Now this is how you end a series!
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including scenes of war. This review contains spoilers for WOLF BY WOLF, the first book in the series.)
The world heard it. People of all stations, colors, creeds . . . Aryan mothers and fathers with broods of blond children, a balding shisha merchant in Cairo, an oily-faced adolescent in Rome. Many stared at the screen—mouths slack, stunned eyes—trying to process what had happened. Others who watched understood. This was the signal they’d been waiting for. One—a frizzy-haired Polish woman by the name of Henryka—even smiled at her television, whispering, “That’s my girl,” before she stood and got to work.
“Monsters cut children open and call it progress. Monsters murder entire groups of people without blinking, but get upset when they have to wash human ash from their garden strawberries. Monsters are the ones who watch other people do these things and do nothing to stop it. You and I are not monsters. If anything, we’re miracles.”
Yael almost rolled up her sleeve there and then, almost pointed to the loping lines of Aaron-Klaus’s wolf, almost told Luka everything she was. But Luka was playing with his father’s dog tag again. And Yael found herself wondering if Kradschützen troops had rolled through this very village, letting their motorcycles idle as the SS made it a pile of bones. She wondered if Luka had any idea how their pasts tangled and tore at each other’s throats.
When last we saw concentration camp survivor/skinshifter/member of the resistance/trained assassin Yael, she had just shot Adolf Hitler. Or rather, the man she believed to be Adolf Hitler. Before he died, the Führer’s doppelgänger revealed his true face; flashes cycled through so quickly that only Yael was able to process and make sense of them.
This not-Hitler was, like her, a product of Experiment Eighty-Five: Dr. Engel Geyer’s attempt to make Jews and other ethnic “undesirables” more Aryan in appearance. The experiments succeeded, and then some: with changes in Yael’s skin and eye color came the ability to change her appearance, drastically and at will. In a delicious twist of fate, Yael employed this newfound skill to escape from the camp – and, eventually, masquerade as Victor Adele Wolf, enter the 1956 Axis Tour, and get close enough to Hitler to shoot him three times at point-blank range. Or so she thought.
Though she didn’t win the race – thwarted as she was by Luka Löwe, 1954’s Victor and the boy Adele betrayed to win in 1955 – Yael still scored an invitation to the Ball, thanks to lovesick Luka. Yael ripped his heart out and waltzed all over it at the end of Wolf by Wolf – not because she doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but perhaps precisely because she does, and nothing good can come of it. And so Yael is cruel to be kind, dumping Luka in the harshest of terms before gunning down not-Hitler. Only this doesn’t save Luka from becoming embroiled in her mess; quite the contrary. The guy who brought Hitler’s assassin to the ball? Well, the Gestapo’s going to want to have a word or two with him, and Luka knows it. So when Yael runs, Luka follows.
Luka isn’t the only boy Yael left behind. There’s also Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin, who Yael bound, gagged, and abandoned in his room at the Palace. Now he’s fallen into the Gestapo’s hands. Though Yael revealed her true identity before shooting Hitler, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other to the Reich. They need a scapegoat, and it’s going to be Adele and the Wolfe family. That is, unless Felix can gain Yael’s trust and infiltrate and betray the resistance.
Blood for Blood is a crazy roller-coaster ride. Just as Yael, Luka, and Felix raced across Europe, northern Africa, and Asia in the Axis Tour, now the fugitives/spies must make their way across “the snow-laden, wolf-infested” Muscovy territories, through enemy lines, and back to the resistance’s headquarters in Berlin/Germania – all the while hoping against hope that the coup is still on, despite Hitler’s continued existence.
The journey will take Yael places she vowed never to return to and unearth countless ghosts from her past – some just memories, others improbably made flesh and blood. Before the story has ended, Yael will add two of them to her sleeve of tattoos: one a wolf, like Babushka, Mama, Miriam, Aaron-Klaus, and Vlad before her; the other, a much different beast, yet one still loved with animal ferocity. One who will stand next to Yael forever in the history books.
