My second ‘wolf’ themed book this week, and to my own surprise (or do I say shock), the second book from my own TBR pile (not NetGalley) that I’m reading in a month.
Wolf by Wolf is a young adult book that I came across through YouTube/Booktube and was intrigued by its description—the plot itself and also its setting in an alternate history, a ‘what if’ scenario which is both heart-breaking and chilling to think about. It is the first of a duology and there’s also a short novella linked to the two.
In the world of Wolf by Wolf, we are in 1956 in a scenario where Hitler has won the war and the world stands somewhat divided between him and Emperor Hirohito, who reign supreme. In this world, we have 17-year-old Yael, part of the resistance, who has been selected for a mission—a second Operation Valkyrie. Yael has survived a concentration camp where at the tender age of six, she was subjected to experiments to change her appearance. This, unknown to the doctor who conducted the experiments, has left her with the ability to skinshift—this means she can take on any face that she imagines, change her features according to her will, and this is what helps her escape the camp, and detection for the most part. The mission she is entrusted with is centred around an annual motorcycle race for teens—members of Hitler Youth or its Japanese equivalent—between Germania and Tokyo. The winner gets to meet Hitler, the only time he is ever present anywhere in person any more (after several failed assassination attempts), and her mission is to win the race and kill him. In the race she is to take the place of Adele Wolfe, the only girl to have ever won. The race is an over 20,000 km course, not easy to get through, and other competitors are known to target and sabotage opponents (to the point of killing them). But Yael, in the guise of Adele also has other problems to deal with. Adele’s twin, Felix Wolfe has joined the race (determined to bring his sister home), and it seems that Adele shared a close but complicated relationship with another competitor and also previous winner, Luka Lowe. Both these young men knew her well, so will Yael be able to keep up her guise before them? All her training and the information she had about Adele has told her little about the latter’s relationships and family.
In the book, we follow the course of the race, the obstacles Yael has to overcome, the threats and attacks from fellow competitors, and of course also figuring out how Adele would have dealt with Felix and Luka, both of whom she finds have many layers to them. In fact, Yael begins to find that she can’t simply hate them for being Germans and Nazis as she thought she could. Alongside, we also get insights into Yael’s past, her time at the concentration camp, the unbearable pain she endured because of the experiments, and more so, the people who were there for her and who helped her both in the camp and once she made her escape. Each of these people, whom she has loved and lost, are one of the wolves she has tattooed on her arm, each reminding her of why she needs to succeed in her mission.
This was a powerful, compelling, fast paced, and also heart-wrenching read which had me hooked right from the start and kept me reading all through. In fact, I finished most of it over the course of a day—having just about started it the night before.
The plot of course was intriguing from the moment I heard it described (nothing I’ve ever come across before), and watching it play out was exciting as also full of anticipation. How would Yael fare? Would Felix or Luka see through her, discover her truth? Would she win? And if she did, would she accomplish her mission? Would she escape? Each stage of the race was exciting, full of unexpected twists and turns, while the ending itself was so unexpected, it took me completely by surprise and left me wanting to pick up the second part immediately (but I hadn’t ordered it so I will have to wait).
But amidst all the excitement, there is also the scenario itself—the time and place that we’re in, the what if situation, if you will, which is downright frightening. Hitler winning and in fact ruling much of the world, his views and outlook still applicable across the world—the few who escaped the concentration camps, and the people manning the resistance having to operate underground entirely waiting for the rare opportunity to strike. The majority in most parts of the world, simply in too much fear to take any steps.
And then of course there is Yael herself and her past—having to not only be put into a concentration camp when she was only six (like so many others), but also to endure the experiments she was subjected to, the pain it brought, and having to lose herself in the process, to the point that her own people (with the exception of a few) begin to view her as an aberration, a monster. Poor Yael ends up a person who doesn’t even remember who she was. One’s heart breaks for her. I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of monsters there were that willingly treating other human beings like this—in the camps or experiments—because it couldn’t have been simply a matter of having no choice. How did they live with themselves? (Even through Graudin was not too graphic in her descriptions (which I am glad about), one gets the idea; but I did look up some details on experiments on Wikipedia, and they honestly made me feel ill).
Yet I was glad that Graudin also showed us that one can’t classify people quite in black and white; we have characters like Luka and Felix who have many facets to them, and whom one can’t classify on one ground alone. So we are left with a lot to consider about what really makes a person?
A truly unique, captivating but also heart-breaking read. I can’t wait to read the next one.