“Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them-made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same. Her story begins on a train.
Germania, 1956. Over ten years since the Nazis won the war. 17-year-old Yael is part of the resistance, and she has just one mission: to kill Hitler.
But first she’s got to get close enough to him to do it.
Experimented on during her time at Auschwitz, Yael has the unique ability to change her appearance at will. The only part of her which always remains are the five tattooed wolves on her arm; one for each of the people she’s lost. Using her abilities, she must transform into Adele Wolfe, Germany’s most famous female rider and winner of the legendary Axis Tour; an epic long distance motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo, where only the strongest (and wiliest) riders survive. If she can win this, she will be able to get close enough to kill the Fuhrer and change history forever.
But with other riders sabotaging her chances at every turn, Yael’s mission won’t be easy. . .”
The first thing that really struck me about this book was the visuals. We join our protagonist, Yael, staggering from a packed death camp train into the gaze of a Nazi Death Doctor.
‘A floodlight bathed him. The pure white fabric of his lab coat glowed and his arms were stretched wide, like wings. He looked like an angel.’
Tell me that didn’t make you shudder?
We have the beautiful, deliberate motif of Yael’s tattoo, five wolves with five stories, interspersed among her journeys across the world. The deliberate affront to Yael’s very identity of having to wear the face of this blue eyed, blonde haired Aryan ideal. The heart breaking brutality of the Axis tour and its fragile alliances, kids that should be enjoying their adolescence, not fighting and dying for the honour of an Iron Cross.
This novel is deeply, deeply sad. Beautiful but sad. Even the landscapes are bleak and desolate. The darkness of a pine forest, the wide sandstorm wracked expanses of the Sahara, the lonely high mountains of Central Asia.
I’ve actually found it a very difficult book to review. Part of me wants to just go ‘it’s REALLY good, go read it! Which part is my favourite? ALL OF IT’ though that feels a little like cheating. So I’m going to try and be a bit more methodical about it.
Graudin said that the Axis Tour was partly inspired by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s ‘Long Way Round’ (which I geeked out about for quite a while because I loved that series) and you can really feel that. It’s hard and dusty and lonely and you end up craving the company of other characters as much as Yael. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the tour and the relationships of the young competitors with the stories of Yael’s wolves. It imbued the story with a sense of hope, that even in the darkness and depravity of this world there are still brave and good people. I wasn’t actually sure what to expect with the ending. Would her plan work, would it not? All I will say is that I can not wait for ‘Blood for Blood’ and I want to know what happened between Luka and Adele in the last Axis tour!!
I fell in love with all the young characters in this book…even those who were antagonists. Every single character had a motivation that maybe wasn’t immediately obvious but mattered to them. Each character was the hero of their own story. The fleeting glimpses into their thoughts and feelings, and Yael’s realisation that many of them are bound by responsibility and fears of their own is so humbling.
Yael’s relationship with Felix, Adele’s real life twin, and Luka, the perfect frenemy, was just so interesting that I could have very happily read another four hundred pages of just them out on the road. The tension between the three main characters had me reading through the night, wondering how it would be defused. I just want to know what happened between Luka and Adele, ok! There’s a novella (Iron to Iron) from Luka’s POV, about that tour, but it isn’t available in the UK and it’s breaking me.
A Note of Warning
It takes a very brave and talented author to write this era of history well. It’s very easy to fall into insensitive pit traps, and even though Graudin avoids this very well, I still feel I ought to warn people that this is a book about Nazis. It is a book that humanises kids that grew up through Hitler’s Youth (or the fictional continuation of Hitler’s Youth) and if you’re not in the right place for that, for whatever reason, then maybe give it a miss. I’m going to say that, for some, this may be an uncomfortable read.
I just want to read ‘Blood for Blood’ (and find a way to read ‘Iron to Iron’). I would like it now, I don’t know how I’ll wait til October to see how this ends! This was a really hard book to review because I loved it down to its bare bones and it’s damn hard to talk about how the very words feel like a song that you want to go on and on.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, many thanks to Orion Children’s Books for giving me a copy in return for an honest review.