Wolf by Wolf: A thrilling motorcycle race through an alternate history

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Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin fantasy book reviewsWolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin

The year is 1956. A decade ago, Hitler and the Nazis won World War Two, and Germany is now gearing up for the annual Axis Tour: a motorbike race in which the Axis powers — the Third Reich and Imperial Japan — compete to commemorate their victory over Britain and Russia. The race takes riders across seas and continents, from its kick-start in Germany all the way to the finishing line in Japan. Eighteen-year-old Yael, holocaust survivor and death camp escapee, has one goal: to win the race and kill Hitler.

Sequel

Yael’s story begins on a train. Rewind ten years from the race’s start, and we find an eight-year-old Yael and her mother stuffed into a train like cattle, along with hundreds of other souls destined for a death camp. But before she enters, a scientist picks Yael from the crowd of Jews to become a guinea pig for his experiments: he wants to test a new formula that will alter the appearance of any person to look Aryan. Out of these twisted tests, Yael develops a power: she is able to skin-shift and can transform herself into any appearance she chooses. By altering her face, she escapes the death camp and joins the resistance against the Axis Powers.

Back to 1956, and Yael has assumed the identity of the only female competitor in the Axis race: Adel Wolfe, the Führer’s sweetheart and general darling of the German population. Now Yael must convince the world she really is Adel, whilst competing in the deadly motorbike race across the world that other competitors will literally kill for to win.

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So the premise isn’t mind-blowingly original, but Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf is well executed. She manages to maintain the pace whilst switching between the present race and Yael’s tortured past, which is by no means an easy feat. The prose is also beautifully written, which is always refreshing in YA, a genre that has a tendency to sacrifice writing for breakneck speed.

Graudin populates her story with a broad cast; there are eighteen competitors in the race, and it would be a difficult task to do justice to the characterisation of each. As a result, some of Yael’s opponents (a host of Japanese and German bikers) feel a little flat. Yael herself is elegantly and convincing characterised, and readers will no doubt find themselves rooting for this complex and determined heroine.

As for the rest of the cast, there’s an interesting conflict for Yael in the form of Adel’s brother Felix joining the race, as well as the fact that she is competing against a former victor that Adel may or may not have had a relationship with — it’s all up to Yael to try and figure out what’s happened without letting slip that she’s not really Adel. Trying to piece together the past of the person she’s supposed to be almost proves more difficult than the race itself.

Wolf By Wolf tells the very human story of a girl who’s been wronged by history, and sets it against a fantastical backdrop to a plot that will keep you riveted from start to finish. Even if you’re not a motorhead, the bike race will have you hooked, and though the book has been shelved as YA, Graudin’s delicate exploration of human suffering will chime with old and young readers alike. Highly recommended.

Published October 29, 2015. Her story begins on a train. The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule. To commemorate their Great Victory, they host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The prize? An audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s ball in Tokyo. Yael, a former death camp prisoner, has witnessed too much suffering, and the five wolves tattooed on her arm are a constant reminder of the loved ones she lost. The resistance has given Yael one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female racer, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele’s twin brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move. But as Yael grows closer to the other competitors, can she be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and stay true to her mission? From the author of The Walled City comes a fast-paced and innovative novel that will leave you breathless.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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3 comments

  1. This book seems like a combination of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream and Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming. Have you read either?

  2. I was on the fence because of the premise, but if you enjoyed the prose enough to make a note of it, I’d be willing to give this one a go.

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