***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence review: the hand of the author was too visible to allow me to fully immerse myself in this one.
My favorite part: Brava to Ms. Graudin for showing so subtly and clearly that, no matter how hard one tries, one can never inhabit another person's thoughts or fully understand that person. This was the subtlest theme of the novel, and one I truly enjoyed--watching Yael realize the tiny ways in which human relationships, even when public, are by their nature intensely private, and how another person's mind and life are impossible to grasp, despite intense research and investigation.
Premise. The most common praise I've heard for Wolf by Wolf is that it has a unique and fascinating premise. The alternate-history aspect, in which Germany and Japan have won the war, is not in itself unique. (See this Wikipedia article entitled "Hypothetical Axis Victory in World War II.") Even the element of an underground resistance movement that wants to kill Hitler has been done before in this same alternate-history context.
So the unique aspects in Wolf by Wolf are the facts that Yael is a shapeshifter, and that she has to win a cross-continent motorcycle race in order to get her shot at the Führer. Unique, perhaps, but these two features actually weaken the novel somewhat in my opinion:
Road Race. For me--and this may not be true for other readers--a race is just not interesting enough to sustain the entire book. It very quickly felt like a series of hurdles: problem introduced, problem solved; another problem introduced, etc. Sometimes solving one problem created the other. Many times, Yael solved the problem simply by revealing her plan or identity to the person involved. (More on that below.)
Shapeshifter. Alternate history and historical fiction are a great pairing, but the fantasy element of Yael being able to shapeshift made the history less believable. In every other way, the world was like ours: unmagical. And other than the implied existence of other shapeshifters, nothing else is fantastical in this book. It made me wonder whether a) shapeshifting was necessary to accomplish what Ms. Graudin wanted to achieve, and b) if it was necessary, why this world didn't have more fantastical elements.
The science. Because let's face it, the science-fiction aspect was not convincing. When your plot device is medically based, I want some sort of plausible mechanism. You can make it up, but it should be based on something scientific or biological. What sort of injectable agent could possibly cause a person to be able to change their body, right down to bone shape and length, within minutes? The reader is meant to accept this as the premise and move on, but I got stuck in Untransported Land.
The hand of the author/author devices. When the author allows implausible things to happen just to keep the story moving, it becomes difficult to stay transported as well. How likely is it that in a concentration camp the gate guard would allow Yael to exit the camp when she tells him the doctor has requested to see her? Wouldn't he accompany her from the gate to the doctor's door? How likely is it that the nurse wouldn't accompany her from the clinic to the commandant's door? Ms. Graudin needed to develop a more sophisticated escape route, rather than ask us to believe these two impossible moments could occur.
Similarly, how likely is it that the race organizers have stocked fuel but not drinking water at the checkpoints? They've lugged spare motorcycles to each checkpoint, but no water? This was an author device to get Yael to approach Luka for a favor. And even that is unbelievable: why would Yael go to Luka, her nemesis, for a canteen, rather than to Adele's brother, who has said he wants to protect her? And why would Luka bargain the water for a mere favor, rather than demand that she partner with him, which is what he really wants?
Why does it take so long for Yael to ask Felix where he got his information about a "big event" happening at the race. Wouldn't Yael be suspicious of him?
How is it that the Russian partners in the resistance don't know Yael's code name, or that she's on this crucial mission, even though the race goes through their territory?
The Russian commander says that his life and the life of his men are forfeit if he lets her go, yet if she "happens" to escape "that's a different matter?" Really? He wouldn't be punished in the extreme for his incompetence in allowing an escape?
Linearity. Although Ms. Graudin tries to break up the monotony of the motorcycle race by inserting flashbacks of Yael's origin story (which I did find interesting), it's hard to stop this book from feeling very...linear. There is a hurdle, then a solution, repeat. The solutions are often Yael skinshifting her way out of the problem, spilling her plan--to the soviets, to Felix--or provided by a deus ex machina (e.g. Felix fixes her bike for her).
The Soviet side-trip. Why is this in the novel? It achieves nothing in service of the plot. I can only think that Ms. Graudin thought the monotony of the race needed something to break it up. Everything that she achieved (getting the competitors to rely on each other) could have been done another way.
Research. There were some errors here:
Ms. Graudin painted a picture of Cairo with "carts full of pomegranates and figs." Well, this race begins in early spring (late March, early April) and Egypt's pomegranate season runs from early September to December. Figs are more complicated (they have two seasons, a big one and a small one), but since Ms. Graudin doesn't specify dried or fresh, we should probably cut her some slack by assuming the cart had dried figs.
Luka says, "Not such a great bullet point on your curriculum vitae." And the narrator says, "No number of bullet points and biography facts could pin the soul behind her eyes." Unfortunately the term "bullet point" is from 1983, and the advent of wordprocessors.
Miriam reassures Yael that Babushka and Mama, both deceased, will be "watching" her escape from beyond. This implies a Christian view of heaven, doesn't it?
The writing. The language is meant to be evocative, but sometimes it simply doesn't make sense: "Act like you belong, not a hollow stuffed girl."
Sometimes the descriptions are so unspecific as to not be helpful, visually:
[To reach the knife in her boot,] she had to bend her body at awkward angles (which might have been impossible if Yael hadn't used her skin shifting to lengthen Adele's arms a few centimeters)...
Tell us how her body is bending, please.
Ms. Graudin also likes to serially pair nouns and/or adjectives, which might be fine in moderation, but there's a little too much of it of it. For instance, in describing Luka's lips:
Moving and melding. Soft and strength, velvet and iron. Opposite elements that tugged and tore Yael from the inside. Feelings bloomed, hot and warm. Deep and dark.
And speaking of "soft and strength," she has an interesting habit of using nouns for adjectives (strength instead of strong) and adjectives for nouns ("the tight of his fist"). Pretty, or distracting? I truly couldn't decide.
I had questions:
Why was the Japanese racer crying, only to be murdered without our finding out why?
What the heck are the rules of the motorcycle race, and how is it timed? We're given some information, but if I had to reconstruct it to hold an actual race, I couldn't.
In sum: This was refreshing YA fantasy for not being yet another Beauty and the Beast retelling, and for choosing an alternate history for its "dystopia." I was totally happy to keep reading it, but now that it's done I find I'm enjoying watching The Man in the High Castle more.