Alternate History, Shapeshifting and an Epic Motorcycle Race: ‘Wolf by Wolf’ by Ryan Graudin

Something I have difficulty coming up with recommendations for is underrated or hidden gem type books. Because, let’s be real, when it comes to my reading choices, I have a strong tendency to stick to novels and authors which are popular, talked about or considered “good”. This is extremely silly because I’m likely to miss out on some amazing books. Books like Wolf by Wolf for instance, which is now officially my “hidden gem” pick.

What If…?

Wolf by Wolf is an alternate history story set in 1956 in a world in which the Nazis and Japanese won WWII. Between the two powers, they now control most of the world. To honour their victory, each year the legendary Axis tour is held – an epic, cutthroat, and gruelling motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo. Eighteen-year-old Yael is a survivor of the camp at Auschwitz where she was experimented on, leaving her with the ability to shapeshift. Now part of the resistance, Yael is set the almost impossible task of assassinating Adolf Hitler. However, in order to get close enough, she must first disguise herself as former tour winner, Adele Wolf, and win the race. It won’t be easy though, especially with Adele’s brother, Felix, and Luka, who has history with Adele, among the competitors.

On the Road

I’m not usually drawn to travelling/journey type plots, but Wolf by Wolf is a wonderful exception. This is a book with both a fantastic premise and great execution. The bulk of the novel follows Yael through the different legs of the Axis Tour as she deals with the elements, potentially life-threatening sabotage attempts by other racers, and maintaining her cover as Adele. I loved the competitive aspect. It was exciting, fast paced and a lot of fun. Plus, the couple of unexpected moments thrown into the mix made it even more enjoyable. Even better, the book managed to sustain this degree of momentum right til its last moments.

Slowing things Down

Graudin balances out the action-packed sections with plenty of slower, character-oriented moments. The book flicks back and forth between the present and flashbacks to Yael’s past. These start with her arrival at Auschwitz at five years old and lead up to her resistance training before the race. Yael’s memories are heartbreakingly centred around the people she’s lost and reveal the evolution of her character in an emotional way. I’ve found that books which utilise this method of storytelling sometimes end up feeling a bit choppy but the transitions here were well done.

In the present, the book also works at developing Yael’s relationships with both Luka and Felix during pit stops and rest breaks. Both these characters were very likeable in different ways. I couldn’t help smiling at Luka’s cocky, flirty, bad boy persona and sympathising with Felix who is desperate to avoid losing another sibling. Each brings out something different in Yael and often forces her to rethink notions about Germans and herself.

A Touch of Romance

Yes, there’s a romantic subplot in this book but to my immense relief, it (a) isn’t cheesy and (b) doesn’t take over the main story. It’s there, but just enough to add to the story and aid in Yael’s character development/journey.

Lone Wolf

As far as leads go, I really liked Yael. She walks the line between strong and vulnerable very well – physically and mentally very capable, but at the same time with deep emotional baggage. Also, major point in her favour, she’s not stupid. As a character, Yael has a complicated relationship with identity in that she no longer remembers what she actually looks like, often has to act out other personas (as she does with Adele), and has been separated from her family, culture and heritage. The events of the novel really force her to think about who she is and how her past & abilities define her.

A Few Extra Points:

  • The book takes a couple of chapters to kick into gear but once it finds its stride, it really gets going
  • Some of the side characters are somewhat like window dressing – they pop up when needed and fade into the background the rest of the time
  • The writing style gets a little bit “artsy” at points but as someone who’s not usually a fan of this, I found it alright for the most part

Wolf by Wolf was a huge surprise for me – the really good kind, and I’m so glad I stumbled across it. If you like historical fiction, competition-based plots and well written heroines, I can’t recommend this book enough.

4.5 stars

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