This has to be one of the most enthralling reads I have read to date. Intriguing, well balanced, beautifully written and packed full of suspense.
This book is a team effort by two authors and I must admit I'm always a little careful with collaborations because sometimes you can tell exactly which author is writing which part due to an abrupt change in style. I'm happy to say that this is not the case here. The book flows beautifully and if you didn't know any different then you would think it was one author. This author team rocks! It's historical fiction and for me one of the most important things is that the historical facts as such are correct. I didn't know or ever heard of Pervitin pills. After a quick google got my information, very interesting indeed. Another thing learnt for my arsenal of trivia.
The story begins with Hagen, an SS officer, who is sent into allied territory in France to find his brother and escort him back to Germany. His brother is carrying secret papers and these should not fall into enemy hands. When he arrives his brother has been captured by the allies and Hagen tries to rescue him. What he doesn't know is that his brother has already died in the hands of the allies and after his attempt fails ends up being a prisoner himself. Here the story really begins.
Hagen meets John, the allied forces interrogator, who is tasked with breaking him and getting as much information out of him as possible. Hagen is constantly chained and fixed to the chair in which his brother had died. This in itself is a horrible fact to bear for Hagen, but John also has his brother's shaving blade and taunts Hagen with this emotionally as the one last connection he has to his brother. This shaving blade is a symbol that runs through the book and also changes status from being an instrument of emotional torture to a symbolic gift of peace. Another symbol is Hagen's Iron Cross on his uniform that also goes through a similar transformation. An absolutely beautiful idea. During this stressful period both sides realise there is more to their emotions than just prisoner and interrogator. Emotions are high, but also uncontrollable. A scenario develops that neither side can deny but breaks every conventional rule known at the time.
I loved this part of the book. Observing the power play between both MCs, watching them psychologically dance around each other. Always trying to get one over on the other and playing mind tricks. Great writing! It was like reading an intense character study but seeing the MCs catching each other out, letting down their guard but still trying to resist at the same time. A true enemies to friends to lovers story. This gradual transition in the MCs was skilfully done with no jolts along the way when the relationship moved onto the next level. This is so important in such stories otherwise the whole thing becomes a little unbelievable. With these two authors everything is well thought out and when you get to the end of the book you don't even remember Hagen and John started out as arch enemies on opposite sides of one of the worst wars the world has ever seen. Two thirds into the book and it starts to feel that the most natural thing in the world is that these two guys belong together.
Something that also impressed me; we are dealing with WWII which means it could all be too easy for any author to fall into the stereotypical, clichéd trap of allies (good guys) and Nazis (bad guys). This I'm relieved to say was not the case. Each point of view or side was well balanced, dealing authentically with the horrors of the war, but realising there was good and bad to be had on both sides! Through Hagen we get to experience that not all Nazis were bad, some just victims of circumstance and brainwashing propaganda. Hagen finally breaks down when realising he had been set up and used as a sacrificial pawn by the Nazi command. We also learn that the allies were definitely not as innocent, righteous and heroic as everyone would like to believe. John has to defend Hagen several times against unmitigated hate attacks that as a POW contravene the Geneva convention and its code for handling prisoners respectfully. It was survival of the fittest."John stood and paced, tried to reconcile these emotions that were so at odds with each other. War seemed much more like a paradox than Clausewitz’s dogma that it was politics by other means. Politics didn’t figure here. Necessities, yes."
There was subtle criticism for both sides, diplomatically portrayed, thought provoking and well written by the authors with no blame. This for me gave the whole story a balanced and non-discriminatory feel without losing its character for that period. Also a wry and subtle sense of humour didn't totally escape my attention either, playing a little on stereotypes that both sides held. "What an irony that the Americans couldn’t find anything good to eat in France, of all places."“And here I thought Germans got their sense of humor surgically removed.”
“Maybe I escaped before they did it to me?”
The parting scene of Hagen and John for me was just beautiful and reduced me to tears!!! Gut wrenching and both guys in a hopeless situation with no way out. Do they get their HEA? Well, that would be giving too much away. You'll just have to read the book. However, I will leave you with one last quote from the book."Neither of them spoke for a while. Neither protested the other’s apology or outwardly accepted it, but the forgiveness was there in the tiny, warm space between their palms."