Wolf By Wolf - Review

 "I want the next one."

That's what I said immediately after finishing Ryan Graudin's latest, stellar effort. I want the next book, right now, in my hands, please.

Ok, that might be a bit of a strong opening. Let me back up.

Wolf By Wolf tells an alternate history story where the Nazis win World War II, folding in aspects of Inglourious Basterds, The Hunger Games and, fittingly, The Motorcycle Diaries.Yael is a young Jewish girl who, years earlier, suffered genetic experiments at the hands of a crazy German scientist. The experiments left her with the ability to shapeshift into anyone she sees, enabling her a quick escape to join the resistance against Hitler's new, glorious nation of Germania. After witnessing a young German woman bluff her way into a mens-only cross-continent motorcycle race, then subsequently win it and get the chance to dance with the reclusive and paranoid Hitler at the victory celebration, Yael and the resistance forge a plan: mimic the German woman's appearance, enter the race the next year, win it, and kill Hitler at the dance. What could go wrong, right?

I'll be honest; Wolf By Wolf doesn't start very convincingly; for starters, the blurb doesn't do justice to the novel's actual plot. We're dropped into that plot almost in medias res, and it's not until the halfway mark that the book started really gripping me. I'm actually finding it really hard to think of things to talk about here, since a few of the book's later surprises are so good that I'd rather eschew spoiling them.

At its core, Wolf By Wolf is a story of identity; specifically, Yael's. She comes to grips with impersonating the last race's winner and inheriting her life, with all the enemies, family trouble and romantic history that entails, but at the same time risks losing herself in that fiction. It becomes clear that killing Hitler and abandoning the people Yael eventually comes to know won't be as simple as she envisions, particularly when some of those people - Nazi ephemera and allegiance to the Führer notwithstanding - actually turn out to be fairly decent folks. If only it weren't for the whole "Germany rules the world" thing, life in the book would be so much simpler.

Sorry, I'm being flippant there. Unlike other alt-history Nazi fiction, Ryan Graudin makes Hitler's victory and the New World Order feel appropriately horrific and depressing, showing the full impact Germania's formation may have had if the Allies hadn't been successful in 1945. The book does a superlative job in emphasising how dreary life in the Third Reich is, even for the winners; the opening chapters, when the winning racer is incapacitated by Yael, depict a grey, washed-out world for those given fame under Hitler, and constant references are made to the "rot" at the heart of the Nazi empire, both by the resistance and those living for Hitler. Having this world not be the Aryan utopia ol' Adolf makes for a more compelling setting, where even those few who reap the benefits of the Nazi victory realise what a dreary place it is, as opposed to the authoritarian paradises of narratives like Wolfenstein: The New Order. The book also goes to great lengths establishing what a hard fight it would be for the resistance to reclaim the world; killing Hitler, the metaphorical head, won't just cause the snake to writhe and die.

Something that I enjoyed but others may not was the primary focus on Yael's development as a character at the expense of the secondaries. True, there are supporting players who are sketched out, but Yael is the only person who feels like a truly three-dimensional human being over the course of the novel. I suspect a few of the others - including Felix, the brother of the previous winner, and Luka, the archetypal mysterious bad boy - will be developed a lot more over the next book(s?), but for now they're just interesting rather than engrossing the way Yael is. I liked that the book bent over backwards to mostly give us her journey, her mental processes and her hopes and desires. I also appreciated the way the book might have hinted at a romantic connection here and there, but Yael was ultimately her own woman; she gets stuff done, she moves the plot forward, and she is beholden to nobody.

Wolf By Wolf might take a little while to get going, but when it accelerates to high gear it's a hell of a ride to the finish line - and yes, those puns are there on purpose. Deal with it.

- Chris


Wolf By Wolf is available in bookstores now.

Review copy supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.

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