Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to Code Name Verity.

The Plot: It’s summer of 1944 and Rose Moyer Justice is in England, a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.

She’s a pilot, and she’s an American, and she’s only 18, but she’s in the ATA because she’s been flying since she was 12 and her Uncle Roger, “high up in the Royal Engineers,” helped get her a place.

Rose thinks she’s seen the horrors of war. Her friend Celia Forester’s plan crashed, and she grieves. Her other friend Maddy has a war time wedding. Then there are the bombings and the destruction and the fear.

Thanks to Uncle Roger, Rose is flying in France, ferrying a plane back to England. That is when Rose is forced down by the Luftwaffe, captured by the Nazis, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Rose is about to discover what real horror is.

The Good: First things first: you don’t have to have read Code Name Verity to read Rose Under Fire. Rose’s friend Maddy is the Maddy from Code Name Verity, and a couple of other people appear, but in terms of plot, there is no connection. Since Rose Under Fire takes place after Code Name Verity, readers will be happy to see Maddy and find out how she’s doing, but the non-Code Name Verity reader won’t be confused.

Rose Under Fire is primarily told by Rose herself. First, in some journal entries from the summer of 1944. Then, there is a handful of correspondence from others that show that Rose is missing, presumed dead. Next, entries beginning in April 1945, with Rose in Paris, having escaped Ravensbruck. The jacket copy tells that Rose is sent to Ravensbruck – no spoiler there – and Rose Under Fire shows how Rose ended up in the concentration camp, what happened to her there, how she survived — and what she does to put her life together after.

Rose is eighteen, young, and prisoned in a place where she doesn’t even really know the language. She heard rumors about Nazi atrocities and dismissed them as propaganda. And, as she puts it, “I hadn’t seen evil. Or, if I had, I didn’t recognize it.” Another thing to know about Rose, in addition to being young, and an American. She gets angry. “I wasn’t upset. I was angry, as mad as I was about everything else.” She also loves poetry and writes some herself. Probably, the last important thing to know about Rose and how she survives: she’s lucky.

Rose is lucky, because she makes friends and connections that will help her survive. First is Elodie, a member of the French Resistance. Later, after Rose is brutally beaten, the “Rabbits” — the Polish women subjected to Nazi “medical” experimentation — befriend her. The reason? To learn English. To learn the poetry she recites. One, Roza, is even younger than Rose. Then there is Irina, a pilot in the Soviet Army, who gets paired up with Rose during a work detail because both are tall.

The Rabbits. I had been aware, in a vague words on paper way, of the Nazi medical experiments. When Rose gets to Ravensbruck, the experiments are over and scarred, mutilated women remain. They live, because in an odd way the current commander is afraid to kill them. It is after D-Day, and while the war in Europe is bloody and not yet over there is a vague fear that they may lose and will have to answer for their crimes. I say vague, because brutality and killings do continue.

Elodie, Roza, Irina. It is because of them that Rose lives. Rose doesn’t just take: no, she also gives, and there are people who live because of Rose’s own actions. When I talk about the friendships; or how other prisoners also tried to help the Rabbits, because of just how badly they were treated; I don’t want to make it sound the wrong way. Like it’s all selflessness and jolly good comradery. No. There is also harshness and cruelty, blood and death, mud and hunger, fear and desperation. For Rose and the others there are two types of survival: physical survival and mental survival. What does it mean, to be in a place like Ravensbruck?

What does it mean, to survive Ravensbruck? To live, after?

I don’t want to give too much away, because while this doesn’t have the type of twists and turns like Code Name Verity, I think that certain plot points are best discovered by the reader than told in a review.

I will say this: Rose Under Fire is as much about the time after Rose’s imprisonment as it is about the imprisonment itself. The final third of the story takes place in 1946 and is called Nuremberg.

Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2013? Yes! Because of how the story is told: Rose, safe in Paris, telling what happened to her. Rose, trying to figure out what “safe” is. Because of Rose. And Roza. And Irina. And the other women in Ravensbruck. And because while it didn’t break my heart in the way that Code Name Verity did, Rose under Fire was just as heartbreaking in its own way.

A brief P.S.: remember my post in January about characters in books getting their periods? Well, yes, Rose has to figure out what to do when in a concentration camp.

Other reviews: Dear Author; Good Books and Good Wine; See Michelle Read (a great discussion, but spoilers! Many spoilers!); The Book Smugglers.

Review: The Winter Prince

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein. Atheneum. 1993. Read ebook edition from Open Road Media, 2013. Personal copy.

The Plot: Medraut is the oldest son of King Artos of Britain, but he can never be Prince. He can never be King. He can never be his father’s heir. He can never have what his younger brother, Prince Lleu, has — not because of anything Medraut has or has not done.

