Title: Wolf by Wolf
Author: Ryan Graudin
Genre: Alternate History, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Little Brown BFYR
Publication date: October 2015
Paperback: 416 pages
Her story begins on a train.
The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule. To commemorate their Great Victory, they host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their combined continents. The prize? An audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s ball in Tokyo.
Yael, a former death camp prisoner, has witnessed too much suffering, and the five wolves tattooed on her arm are a constant reminder of the loved ones she lost. The resistance has given Yael one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female racer, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele’s twin brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move.
But as Yael grows closer to the other competitors, can she be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and stay true to her mission?
From the author of The Walled City comes a fast-paced and innovative novel that will leave you breathless.
Stand alone or series: First book in a duology
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Imagine a world where Hitler and the Axis powers won the second world war–a world in which Aryan youth is exemplified and sought after by horrific medical and genetic experiments performed on human subjects. It is 1956 in this world, and Yael is the evidence of Nazi medical experimental success–for she has the ability to change her form and assume any face that suits her needs. Yael has managed to escape the concentration camp that killed her family, and in those long years since the Third Reich has taken over the world stage as the global power, she has found a home and even a few others with the same abilities. In the Resistance, Yael has a finds a new purpose, and her first mission: to kill Hitler.
And the best chance of success is for Yael to win the Axis Tour so that she is guaranteed a dance with the Furher at the Victor’s Ball.
For months, Yael studies Adele Wolfe–the first female winner of the annual cross-continent motorcycle race commemorating the Axis powers’ victory. Yael learns Adele’s habits, her facial ticks, her intonations; she studies Adele’s every freckle, her style of motorcycle racing, and memorizes her childhood and background. None of Yael’s research, however, can prepare her for the things that weren’t in Yael’s file. She’s not ready for the fraught, protective relationship with Adele’s twin brother Luka, who enters the race to protect his sister. Nor is she prepared to handle the volatile relationship between Yael and her top competition, fellow-racer Felix–and all of the tangled emotions therein. As the race departs Berlin and the motorcyclists make their way ever closer to the finish line in Tokyo, Yael grapples with these relationships and the threat of exposure–all the while trying to win the race, and stay ahead of the ruthless other racers who will stop at nothing to win.
But Yael has purpose, and five tattooed wolves on her arm to remind her of what’s at stake…
Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf is the first book in an alternate-history duology, blending a continent-spanning road race with complex characterization and a tinge of supernatural ability, all set against a backdrop of vengeance and retribution. The premise of the novel–what if the Nazis won–isn’t particularly novel, nor is the main character’s mission to kill Hitler. Don’t hold that against the book, though–Wolf by Wolf is much more than an Inglorious Basterds x Man in the High Castle x Cannonball Run mashup.
Easily, the strongest thing about Wolf by Wolf is its depth of characterization. Take protagonist Yael, for example: a Jewish young woman who escaped from a concentration camp ,mjihjn which she not only lost her family, but was subject to terrible medical experimentation that physically and psychologically stripped her–quite literally–of her identity. Yael no longer knows what her own face, her original body, looks like, and is forced to take on the visage of others. The five other wolves she has commemorated in permanent ink on her body are a risk–a tell-tale mark that will reveal Yael to anyone who discovers them–but a vital one to Yael and her anchor to permanence. These wolves are Yael’s identity and a reminder of who she is and what she stands for in her mission. Also interesting is Yael’s splintered persona while she is pretending to be Adele–her choices and actions as Adele are shaped, necessarily, by Yael’s interpretation of Adele’s personality. The result is a third perspective: neither fully Yael nor fully Adele but a hybrid of them both. Wolf by Wolf masterfully plays on this tension between perceived internal and external identity, and I loved it wholeheartedly.
Happily, other characters display similar nuance and depth. In a book about Nazis (and their imperial Japanese allies) versus the Good Guys, it could be very easy to head down a didactic, reductive path. Graudin gives the other racers (the ones racing for the glory) unexpected moments of poignancy, making them more believable as layered individuals with their own complicated motivations that extend beyond the “evil for the sake of being evil” mantle. There’s the conflicted lead Japanese motorcyclist who seems at first to be a hard-edged saboteur; Adele’s twin brother, who would try to physically remove his sister from the race by drugging her and his motives; and of course the dangerous prospect of Felix, who knows Adele better than anyone else, having raced alongside her for years. Each of these characters are not what they initially seem–and that’s a good thing.
On the negative side, Graudin’s writing itself is a little melodramatic and affected. But the story is so engaging that I was willing to push aside any frustration on that front and carry on. Ultimately, Wolf for Wolf is a keeper–I am very excited to finish the duology.
Rating: 7 – Very Good