by Amber Lough
Publication Date: March 3rd 2020
Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab
Find This Book: Open Fire
I was given an ARC of this book from Netgalley in exchange for honest review.
I don’t know much about early female military groups, or even much about the Russian front in basically any wars because of how the US school system always frames history, so I jumped at the chance to read a YA book starring the first female Russian battalion. I loved getting to learn about Katya and her complex relationships, her family history gets teased out chapter by chapter as we learn about her mother, father, brother, and best friend Masha. Her disagreements and ultimate understanding with her brother was beautiful as they both navigate the consequences of war and current political upheaval. Weaving through Katya’s story is a beautiful bedtime story about Saint Olga, told to Katya by her father years before all of the events that take place. Characterizing her father and visualizing her attachment to this saint in particular was a great way to add layers and emotions to both Katya and her absentee father who is, during the events of the book, stationed indefinitely on Russia’s warfront. The writing was captivating and seemingly well researched. I certainly learned a lot, and was sitting on the edge of my seat when the battalion ends up on the front lines!
Some other reviews have mentioned that the book falls a bit flat, which I can understand from the perspective of a ‘climax’ but a believe that is essential, if not inherent, to a World War I novel. Yes, Katya trained extensively and didn’t accomplish much while on the battlefield; but that is what trench warfare was. It was a grueling, thankless, task of taking the opponent’s trenches that inevitably was lost again. It was an endless stalemate, and it’s hard to make trench warfare interesting. That all being said, I didn’t find this ending to necessarily be about the setting, and more about how Katya started off the book trying to figure out who she was and if she would be brave or a coward when facing down death, and she found her answer. I found the climax to be this sudden understanding of the self, and it was quite beautiful.
I couldn’t rate this a full 4 or 5 stars because it felt like too much was being squished into the story by adding Sergei as a character. I understand that historically a lot was going on with the start of the Bolshevik revolution during this time period, but I think this lost a bit of my focus. I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed it more if the Bolsheviks had been cut, or if their presence had been more fully developed.