Not because of skills or ability or talent; no.

The reason that the young, arrogant Lleu is heir and favored son is because of the circumstances of their births. Lleu is the legitimate son of Artos and his wife, Ginevra. Medraut is the elder but he is illegitimate, and (as is only known by a handful of people) Medraut’s mother is Morgause, the king’s sister.

Medraut must watch from the sidelines at all that Lleu gets and is expected to get. His feelings towards his younger half-brother are complex, but it is not until his mother visits the royal household that Medraut is forced to make a choice, between his father and his mother, between himself and his brother, between the role fate has for him and the role he wants.

The Good: Why did it take me so long to read Elizabeth Wein’s first book, when I have heard over and over again how wonderful it is? Because I’m an idiot, I guess.

The Winter Prince is a retelling of King Arthur, told from the point of view of his son Mordred. If, like me, you went on a King Arthur binge at one time in your reading life, you may recall that the earliest legends and tales do not say that the king and his son were enemies. So, here, Medraut is loved by his father and his stepmother and their two children, Princess Goewin and Prince Lleu. He is a member of the family, acknowledged (though the truth about his mother’s identity remains a secret) and loved.

From the outside, even, Medraut is favored. Several years old than the twins, he has been educated; he has traveled, to Brittany, to Byzantium, to Africa; he is a healer. He is talented, he is well liked. Medraut cannot see all that he has, because of what he does not have.

Lleu is young and handsome; he is well liked; but he is immature. One thing I loved about The Winter Prince is that even though this is told from Medraut’s point of view, and Medraut loves his younger brother, the reader sees the good things about Lleu but also sees that Lleu is, well, immature. A bit soft. For example, Lleu has no stomach for hunting, even though for the time period (and as his brother tells him) hunting is necessary to get meat to eat to survive. Lleu also sometimes has the unintentional arrogance of a protected teen: he knows he is going to be King someday. Yet, for all that — Lleu is likable. It’s just, like Medraut, the reader wonders if Lleu is really fit to become King.

The Winter Prince explores the relationship between Medraut and Lleu with the question ever-lingering in the back: will Medraut be his father’s son, loyal to his brother? Or will he be his mother’s son, and decide to do what is necessary to become king himself?

His mother’s son: Morgause doesn’t appear until half way through the book, when she escorts her younger sons to Artos’s kingdom. Morgause is a woman who plays with others, including her son and her brother. Artos was unaware of their relationship when he was with Morgause; Morgause knew, and wanted a son to use against her brother in her own quest for power. Morgause’s hold over her eldest son is such that the entire book is actually directed to her. It is a story he tells to “you,” and you is Morgause.

Surprisingly, it is the Princess Goewin who says something that creates some empathy in the reader for Morgause’s viewpoint. “Father’s kingdom, this unity, it won’t last — Lleu’s not like him, and even if he were, too much is changing too fast. It can’t last. Father would have me marry Constantine, the son of the king of Dumnonia in the south. It won’t be bad, it’s important, with all the tin mines and fishing towns. But he may as well marry me to one of my cousins and exile me to the Orcades, as he has his sister, because you can be sure I won’t sit by as queen of Dumnonia and watch Britain trickle through Lleu’s fingers. If I have to I’ll take the kingship from him by force.”

Goewin doesn’t really mean her words, but her frustration about her gender preventing her even be considered for power puts some light onto Morgause’s own actions, her manipulations of her son, her cold heartedness. And, perhaps, it explains in part why it is so hard for Medraut and Arthur to cut Morgause out of their lives.

A couple more random observations before my final raves. Medraut is in his early twenties, and Lleu and Goewin are in their late teens. Yes, this is one of those young adult books where the main protagonist is not a teen. Despite Medraut’s age, and despite his years of independence traveling and living in other countries, he is wrestling with questions that are familiar to teen readers: what will his future hold? Does he accept or reject his fate? How much control does he have for his future? Can he balance his wants and desires with those of others? And of course, all along, the reader wonders, how can this be worked out, knowing how history views Medraut, knowing that there are no stories about any children of Arthur other than Mordred.

Final raves, or why The Winter Prince is a Favorite Book Read in 2013: I adored Medraut. I adored his angst over how his fate and how his family seemed to box him into a very specific space. I loved how he could both love his younger siblings and be jealous and envious and angry at them. I loved that Wein only shows some of Medraut’s and Morgause’s relationship — there are suggestions that something more may have happened between mother and son. She shows just enough, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed by the abuse Medraut has suffered and so that the story stays focused on Medraut and Lleu. And the ending! I was on the edge of my seat for the last few chapters, wondering where this was going, and was so very satisfied with the ending.  And I love that this is done in less than 200 pages. (Yes, the ebook says 292 pages, but it ends on page 154. The remaining pages are the first chapters of the sequel, A Coalition of Lions, and a biography of Wein.)

