Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin

source: ARC from Hachette
publication: October 20, 2015, Little, Brown

This is one of the few books I've read recently whose synopsis actually gives you a sense of what the book is about. Wolf By Wolf is about Yael, a girl who survived a World War II death camp only because she was chosen as a science experiment: mysterious injections gave her the ability to change her face at will. Now, she's impersonating Adele Wolf, the victor of a cross-continental motorcycle race, so that she can enter the race, get invited to the ball, and kill Hitler. Meanwhile, she's got to keep everyone thinking she is Adele, including Adele's twin brother and another competitor, Luka, with whom Adele has a hush-hush romantic history.

I really liked this book. It was fast and interesting and didn't recall for me any other YA novels I've read (or movies I've seen, for that matter). I think what I love most is that Yael truly does question her own ruthlessness time and time again—there is a line that she never wants to cross: killing, or causing the deaths of, innocent people. Crossing that line would go against everything she is fighting for, and I think it's really important that this was a concern of hers, because a lot of times characters will feel bad for killing someone but insist that it's in the name of some greater good. Yael knows that that would be a lie, that "greater good" is the kind of justification that can go too far—just look at Hitler.

This is the second Ryan Graudin book I've read (the first being The Walled City) and I am noticing that she is not afraid to give her stories a lot of different elements. In this one, you've got the motorcycle race, the death camp flashbacks, Yael's training, her mission, her relationships with Felix and Luka, and the mystery of what happened at last year's race. Graudin pulls all of these off well; it never feels like too much is going on.

At the same time, though, with this much going on it does detract from the character development a bit. Yael is a complex character with a metric ton of history, so my issue wasn't so much with her as with Felix and Luka. I liked them just fine, but they never felt fully fleshed-out for me—and I wish that Yael had been given a chance to have deeper connections with them (or even just one of them). There weren't really any relationships driving this story: it was all about Yael and the world she lives in, and her mission to make it better. If you're someone who likes plot-driven stories, this won't be so much of a problem for you, but if you subscribe as I do to the mantra that character is king, you might be slightly disappointed.

I am split down the middle when it comes to the prose. It's very innovative and evocative, but sometimes language is just piled on so heavily that it can be distracting. Some sentences are stop-you-in-your-tracks powerful, while others are sort of cringeworthy and had me asking, Why can't you just use adjectives as adjectives??? (Graudin has this habit of using adjectives and verbs as nouns, which I also noticed in The Walled City, and it rarely works for me). But then again, there were so many quotes in the last chapter or two that had me going "Daaaaang," I can't say the writing style wasn't also one of the best things about this book. It was.

Now, Yael's ability to "skinshift"—a word that's not used until the end of the novel—is not entirely explained. I imagine that's because Yael doesn't know how it works, she doesn't know what was in those injections, but I do wish it had been explained somehow. I mean, it would be one thing if she were casting an illusion, but she is literally changing the structure of her face, as well as her eye and hair colors. It seems that her body, however, does not change when she shifts. Which is another anomaly altogether. Suspension of disbelief does not come easily, is all I'm saying.

But! This is a series! There's more room for the things I found lacking in book 1! I look forward to finding out where Yael goes next.