This is a tandem review by Ilhem and I. 3.5 Stars for the Blog Of Sid LoveExpectations
“Unhinge the Universe”. We wanted to feel this. The shifts in power, the world toppling over and we wanted this story to be more than a history lesson with sex.
It was with wary trepidation that we approached Hagen’s character. As trusting as we were in the authors, Hagen being a soldier of the Waffen SS is by no means a detail. It was a welcomed challenge to look for the man behind the runic insignia and this novel needed to make sense beyond the "enemies becoming lovers" and “there is a man under the uniform” tropes. We were looking forward to the raw punch-in-the gut Voinov trademark and deep characterisation.
Himmler said to his men in April 1943
“we will never let that excellent weapon, the dread and terrible reputation which preceded us in the battles [...], but will constantly add new meaning to it. They can call us what they like in the world, the main thing is that we are the eternally loyal, obedient, steadfast and unconquerable fighting men of the Germanic people and of the Führer, the SS of the Germanic Reich”.
How does this weigh on a man?This Is War.
The historical setting is an interesting piece of work, an intricate sleeve of details, reminding us that history is very much about past lives and humanity and more than battle dates and scholarly essays. Cleverly placed symbolism and metaphorical references provide the richness of the cultural background.
Genuine facts of life show a totalitarian ideology at work - menacing - certainly; but also well immersed in daily life and becoming mundane, assigning rational words to collective compulsions and giving a purpose to personal ideals, so that choices become obvious when in fact they’re robbed from you.
The world is shifting. History is in the making, and people are pawns in the grand scheme of things. Yet, they have their own agenda, dreams and reasons to fight. The Battle of the Bulge has already begun, the end of WWII is near, and men are fighting to keep their loved ones safe wherever they are, whoever they are...The Games people play.
John is an American Captain and interrogator specialized in mind games. His trick is to latch onto people’s vulnerabilities and use them as leverage to extort enemy secrets which have the potential to save millions and end the war.
His previous prisoner, Siegfried, died without giving up his secrets, holding onto his ‘honor’ till his last blood choked breath. Now John has Hagen in the same seat. Regardless of the anger and revulsion he projects, John needs to empathize with the young man and look beyond the Nazi to do his job. When he finds Sieg’s baby brother filled with the truth, fears, and vulnerabilities that meet his own, the mind game begins...There’s something about Hagen.
Ilhem tortured herself with contradictory feelings and all Shelley saw was a brave boy who was scared, disoriented and needed a hug. Ultimately, our wary approach to this man dissolved with John’s. At the end of it all, it was all about Hagen and his woven metaphor. His courage (Alone. One man against a base) his fight, his innocence, his grief and unwavering trust in an enemy makes him easy to like and an interesting feast for debate.
John’s character is repetitively focused on his conflicted feelings and the fact that he is a skilled interrogator is just an aspect. We both felt frustrated that the one dimension that makes this character interesting is toned down. Unhinged.
The romance started as a closed-door duel between two cunning minds and ended up with an inexplicably fast attraction that sent us balancing on the verge of chic-lit territory when their arousal negates all the fear and rage of the situation. The power play is a tame to-and-fro until their secret sexuality puts them on an even playing field.
Yes, the Nazi machinery crushed everyone within reach and didn’t spare its tools. Yes, it is war and each man was capable of cruelty and liable to break down. When are we beyond unavoidable casualties of war? What does all this do to a man? What does it do to his enemy? What does it do to lovers, to their relationship?
In the end, all that could have been ambiguous, edgy, interesting but certainly difficult wasn’t fully developed and the relationship felt disconnected from the characters’ rawest reality. The sexual development nudged us in the right direction. The action was efficient in a Hollywood kind of way, and the writing pulled its punches. There is no doubt that it will suit the largest number and that it is well done, but the romance didn’t win us over. We Conclude.
The historical element was great, we were
in December 1944, somewhere in a world at war, where people lived, died, fought, fucked, hated and loved, but we feel the story barely went beyond a flirtatious power play and a sexual initiation.
It brings us back to our expectations, which are very much that. Ours. And not necessarily what the authors aimed at.
We recommend it if you want to be guided gently through this period and enjoy a softly erotic romance and entertaining, historically accurate adventure. Take the plunge. WWII is a topic where we all bring personal baggage, but be assured that it is treated with respect and restraint.