time I talked to her she was heading to Musa's farm. My dad's parents are already there. They will have a better chance against raiders on a larger farm."
When they get back to Pavle's family's farm they find that the family are fighting the troops and local thugs as well. They are a part of the KLA, and both boys join. Soon they are on scouting expeditions and kill men when they are sixteen and seventeen years old; they have to do more than they should in a war torn country. But they occasionally find time to be together -
"You make my world wonderful," he whispered and slid his hand beneath Kirill's clothing.
The men decide that it is no longer safe. There are more and more Serbian forces for them to contend with, and it is only a matter of time before the family are all killed. Ismet, Pavel's father, dies while serving in the Serbian Army. On the road to Montengro there are mines and troops with grenades and launchers. Kirill and Parveen are killed. Pavle survives, but is injured and beyond grief stricken. From here, Pavle uses his powers to aid him in killing Serbian troops, and he is dubbed Red P or Bloody Red because of the damage he inflicts. He has a bounty on his head and eventually leaves to go to Gustavo's family home in Munich. Gustavo was the professor at the Academy - he always liked Pavle and Kirill, and asked them to come to him if needed. Gustavo is in England but his father, Carl, is there as is his nephew, Eric. Pavle is mourning Kirill now that he is out of constant danger, but he has to be careful with a bounty on his head and the war still in progress. Gustavo arranges illegal passports and papers so he can travel to England and study on a stipend at Winchester University without fear. Eric helps Pavle fit into city life more, socialising, and also to help him have some fun, like a normal teenager - he is turning eighteen, and since twelve he has been institutionalised or in a war. He has lost his father, mother and his childhood lover.
In Germany Eric becomes firm friends with Pavle. He teaches him about gay night life, clothing and just life in a city in general. Gustavo and Carl treat him like family. He has Christmas with them all prior to heading off to university in England with Gustavo.
At Winchester Pavle is lonely. English is a second language and he is struggling, not able to communicate as well as he would like with other students and feels isolated. He needs to maintain a B average to stay at university and keep the stipend. He places a notice online and finds Wills, who is prepared to tutor Pavle in English in return for German tuition for himself. Wills is from Pennsylvania and studying in London. They become friends. Pavle protects Wills from a stalker, Franklin, who rapes Wills. After this occurs Pavle takes care of Wills, nurses him back to health and is supportive. Wills has ADD and is constantly flighty if not on his medication. Pavle keeps on Wills back to make sure he sticks to his medicine schedule because without it he loses focus and is prone to somewhat reckless behaviour.
From here it is about Pavle and Wills, and re-establishing contact with Pavle's family, who have settled in Montenegro. It is also about how Gustavo, Carl, Eric and his new partner Ethan are also a family for Pavle. There are numerous things going on - a young man growing up, learning that life is not always about war, but gaining an education, going out, adjusting and finding romance again after loss. There is also a paranormal moment in relation to Kirill. Even though Kirill is dead and Pavle does love Wills, his great love is Kirill.
This book is incredibly dark in places; it is sad, and there is no HEA. I must give a multiple rape warning and the fact that boys at a young age are intimate with one another, at times in a cold way, while at the Institute. The period this book is set in for the first part is a very tumultuous time and it was atypical, so I worked within those parameters as I read Paulie's Tale.
I will say that I did enjoy this book, but I would be remiss not to mention that there were things that could have been made better -
There were a number of typos - 'crouch' was used throughout instead of 'crotch'. There were some other punctuation and grammatical issues. With a good editor on board this book could have had a bit more focus and also been whittled down in size without losing anything vital. It would have improved the read.
The whole part about Alexei and Alexei and Ru should have been left out of the book.
The paranormal element with Kirill, with the abilities, could have been so much better and played up so much more.
The ending was a let down after such a long book. I can live with the ending not being happy - but it was not given enough thought and time, and other things were given too much time
I think the author, Step Alexander, had an incredibly interesting concept here. I do love a story set around an era that has events and occurrences, e.g: a war. I don't know any other LGBT fiction that is set during this period. It did need slightly better overall execution....BUT I read every single line and every single page. I wanted to know what was going to happen to Pavle, where he might end up, if Kirill and he would perhaps have a future somehow - through paranormal elements or not - or whether Wills was to be his for this lifetime. And I did cry, twice, so I was definitely invested in Pavle and, given that this is definitely his book, that was important.
This book was supplied to me by the author in return for an honest review.