Book Review: Wolf By Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1), Ryan Graudin (2015)

October 19th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“The wolves of war are gathering…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them – made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same.

Her story begins on a train.

Babushka – the one who gave her purpose.

Mama – the one who gave her life.

Miriam – the one who gave her freedom.

Aaron-Klaus – the one who gave her a mission.

Vlad – the one who gave her pain.

These were the names she whispered in the dark.

These were the pieces she brought back into place.

These were the wolves she rode to war.

An exhilarating and imaginative fusion of alternate history, science fiction, and historical fiction, Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf mines the many what ifs? surrounding World War II: What if the United States had held fast to an isolationist foreign policy? What if the Hitler had successfully executed Operation Sea Lion? What if the combined forces of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan had won the war, painting most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa red? What if Nazi scientists successfully found a way of “curing” Untermensch, making them at least appear more perfectly Aryan on the surface? What if these experiments surpassed even Dr. Mengele’s wildest dreams, creating mutants who are able to change their skin at will, the way you or I would change our clothes?

While the first three scenarios were arguably possible at one point or another in history – and Nazi scientists did indeed try to tinker with eye color – that last what if is what catapults Wolf By Wolf into the realm of science fiction/fantasy. And is it glourious. (Misspelling intentional.)

Born in 1938, Yael and her mother were rounded up and imprisoned in a concentration camp when Yael was just six years old. Immediately upon arrival, she was signaled out by Dr. Geyer and placed in Experiment Eighty-Five: the melanin manipulation study. Yael was injected with a host of chemical cocktails, sometimes as often as once a day, which left her skin raw and aflame. Eventually it left her skin behind, too, as her body began to change and shift and shed. Gone were the dark curls and brown eyes; in their place, porcelain white skin and blue eyes: the very picture of Hitler Youth.

Yael became something her mother no longer recognized: a monster. Those were Rachel’s final words to her daughter, before she died of a fever right there in their barracks. But in transforming Yael into a valuable commodity – a promising test subject – Experiment Eight-Five had saved her life; and, in giving her the ability to skinshift, it would also aid in her escape.

Fast-forward eleven years. Yael has been in hiding with the Resistance for nearly a decade: studying, training, and biding her time. After the failure of the original Operation Valkyrie, Hitler became increasingly cautious. Now he rarely makes public appearances and, when he does, he’s always surrounded by a heavy contingent of guards. In the past year, there’s been but one exception: at the Victor’s Ball in Tokyo, Hitler shared a dance with the winner of the annual Axis Tour – sixteen-year-old Adele Wolfe, who’d stolen her twin’s papers in order to race. (Up until her victory, women were not allowed to compete in this grueling motorcycle race from Germany to Japan.)

Mere days after the 1955 Ball, the Resistance put its plan in action. Yael is to kidnap Adele (competing a second time for the elusive Double Cross), impersonate Victor Wolfe, and win the next Axis Tour, thus securing an invite to the Victor’s Ball. Hitler, obviously smitten with the young woman, will certainly ask her to dance, giving Yael the perfect opportunity to assassinate the leader of the Third Reich. Live, on television, for all the world to see. After this, the various Resistance cells scattered across the Western Hemisphere will launch into action, overthrowing Nazi rule.

Easy enough, yeah?

I liked Ryan Graudin’s last book, The Walled City – which was very loosely based on a real city, Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City – well enough. But what really sold me on Wolf By Wolf was its comparison to Inglourious Basterds. I’m a huge Tarantino fan, and Basterds is second only to Kill Bill in my book.

While the madcap “Let’s Kill Hitler!” plots share some general similarities, Wolf By Wolf is a much darker story. For all its blood and gore – including the over-the-top, cartoonish violence that Tarantino is known for – Basterds is a little more playful. It’s obvious that the many Jewish actors (every Jewish-American actor under the age of 35, it sometimes seemed!) took no small amount of glee in bashing in Nazi skulls and blowing the Führer to kingdom come. And who can blame them, really? It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy. Also, given that Shosanna escaped the death camps, the audience is spared some of the more horrific scenes of suffering that appear in Wolf By Wolf. While Basterds certainly has its moments of almost unbearable tension (the opening scene, wherein Perrier LaPadite squares off with Hans Landa; the moment when “Nice Guy” Fredrick Zoller finally snaps, cornering Shosanna in her dressing room at a crucial moment), it feels a little lighter overall than Wolf By Wolf.

Graudin does a wonderful job with Yael; at times I could almost feel the fire and rage pulsing through her veins. A woman bereft of both family and face, she struggles with her self-identity. A decade later, her mother’s last words to her echo in her head; and yet it’s the very thing that makes her monstrous that will help her to win the war. She wears the face of her oppressors; after a year of being treated like a subhuman, she’s now free to enjoy their privileges. She’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Yet her goal is uncomplicated in its single-mindedness: Kill Hitler. Change the world.

Yael’s mission is more complicated than she imagined, however. Though she’s mastered the more technical details – motorcycle racing, mechanics, impersonating Adele’s mannerisms, memorizing her life story – a person is more than just a collection of facts and trivia. Yael quickly learns that Adele has been harboring her own secrets – like how she bested Luka Lowe to win the previous year’s race.

If you’re wondering just how exciting a cross-continent motorcycle race could be – hours upon hours of asses planted in seats – it’s actually a lot more gripping than you’d think. The twenty contestants – ten each from Germany and Japan – encounter myriad obstacles along the way, both natural and man-made: sand storms, sabotage, landslides, cheating (and even murderous) contestants, Russian guerrilla fighters, you name it.

I especially loved the human wrenches Graudin throws into the story: Felix, Adele’s twin brother, who sells the family shop to bribe his way into the race and protect his sister; and Luka, a potential ally whose heart Adele seemingly broke in the last race. All three characters are drawn with nuance and detail. It’s not always clear where their allegiances lie – not only in relation to one another, but the New Order as well.

Adele’s reasons for entering the race – a first and then a second time – are especially harrowing. In Nazi Germany, women are expected to marry and have as many children as possible for Lebensraum – the “necessary eastward spread of the Aryan race.” Adele hopes to escape this fate – forced marriage, pregnancy, and birth; women as chattel; “Swallowed into the Führer’s breeding systems to mother a whole nation of blonds.” – by attaining success in a nontraditional, masculine arena. I can’t help but wonder how amenable she’d be to Yael’s plans if anyone thought to clue her in; recruit her, even. There’s no shortage of disdain for Hitler, even among his most exemplary citizens, it seems.

Since this is the first book in a duology, I went in ~80% sure that Yael would not succeed in killing Hitler. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that the conclusion is not quite what I expected; Graudin does a masterful job of leading us, lemming-like, towards a cliffhanger ending that defies the odds. I’m already jonesing for the sequel, although as I write this, the first book still has yet to be released. (*shaking my fist in the air*)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. Set in an alternate universe where Hitler won WWII, the book’s protagonist is a Jewish woman named Yael. She escaped from a concentration camp when she was only seven, thanks in no small part to the experiments conducted on her by Nazi scientists that gave her the ability to skinshift. She joins the Resistance and, at seventeen, she enters the Axis Tour in the hopes that winning will get her close enough to Hitler to assassinate him. Half of the twenty contestants are from Germany while the other half are Japanese. All of the Japanese contestants are named. Yael occasionally assumes the face of a woman of color, such as during her rendezvous in Cairo.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


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