I’ve been wanting to read Wolf by Wolf for a while now, mainly because I’ve been drawn in by that cover. I love the tidy design. Written by Ryan Graudin, Wolf by Wolf, is an alternate history YA story where World War II was won by the Axis. A decade later, Yaël, a Jewish girl with a unique ability, is on a mission to kill Hitler. But first, she needs to get close to him by winning a race. Read on for the review.
Historical Setting: 1956 in an alternate timeline where the Axis won World War II
Appearances by Historical Personalities: Adolf Hitler
Historical Events Covered: Flashback segments take place in the Holocaust
Timely Dialogue: His childhood was filled with swastikas— pinned to his lapel, draped in the window of his father’s shop— and “Blood and honor!”
The motto Blood and Honor is frequently referenced in the book. It was the motto for the Hitler Youth, an organization akin to the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides that the Nazis established during their rise to power. Starting from age 10, children were indoctrinated into Nazi ideology. The boys’ part of the organization took on paramilitary training aspects, so that its members could be used as thugs and also feed into the armed forces. The program ensured that its members became fanatical supporters of the Nazis.
Which Historical Personality Is This Book? Shirley Muldowney. We’re reaching into recent times here, but Muldowney has already made her mark on history. She was the first woman to race at the top level of drag racing and, in 1980, became the first racer, man or woman, to win multiple championships. Wolf by Wolf feels like a racer, always wanting to move fast. And like its protagonist, Yaël, Muldowney overcame a lot of barriers to be accepted by her peers.
Wolf by Wolf sets itself a difficult mission from the beginning. The novel opens in the very depths of the Holocaust, as 6-year-old Yaël arrives at a concentration camp and is selected to be subject to gruesome experimentation by a Nazi doctor. It is thanks to this doctor (an analog for the infamous Josef Mengele, who shared the same nickname: “The Angel of Death”) that Yaël has the ability to shapeshift her appearance. This results from the all too believable pseudo-scientific attempts by the doctor to “aryanize” her.
From this very dark place, Graudin proceeds to wring an exciting and compelling adventure story that, while acknowledging the horrors of a world under Axis domination, doesn’t get overwhelmed by that darkness. Wisely, the flashbacks are carefully sprinkled through the first half of the book, allowing the main narrative, literally a race against time, to play out on its own momentum.
Flashing forward to the present day, Yaël, having escaped long ago and been adopted by the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance, embarks on a vital mission. She will use her abilities to impersonate a motorcycle racer taking part in the annual race from Germany to Japan. If she wins, Hitler will ask her for a dance at the victory ball, the only time anyone can ever get close to him. She will assassinate him in front of the world and signal to the resistance to move against their oppressors.
Yaël’s abilities are the one fantastical element to this novel. Although it is integral to the plot and conveys well Graudin’s themes of race and identity, the rest of the story is quite grounded. The take off point for this alternate history is that Operation Sea Lion, the proposed German invasion of Britain in 1940, is a success. Like author Derek Robinson, as I wrote in earlier post about Piece of Cake, I’m skeptical of the chances of such an invasion’s success, but if it did happen, I think the aftermath could have very well have played out as Graudin posits. The Soviets lose their war against Germany and Japan combined. The Americans stay neutral. As a result the Axis takes over most of the world.
The rest of the plot is well grounded in realism as well. Yaël has trained years for this mission. It’s plausible that she is able to race well enough to win. Even the plan to win the race, which seems unnecessarily difficult at first glance, is reasonably explained as the only way to get through Hitler’s security. This is no ridiculous Snowcean’s Seven mission from Game of Thrones. It needs to happen.
Using the race to structure the book, it is quite a linear story. Obstacles are thrown in Yaël’s way and then she solves them. Although there are moments when the narrative could have really taken unexpected turns, for the most part, the results are somewhat predictable. Only at the very end do things really go off the rails in a twist that, in hindsight, I probably should have seen coming. All of this is not to say this was not an exciting read. Despite the feeling that all of the obstacles would be overcome in short order, the way they are solved is often unexpected, yet stays true to the protagonist’s character. The pacing is excellent, keeping the action moving forward and raising just enough questions to keep me turning the page.
There were other points that bothered me. Almost all of the supporting characters are flat and seem to exist only in terms of how they relate to Yaël. At times, the phrasing used in the POV narration seems out of sync with Yael’s background, someone who has lived anything but a normal life. Some plot complications that seem to promise a major shift in the narrative are wrapped up too easily. There is also a bit of deus ex machina at the end.
However, I think the positives to this novel more than make up for these drawbacks. I very much enjoyed reading it. The disturbing events taking place in the Holocaust are handled well, striking the right balance in how much horror is shown. There are great innovative touches in the text, such as using strikethrough on racers’ names when they are mentioned after elimination. And the last act of the novel really threw my predictions for a loop and sets up well the second and final installment.
I struggled a little bit with the rating for Wolf by Wolf, but ultimately, I had to boost it for the sheer enjoyment factor this novel delivers.
My rating: ★★★★ (of out 5)