Book Review: Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (and Why You Should Read It)

My avalanche of 1-3 star reads finally stopped this last weekend, when I picked up Ryan Graudin‘s Wolf by Wolf. Thank you to Little Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers/Hachette Book Group for this ARC! (Wolf by Wolf will be available October 6th, 2015) Note: Cover and quote might not be final.

Love this cover.
“These were the names she whispered in the dark.
These were the pieces she brought back into place.
These were the wolves she rode to war.” 

I read The Walled City earlier this year, and really enjoyed it. Wolf by Wolf was better, with a tighter story and more developed main characters.  Like with TWC, Wolf by Wolf takes actual history for its inspiration. But this time, there’s a fantasy twist. Here’s a rundown for you:

 

Set in an alternate 1956, Wolf by Wolf imagines a world where the Axis powers reign triumphant, and their victorious alliance is celebrated each year by a cross-country motorcycle race. The 1955 victor was the only girl, Adele Wolfe, and she had a rare opportunity to dance with Hitler himself after winning the race. That up-close look at the elusive Führer is one that resistance groups would gladly die for. But it seems impossible.

Yael, a young resistance member, just might be able to make the impossible happen. A Jewish girl who survived terrible experiments and escaped from concentration camp, Yael can skin-shift, altering her appearance to resemble any girl she has seen. If she can imitate Adele Wolfe, infiltrate the race, and win, Yael might get close enough for a second Operation Valkyrie.

Yael has been trained to fight and survive, and she has spent the last year practicing both racing and imitating Adele Wolfe down to the tiniest detail, but there are two major problems: Luka, who has a bitter romantic history with Adele, and much more serious, Adele’s twin brother Felix. Yael will have to fool them both, and defeat them along with all of the other competitors, if she wants to complete her mission.

 

Alternate history, what-ifs, human experiments, motorcycles, infiltration, how could this not sound amazing? But all that aside, this was a strong novel with an epic concept. And here are five reasons you should read it:

1. Yael. I loved Yael so much. A little Winter Soldier and all survivor, she was sympathetic, hardcore, and brave. She (understandably) had a hard time trusting others, but she wasn’t afraid to love or feel for the people in her past. She wanted to think well of people, and she put her mission ahead of her own interests.

Also, I loved her interactions with Adele’s brother Felix. Felix was brave, adorable, and loyal and Yael really didn’t know how to handle this. Humor, and some surprisingly touching moments, resulted from this. (But she’s not Adele, so, ouch!)

2. The story. I really enjoyed the movie Valkyrie, and I find revolution/resistance novels tend to resonate with me. Wolf by Wolf was definitely character centered, with Yael’s inner war against the Axis ideals, and what it took from her, taking more of the focus than the overall plot. Also, the fact that Yael was Jewish, while important to the story, wasn’t shoved in your face. Likewise with a cast of mainly German and Japanese teens.

3. Alternate history. Though Graudin definitely had to bend and shape history to her story, she did a great job of projecting how the world might have looked if things were different. From the tensions between Germany and Japan, to the disinterest of the US, to the eventual fall of Britain, it felt like she put a lot of time and thought (and research) into this historical fantasy novel.

4. The skin-shifting. I guess this relates to #1. I loved how the story just went with this slightly outrageous premise. I mean, scheming Nazi scientists? But it just worked, and the shifting was worked into the greater themes and character development. Also, Yael’s ability reminded me a bit of X-Men’s Mystique. Yael had similar identity problems due to always wearing someone else’s face. Also like Mystique, she tended to distance herself from her feelings and thoughts because of this.

5. Nothing was neat, tidy, or easy. Everything from the motorcycle race, to the ending, to Yael herself unraveled a bit. There was no quick fix. Especially when it came to playing Adele while dealing with Luka and Felix. Yael was always teetering toward failure, and I really wasn’t sure (till the end) how things would pan out. That’s a rare occurrence.

