Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
My Rating: 5/5 TARDISes
Series: Wolf by Wolf #1
Date Published: October 20th, 2015
Publisher: Little, Brown Books
Pages: 388 pages
Synopsis: 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, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded 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 twin’s 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 bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?
This is a spoiler-free review.
I had an absolutely fantastic time reading this in a buddy read with my good friend Anna from My Bookish Dream. Please make sure to take some time to head over and check out her amazing blog!
When I first discovered this novel, the premise immediately intrigued me, but I had no idea what an incredible ride I was in for. I have never read anything quite like this before. Historical fiction—with an emphasis on the fiction—it is, by far, one of the most unique and compelling plots I have ever come across.
Taking the history we know to be true, it asks, “what if?”. What if World War II had not turned out the way that it did? How would this have affected the lives of millions of people? Where would society—where would the entire world—be? Add in a dose of genetic modifications, super human abilities, and a twenty-thousand kilometer motorcycle race and you’ve got an unpredictable story that pushes the boundaries of the young adult genre and of the mind.
Alternate history with elements of science fiction. Now of course, this is not a completely new and unheard of style of writing. I’m sure there are many works using this very captivating combination of genres. This, however, is my first experience with it—and it absolutely blew me away.
To be honest, I have not read a young adult novel so refreshing in quite some time. It was new. It was exciting. And all without relying on many of the tropes that have become so abundant in the genre as of late. The premise itself is one of the most fascinating I have ever come across. Admittedly, it is not a perfect novel, but it truly grabbed a hold of me on so many levels, and I personally had a wonderful experience with it.
Set in a nightmarish scenario where Hitler still holds power and the outrageous cruelty of the Nazis during World War II has continued long after, the world is in an unpleasant state, to say the least. Many innocent people suffer greatly in an unfair world focused on creating “a superior race” through any means necessary. To celebrate their victory during the war—and demonstrate their very tenuous alliance—Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host a yearly, cross-continental motorcycle race followed by a lavish ball in Tokyo.
In this novel, we follow Yael, a former death camp prisoner and current resistance member with a painful and unusual past. As a result of genetic experimentation, Yael has been left with the remarkable powers of a skinshift—someone who can change their appearance at will. After intense training and preparation, and with these incredible abilities at her disposal, she transforms herself into the race’s previous winner, Adele Wolf, and enters in an attempt to reach Hitler and end his life.
The element of this novel that I am, by far, most impressed by is the writing itself. I completely loved Ryan Graudin’s lyrical prose, and it lent itself well to the overall atmosphere of the novel. Told through a mixture of flashbacks to Yael’s time in and escape from the death camp, and her present participation in the motorcycle race, we are given a slowly unraveling yet extremely fast-paced story. As we travel through the events of the race, bit by bit we learn more of her past—what brought her to this point and who had the biggest impact on her life, shaping her into who she is today.
This type of writing, when done well, can be quite suspenseful and generate an atmosphere of mystery that unfailingly keeps a reader turning pages. Ryan Graudin absolutely nails this technique in her novel. She also manages to form a very distinct tone for each side of the dual narrative. I found that the flashbacks felt intensely emotional, which matched perfectly with the grief and struggle of Yael’s early life.
On the other hand, the present day narrative feels much more suppressed and reserved emotion-wise. This not only fits with her harnessing of her powers for the good of the resistance, but also with her unrest over her true identity—something which she is clearly trying to quell. As the plot moves forward and more of her past is revealed to the reader, more of the emotion found in the flashbacks steadily begins to seep into the present.
Graudin’s characterization is another extremely memorable aspect of this novel. Yael is an exceptionally strong, beautiful, and complex heroine with an utterly mesmerizing story—one of the inner turmoil caused by a loss of identity. She can confidently take on the appearances and lives of others, and has fashioned a face that has become her own. But she has lost the physical image of the real Yael, and struggles deeply with the concept of her true identity. Filled with the perfect balance of courage, fierce determination, and natural human vulnerability, she is not only a wonderfully well-crafted character, but one who is easy to connect with.
We spend a lot of time one-on-one with Yael due to the nature of the plot, and Graudin did a fantastic job of making a character that fluidly drives the story forward. However, the other characters and her relationships with them are equally as vividly portrayed and well-developed. I truly enjoyed seeing the roles that Felix and Luka played in Yael’s life, and I am looking forward to finding out what their involvement in the next novel will be.
Though they only appear briefly in the flashbacks, the “wolves” are quite three-dimensional, and their importance in Yael’s life is quite literally etched into the present day plot. The slow unfolding of their individual roles in their part of this dual narrative worked brilliantly to create mystery and anticipation in both storylines, since it very much enriched many aspects of the present portion.
Challenging what readers know in terms of World War II-based historical fiction, Ryan Graudin creates an intriguing tale of alternate history and extraordinary power. She exhibits a very imaginative mind with the many inventive elements of the narrative, such as the aspect of skinshifting, which is something I absolutely loved. The juxtaposition of Yael’s flashbacks and her actions in the present allows two storylines to slowly weave together, producing emotional suspense as well as an ultimately well-rounded story containing many riveting twists and surprises.
With her beautiful, lyrical writing style, multidimensional characters, and unique plot ideas, Ryan Graudin proves herself to be a very talented writer. Fast-paced and gripping, with vividly developed characters and an enthralling narrative, I absolutely devoured every page. Despite knowing things could not possibly end as flawlessly as desired by the characters, I could never have imagined it ending the way that it did. I am incredibly eager to not only get my hands on a copy of the sequel, but also to read more of her work in general.