When newly trained American soldier Hagen Messer arrives in Britain, he is under the impression he will be using his German language skills to help the war effort against Adolf Hitler. Like the tides of war, however, plans change with little notice. Soon, Hagen finds himself on a daring undercover mission with a female spy named Roesia, a handful of commandos, a few commanding officers, and a boy named Liam for whom Hagen develops strong feelings.
Ostensibly, the mission is to blow up a dam in Bavaria suspected of being used to power some project of the Nazi’s. Unfortunately, an enemy air regiment went on a raid over France just when Hagen’s team was flying towards the dam. With their plane riddled with bullet holes and half their team bleeding out and their last engine moments from failure, the group crash lands in a German forest. Despite being behind enemy lines, however, not all hope is lost. Hagen and the remaining operatives—including Liam—find an ally in an old woman who lives in the forest and says she cares for the giant wolves that reside there.
The safely is short lived, however, when Nazi soldiers track them down. The rag-tag group of soldiers may be running for their lives, but they are also on a mission: take down the Nazi’s secret project. After a run-in with convoy that ends well for Hagen’s side, he, Roesia, and the others manage to pull of the mother of all impersonations to gain entry into the heart of the Nazi’s base of operations. There, they learn the full extent of the depravity of the Nazis and must fight not only their own revulsion at the grotesque experiments being conducted, but they must fight the clock in order to somehow stop the Nazis before their ruse is uncovered.
It’s only a matter of time, however, before Hagan’s sense of decency gets the better of him. His reactions to the utter cruelty—sometimes gut-churningly so—reveal him to the Nazis. As the enemy pursues, more questionable characters come wriggling out of the woodwork. With carnage unfolding around him and hope dwindling ever smaller, Hagen must push himself to the limits and beyond if there is any hope of survival for him, his friends, and he boy for whom he’s fallen.
Hagan is unquestionably the main feature in this story. We see him evolve dramatically on page. During his introduction, we see a fresh-eyed young man just out of boot camp sent to help the war effort—ostensibly as an interpreter (the author is wrong when referring to the overt on page situations where Hagen uses his oral languages skills as “translation” and this irritated the bejeezus out of this trained interpreter). He comes across as sweet and somewhat naive, wary of the older, war wizened men and keen to make friends with the sprightly young Irishman, Liam. Even when his plane is shot out of the sky, the newbie vibe takes a while to wear off Hagen. His next permutation happens after he and the crash survivors are forced to play at espionage as they don Nazi dress and try to not get killed. Nazi horrors threaten to shake his commitment to protect the Allies’ secrets. Here, Hagen is reduced to little more than a captive reacting to the dehumanizing cruelty inflicted upon him. And his final change happens towards the end where he comes into his birth right and basically falls off the human radar. Along with the shedding of his human skin, I felt he sheds the last of his credibility as a sympathetic character.
While Hagan is the star, there is a vast array of supporting characters. Sadly, precious few of them left much of an impression beyond “the bully” or “the competent guy,” “the female character,” or “bad Nazi dude.” For the most part, even the memorable characters felt memorable thanks to their roles in the plot rather than their personal histories or personalities. Poor Liam winds up little more than a token love interest for Hagen to focus on rather than a major contributor to any real plot lines. Roesia drives a lot of the suspense with her ruse as a cruel Nazi doctor, but as the only female character, it feels like she’s also used as the one character to really show any human reactions to the horror around them (when she can, anyway).
What we’re left with is a story that is technically well pieced together, but falls short of being deeply engaging. The title and blurb alone primed me for a story of mystery set against the backdrop of WWII. Summers delivers a book that is half groundwork (pretty much everything up until Hagen gets caught by the Nazis) and half revelations delivered in spectacularly gory manner. The Nazis and WWII play heavily into the plot and I have to give credit where credit is due: Summers seems to have done his homework and I appreciated the inclusion of realia like the names of the models of planes being flown or the types of guns being used, names of historical figures, and so on. I wasn’t expecting to be given a front row seat to a blood and guts horror show, but the last third (or more?) of this 400 page tome includes a lot of fairly graphic descriptions. Fair warning if you’re turned off by gore, which features prominently in this book.
While I felt the plot was well constructed and capitalized big time on the horror and suspense aspects, I felt the characters weren’t strong enough or developed enough to launch this book into a real page turner. While some of the twists that emerge towards the end are well planned (see Rolph), some of them come out of left field (see the Adolf that isn’t named Hitler and everything he brings to the book), there wasn’t enough to keep me fully engaged to read more than a couple chapters at a time.