Minor Quibbles:

Yes, I loved this book so much, but I did have a few tiny issues. Like with TWC, the characters (other than Yael) were a bit thin for my liking. In particular, I would have liked to read more about the Japanese racers (there was some, but I wanted more).

Luka was a James Dean meets Thor type, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading about him, but that’s purely personal. However, I did like how Yael handled his interactions with “Adele.” Talk about an interesting situation there.

Other than that, this was one of my favorite books this year, and I am so thrilled that she is writing a sequel! The fallout from the ending just begs another round, and Yael is a heroine I would gladly read a series about.

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. An exciting alternate history with a strong heroine, lots of action, and a fascinating premise. Recommended for fans of The Hunger Games, Valkyrie, The Scorpio Races, The Maze Runner, Code Name Verity and X-Men.

6 Reasons Why You Need to Read Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

Copyright Disney

If you have read anything I posted in the last month, there is a good chance that I referenced  Sunbolt. If you haven’t heard of it, Sunbolt is a fantasy novella by indie author Intisar Khanani (who also wrote Thorn, which I loved).

There was one complication: I loved Sunbolt so much that I couldn’t write anything coherent about it . . .

So I let the dust settle a bit, and here’s my take on Sunbolt:


Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

A review copy of Sunbolt was graciously provided by Netgalley.com in return for a fair and honest review.
Summary from Goodreads.com:

“The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Arch Mage Wilhelm Blackflame.
When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.”

And that’s just what happens in the first few pages. What follows is a dip into a fascinating, effortlessly diverse world with colorful characters, an intriguing magical hierarchy, and an intricate history. And in less than 200 pages.

Han and I salute you

Here are 6 reasons you should read Sunbolt:

1. Hitomi. She is everything I love best in a hero. She’s brave, smart, and quick on her feet, but she’s not perfect. She is survivor, afraid to stand out or call attention to herself, and yet she holds deep convictions that go against the grain of popular opinion. And she’s an outsider with untrained (read: illegal) magical powers. Sunbolt is her story, but the supporting characters are interesting too, especially Val, which leads me to #2.

2. Breathers.* And fangs, and mages, and . . . you get the idea. All of the usual suspects, from vampires to wizards, are part of Sunbolt‘s fantasy landscape. But they’re interesting! Like the many races and cultures of human characters, they have longstanding feuds, histories, and racial tension/prejudices. I want to know more (especially about the Breathers)!

3. The relationships. Like with Thorn, none of the characters fall into predictable YA relationship patterns. There’s no romance, for instance, and even the friendships are full of tension. I will resist writing more about my favorite developments because, spoilers!

4. The Shadow League. First off, they’re a rebel/resistance outfit called The Shadow League, led by the enigmatic young man known only as Ghost. It’s like the Scarlet Pimpernel took up with the barricade boys from Les Mis (despite how totally counter intuitive that sounds) and all started fighting for freedom from the shadows. Hitomi and her friend Kenta (a Tanuki!**) are part of the league, though they’re not very high up on the ladder, and I loved how they all interacted.

5. The plot/story/world. These are as intertwined as a celtic love knot. Though Sunbolt is basically an origin story, introducing us to Hitomi, her hidden powers, and her world, is also includes a lot of plot elements/threads that I’m hoping to see explored in later installments. There is a lot here for such a small book, and none of it was too much.

6. The writing. I’ll say it again, Intisar Khanani can write. Her prose is elegant, effortless, and never artificial. Her pacing is great, and she has a knack for narrative. In short, the only complain I have about Sunbolt is that it ended. It needs to be the size of The Lord of the Rings. (Not that the story felt incomplete or anything, her writing is too good for that!)

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. A brilliant fantasy adventure with a strong heroine and an interesting world.

Footnotes: *You’ll have to read the book to find out about Breathers.
**Tanuki: Japanese Raccoon Dog, and a legendary shapeshifter in Japanese mythology
FURTHER READING: If you liked Sunbolt try:
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
The Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander
The Blue Sword (or most of her other books) by Robin McKinley