And, yes, I have already downloaded the second book, A Coalition of Lions. There are five books in this series; the other three are The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, and The Empty Kingdom.

Other reviews: Greenman Review; Chachic’s Book Nook (note: spoilers for the whole series); Lack of Genius; Interview with the author at Finding Wonderland (spoilers for the whole series.)

Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Edited to add: Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: France. 1943. Verity, a British spy, has been captured by the Nazis. “I AM A COWARD,” she explains. She has given the Nazis the wireless codes they wanted; she is now writing out her confession, explaining how and why she ended up in Ormaie in Nazi-occupied France, why she has the identify papers of Maddie Brodart, and why she is telling the truth and telling the Nazis every little thing.

How much time has Verity bought for herself? A handful of days to write her confession; and after that, what?

The Good: This book is outrageously good.

Historical fiction can be a bit like fantasy: the author has to convey a lot of information to the reader for the reader to understand the setting. Here, a book about Britain in World War II, and the war effort that involved women: the Air Transport Auxiliary, Special Operations Executive, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Verity is writing her confession for her SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, wanting to include every last detail to buy more days, so she is thorough in what she tells. She starts in 1938 to explain just how and why Maddie, the granddaughter of a merchant, became a pilot that ended up bringing Verity to German occupied France.

As the pages go by, the reader falls into the past. The horror and disgust at what Verity has done — given the Nazis the secret wireless codes in exchange for the return of her clothes — slowly fades away. Partly it  is because Verity is equally disgusted with herself, and had, as a child, thought she’d be as brave as her various ancestors such as William Wallace, and she cannot believe she hasn’t lived up to her ideals. Partly it is because, while Verity never gives direct descriptions or details because, of course, Von Linden knows what was done to her so why tell him, she gives enough sideway hints and references to burns and bruises and pins for the reader to realize that more was involved in the questioning of Verity than taking away her clothes. But, for me, what most led to my forgiving Verity is that, as she recounts her past, I can’t help but like her.

It’s as simple as that. She’s Queenie, bright and funny and loyal and if Queenie has decided that “the warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly sweater are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity,” the reader can at least sympathize and understand as the reader (or at least this reader) wonders just how many burns and bruises and breaks and pins the reader could withstand.

Is Verity her name? No; it’s a code name. And even in her writings, she doesn’t use her direct name, using a nickname that others gave her: sometimes Queenie, because of her posh accent and upper class upbringing complete with castle; sometimes Scottie because, as she reminds us, she is Scottish not English. Her real name? That I won’t tell you; I’ll let Queenie tell you herself.

Maddie and Queenie become friends, meeting first as wireless operators, staying in touch as their war careers take different paths, Maddie as a pilot and Queenie with the OES. “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” This friendship, this pair — how can you not love them? Love Queenie? And one moment there is laughter in the English countryside as Queenie displays both her ability to get lost and to talk people into doing what she wants, the next the reminder that Queenie is in a Gestapo prison listening to people being tortured, clutching her dirty sweater as if it can somehow make the noise and dirt and blood go away.

Somehow, remembering a younger, more naive and sheltered girl telling another, while German bombs fall during the Battle of Britain, “‘Kiss me, Hardy!’ Weren’t those Nelson’s last words at the Battle of Trafalgar? Don’t cry. We’re still alive and we make a sensational team,” somehow, that makes Queenie hold on just a little bit longer as she writes to explain herself and what she has done.

Queenie is telling a story, under great stress, trying not to give too much away, but having to. Page after page and I wondered, is there any hope or escape for her? And Maddie, what has happened to Maddie, the pilot of the plane that brought Queenie to France?

I can tell you the pages where I literally gasped. And the pages where I cried. And cried again. It’s Queenie’s story to tell, and she has earned that right, with each article of clothing and wireless code. So, I won’t say much about what ends up happening or not happening. But when we meet in real life? Let’s sit down and talk about it all, every word.

I will say this: Code Name Verity ripped out my heart and chopped it into little pieces in front of my eyes.

As the pages turned and I realized just what Wein was doing — where she was going — how she was getting there, how Queenie was getting there — I was blown away. It reminded me of the first time I read Jellicoe Road or Going Bovine.

Because days later I am still crying. Because of the seamless craft of this book, in character, setting, writing, and plotting. Because this is about being a coward while telling the truth,and being brave while telling lies. Because it is about the power of words and of story. Oh, kiss me, Hardy. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Things Mean A Lot; Chachic.