Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf, the first book in a duology, is frightening, but not in the traditional sense of what makes a great Halloween read. It’s a historical fantasy and a spy thriller that reimagines what could have happened if the United States had stayed isolationist and the Axis Powers had won World War II.
It’s 1956, and the Third Reich and Imperial Japan have conquered much of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Each spring, to celebrate their joint victory, they host the Axis Tour: a motorcycle race, in which ten Hitler Youth members and ten citizens of Greater East Asia ride from Berlin to Tokyo.
The protagonist, Yael, wants desperately to win. The award? A dance with Hitler at the Victor’s Ball. A chance to kill him. Not as Yael, a Jewish concentration camp survivor and resistance fighter. But as Adele Wolfe, an Aryan beauty and last year’s victor, who masqueraded as her twin brother to win the formerly all-male competition and the Führer’s heart.
How is Yael able to impersonate Adele? Wolf by Wolf flashes back to 1944 when six-year-old Yael was Dr. Geyer’s Experiment #85. Chemicals and injections that changed her appearance to look Aryan have an unexpected side effect: she’s a skinshifter. She can be any body.
Who are you? (On the inside?)
The answer to this question was something Yael had to fight for. Her self-reflection was no reflection at all. It was a shattered mirror. Something she had to piece together, over and over again. Memory by memory. Loss by loss. Wolf by wolf.
It was easy–too easy–to pretend. To fill that empty space inside her with other lives….Girls who never had to face the smoke or watch the syringes slide under their skin. Girls who never had to stare into the eyes of the Angel of Death. Again and again and again.
It was too easy to get lost.
This was why, every night before she fell asleep, she peeled back her sleeve, traced the wolves, and said their names. Because somewhere in there–in those fragments of gone souls and memories–was Yael.
Not chemicals, but essence. The real Yael. (Wolf by Wolf, p. 47)
Graugin’s protagonist is both the stuff of nightmares, a monster, and humanity’s greatest hope during Hitler’s reign of terror. She’s more than Yael. She’s special. She’s going to change things. As Volchitsa–
[s]he-wolf in Russian, a stubborn, fierce creature for a stubborn, fierce girl…. (Wolf by Wolf, p. 48)
As Graudin acknowledges in her Author’s Note, the complexity of Yael’s identity is at the heart of this book, which ingeniously subverts racial superiority myths:
What makes people who they are? The color of their skin? The blood in their veins? The uniforms they wear? I gave Yael the ability to skinshift to address these questions, as well as to highlight the absurdity of racial superiority. By taking creative liberty with this surreal element, I hoped to push readers out of their own comfort zones and into Yael’s many skins and, by doing so, to impart a deeper understanding of what humanity is capable of. Both the good and the evil.
Alyssa recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction (and occasionally middle grade and adult). She thanks Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Edelweiss, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with a digital galley edition for review purposes. The quotes have been checked in a finished copy. Please follow Alyssa (Spellbinding Books) on Tumblr and Twitter.