I was so nervous to read Blood for Blood, mostly owing to my endless love for Wolf by Wolf. Blood for Blood is everything I wanted, and so much more than I expected. Graudin does a masterful job of bringing the story full-circle and giving it an ending that’s satisfying, but doesn’t feel contrived or pat. In some ways, it reminded me of Mockingjay: the scenes of war are brutal and unforgiving. Some people will die, and others will survive, and it doesn’t always go down the way you want. This is war, and – just as in real life – no one emerges unscathed. Including the readers: come equipped with a box of Kleenex and a cuddly dog pile, because you will need them.
While the plot is rather epic, the characters really steal the show: not just Yael and her long-lost sister (I’m being deliberately vague here), who became a badass in her own right, but Luka and Felix and the conflicting interests that war within each of them. As Yael delves into Experiment Eighty-Five, she forces each boy to confront the system of oppression and genocide that they are complicit in – if only through their willful ignorance. When faced with the truth, which boy will choose to do the right thing?
My only complaint lies with Adele: I really wanted to know more about her, especially after getting the briefest of glimpses in Iron to Iron. While her aversion to Hitler’s plan for her life – pumping out babies to feed to his war machine – suggests that Adele might be amenable to the resistance’s plans, all we can really do is guess; the focus mostly remains on her twin Felix. Ditto: her feelings for Luka. (Though happily, at the end of the day, this issue is moot: Luka’s got his sights set squarely on Yael.)
A solid five stars anyway: Blood for Blood is a satisfying conclusion to the Wolf by Wolf duology that’s neither too shiny and happy – nor too bleak and depressing. (Well, at least where our MC is concerned.) Perhaps most importantly, it’s action-packed and will have you white-knuckling your Kindle until the very last page. Well done. (And if you haven’t read the short story/novelette Iron to Iron, definitely pick it up after Wolf by Wolf and before Blood for Blood.)
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: This alternative history of WWII imagines a world in which Hitler won the war. Along with her mother, MC Yael was sent to a concentration camp as a child. There she caught the attention of Dr. Engel Geyer, who subjected her to cruel and gruesome experiments, initially designed to make “undesirables” like Yael – who is Jewish – look more Aryan in appearance. Yael develops the ability to “skinshift” – change her appearance at will – and she uses this skill to escape at the age of six. She takes up with the resistance and trains as a spy/assassin, in the hopes that one day she’ll use the Reich’s scientific breakthrough to destroy it. In the first book of this duology, Yael masqueraded as Victor Adele Wolfe and entered the 1956 Axis tour (a cross-continent motorcycle race), with the goal of winning and possibly scoring a dance with Hitler at the Victor’s Ball. Wolf by Wolf ended with Yael’s assassination of Hitler – only to find that the man she shot was actually a skinshifter like herself, posing as Hitler.
Blood for Blood finds Yael on the run, making her way back to Berlin/Germania to reconnect with the resistance, uncover the truth about Geyer’s experiments, and find and kill the real Hitler. Along the way, a ghost from Yael’s past reappears: her old friend Miriam, who engineered Yael’s escape from the camp. After Yael’s disappearance, Miriam was sucked into Geyer’s experiments; she, too, developed the ability to skinshift and, like Yael, she used it to escape. Miriam hooked up with Russian rebels and gradually worked her way up the ranks.
In addition to Yael and Miriam, several members of the resistance (Henryka, the long-dead Aaron-Klaus) are Jewish. However, Hitler’s efforts to wipe out Jews in Europe is largely successful; by story’s end, there are just a dozen or so members of the community living in Berlin. When she revisits the concentration camp, Yael notes how empty it is – relatively speaking – and now seems to hold mostly dissidents and homosexuals.
Luka Löwe’s father Kurt lost an arm in the war. He’s emotionally and physically abusive to Luka and his mother Nina.
Adele and Felix Wolfe lost their older brother Martin in a motorcycle accident several years ago. Their mother suffered a crippling bout of depression after his death.
Felix loses two fingers after a Gestapo agents tortures him, stepping on and crushing Felix’s hand for information. He struggles with phantom pain and has to relearn how to use it, since his hands are his livelihood. (He’s a mechanic.)
Animal-friendly elements: n/a