A surprising story of loss and perseverance in a powerful alternate historical setting.
The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia, 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.
Yael, who escaped from a death camp, has 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 victor, 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 begins to get 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?
I discovered Ryan Graudin at the beginning of this year when I read The Walled City on a whim and was blown away with the vividness of her writing. When I heard her most recent book was an alternate historical fiction exploring a world were Hitler won WWII, I knew that I had to read it.
Wolf by Wolf did not disappoint.
From the first pages, Yael’s character drew me into the story. She’s a strong protagonist. I know that phrase (“strong” character) has become almost useless at this point, but I need to say it—Yael has lived through a lot, but she’s come out the other side determined to do something about it. I liked that her character wasn’t stuck in the past—she carries her experiences with her, but she also lives very much in the present, ready to change things.
Her tattoos, five wolves snaking up her arm, were one of the most interesting parts of her character. The gave insight both into her personality and into her past, providing an easy connection between the current story and flashbacks to her time in the death camp. Each flashback was written well, with a pacing and length that fit well with the rest of the story; I looked forward to the flashback scenes, instead of getting annoyed at them for breaking up the story (which is usually what happens).
Yael’s skinshifting—essentially the ability to make her body look like any female in the world—was interesting. I liked that even though it sounds like a fantasy element, the psuedo-scientific way that it was introduced (through experimentation in Hitler’s death camps) kept the book solidly in the alternate historical genre. Her abilities don’t dominate the story, but they complement it, adding conflicts to her personality and the plot that kept me reading.
Ryan Graudin’s world building was amazing. Without any scenes that felt weighed-down with exposition, Gruadin created a world that clearly felt like a fascist, dictatorial world. Yes, my prior knowledge of fascism and WWII helped me visualize and understand the politics, but I would have been okay without it. The straightforward way that Graudin created the world allowed me to focus on the story instead of complex details.
I loved the Axis Tour motercycle race concept. Again, Graudin left the premise simple and allowed character conflicts to bring most of the action, though there were definitely some tense, purely race-related moments thrown in. Yael’s fears and frsutrations about the pace of the race, especially when she was struggling, really affected me—I felt like I was the one competing in the race.
The pacing is good, though overall slower and more contemplative than I expected from a book based around a race. There are definitely dramatic scenes, but much of the book focuses on the events that occur on the stops between the legs of the race. Still, I enjoyed the pacing, as it allowed the character development to from to the forefront, instead of every second of the race dominating the story.
Each side character added their own layer to Wolf by Wolf. Some of the most minor characters added some of my favorite scenes, giving certain aspects of the book serious thought-provoking qualities. The fact that Yael was impersonating a racer (Adele) that many of them had met before put extra tension into the plot.
Felix, Adele’s brother, was an interesting character, his family-centric values contrasting sharply with Yael’s ends-justify-the-means mindset. There were times that I found him annoying, though, because he basically only exists to stand in the way of the plot. Yes, it created important conflicts, but it was also kind of frustrating.
Luka, Adele’s competitor and former love interest (though the specifics of that are left vague), was a much more entertaining character than Felix. I loved his interactions with Yael. He wasn’t just a ruthless victor, he was a guy with a broken heart—which Yael had nothing to do with. Watching him bare his soul to a confused Yael was both funny and bittersweet. Luka and Felix forced Yael to confront her own emotions, and I loved watching Yael’s character grow.
Unfortunately, the hints of romance that developed between Yael and Luka didn’t work for me. I needed a few more scenes to prove to me that Yael felt anything serious for him, and certain things that happen ended up confusing me because I didn’t believe in Yael’s emotions. Hopefully, this will be expanded on in the second book and their relationship will win me over, because I honestly love the idea of them as a couple—if it were written better.
Finally, the writing of Wolf by Wolf is gorgeous. I loved the way that Graudin wove in metaphors and symbolism without overpowering the story or feeling out-of-touch with Yael’s character. I absolutely love the title as well. And I CANNOT WAIT for the second book. That ending was ridiculously unexpected!!!
I would recommend this book for anyone who loves alternate historical stories, complex protagonists, great writing, or all of the above.