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?
My last review, Conclave by Robert Harris, dealt with a semi-historical what if scenario, as does Wolf by Wolf. Harris’ classic Fatherland imagined a world in which Hitler won, as does Wolf by Wolf. The reader is brought in to the story of Yael, who goes from helpless victim to active member of the resistance in the years after the war ends.
The imagination of Ryan Graudin is the most remarkable aspect of this book. Although the idea of a transcontinental race on motorcycles is an outlandish one, Graudin grounds the narrative in the murky backstory of Yael, and the steely determination of the resistance. Rather than focus on the multi-faceted resistance and setting up the mechanics of this alternate timeline, Graudin keeps close to the story of Yael.
The central narrative is a clever device in showing the power and the expanse of the new Reich and displays the worst of what such a regime might have looked like or felt like to live in. Yael competes with either Aryan males or their Japanese counterparts. Her presence as a girl is an anomaly arising from the previous year’s race.
There’s a real drive (no pun intended) to Yael’s mission and as we discover more of her backstory, it becomes clearer that she sees it as her destiny to follow the path all the way to the assassination of Hitler.
Said path is a twisty, deceitful one, from Germania (Berlin) to North Africa and on to Delhi, Hanoi and Tokyo. Again Graudin doesn’t get bogged down with geographical details and logistics, instead using the terrain to further the story, like the peril of sandstorms in the desert or racing to a finish through the colours of Holi in Delhi.
The final act of the book all leads to that fateful moment that the blurb promises: killing Hitler. It can really only go one of two ways, or so we’re led to believe; the less said about that the better!
Wolf by Wolf is a really enjoyable read for its historical content, but more than that its pace, high stakes and adventure. There’s a whole heap of heartbreak and devastation throughout also. Yael herself makes for a real hero that you root for right to the end.