Trigger Warning: this contains some discussion of the holocaust and concentration camps.
Also, some mild spoilers, I guess?
World War II is interesting from a storyteller’s perspective. It’s morbidly fascinating, full of stories that can be adapted and related over a wide number of genres. It’s good for action/adventure, a la Captain America, or can leave us with harrowing impressions of humanity and its debasement, as in Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (one of my favorite novels as a younger person). Science fiction and fantasy have used it time and time again, and it makes a dramatic backdrop with high stakes for any romance novels. As someone who is querying a novel based off of some incredible WWII stories, I’ve sometimes been overwhelmed by the incredible truths that pop up in WWII fiction.
Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin, uses these incredible truths in the alternate history genre, mixing in a little science fantasy to give us a different view on perspective, particularly where race and appearance are concerned.
Wolf by Wolf is set in a 1956 in which the Axis won World War II, spreading its influence through all of Europe and Asia, and down into Africa. Hitler is still alive and strong, with an iron grip over his part of the world that no one can seem to shake. But a resistance moves against him, and as part of that resistance concentration camp survivor Yael has vowed to do her part to free the world. Yael has a special ability – as a result of human experiments in the camp, she can change her appearance at will, and look like any girl in the world.
Yael’s opportunity to change the world comes in the form of a motorcycle race called the Axis Tour. All she has to do is shift into the form of Adele Wolfe, last year’s winner and the only girl to ever win the Axis Tour. If she wins the race again, she’ll get the chance to meet and kill Hitler. But the race is full of treachery, and not only does Yael have to overcome it – she has to navigate the complicated emotional waters surrounding two other contestants. Luka Lowe, a previous winner, has some kind of personal history with Adele, and Adele’s twin brother, Felix Wolfe, has entered the race to keep his sister safe.
Wolf by Wolf is an action/adventure book with light science fantasy elements concerning Yael’s skinshifting. However, it is not a light book. The action of the motorcycle race is interspersed with Yael’s history as a concentration camp inmate, escapee, and resistance fighter. For me, Graudin’s writing was highly emotional, and is one of the few books I’ve read that uses repetition to its full effectiveness. The tension wasn’t as high as I’d expected it to be for an action book, but the hook that pulls you on is Yael’s anger, her mission, her drive and subsequently her confusion as these perfect Aryan specimens, boys who grew fat off the destruction of her people, turn out to be more complicated than your average Nazi thug.
That was actually my favorite part about Wolf by Wolf. A lot of WWII based stories don’t do a lot of work with the Nazis – they’re presented as the element of pure evil. This makes it easy to cheer and feel satisfied when they get what’s coming to them. However, Graudin excellently portrays particularly Felix and Luka as products of their environment. They aren’t secretly part of the resistance (at least, not as far as we know!) and have no overt sympathies. But they are people, people who care, who try, who have lots of likable qualities. And they are Hitler Youth. I spent a large part of the book wondering what (particularly) Luka would think of Yael if he knew she was not Adele, but a Jew. I don’t know if the answer to this question is in the sequel, Blood for Blood, but I’ll bet his reaction wouldn’t be pretty.
It’s hard sometimes, to remember that while they degenerated to pure evil, your average Nazi wasn’t pure evil. We could argue the philosophies of the banality of evil all day, but I want to use just one story to illustrate my point.
I read an article some time ago, which I sadly can’t find now. It discussed the first allied excursions into concentration camps, in the days immediately following the war’s end. General Eisenhower took a tour of a camp, then sent one of his aides to the nearest town to fetch the mayor and his wife. Eisenhower had them taken on a tour as well, of the camp they’d sent prisoners to for years, a camp that had made them fat off the death of other people. The mayor and his wife took the tour in silence, went home, and killed themselves. When I read it, I began to see the disconnect – no doubt the mayor and his wife thought they were good people, good Germans, good National Socialists. Good. Perhaps to them, the people in the concentration camps weren’t people (that’s a common way to deny a person their human rights, to claim they aren’t human in the first place). But eventually, the mayor and his wife came face to face with what they’d done, what they’d been a part of, and they couldn’t see both those truths anymore. It’s this disconnect that I read when I read Wolf by Wolf. I thought Graudin did an amazing job with it.
I also enjoyed the non-typical love triangle. I consider it a love triangle even though one side of it was fraternal love, rather than romantic love (thank God). I liked that Yael wasn’t being beset by all the boys ever, but had two boys fighting more over their perceptions of her, rather than over her. I found it to be a refreshing take.
You will like this book if: you like alternate history, action, motorcycles, or WWII.
You may not like this book if: you don’t like heavy topics such as genocide, or if you dislike a repetitive style.