Review: Code Name Verity series
Code Name Verity (2012), Rose Under Fire (2013), The Pearl Thief (2017), and The Enigma Game (2020), by Elizabeth Wein
I had already read Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire around the time they were published, but since that was 10 years ago, I didn't remember much (besides that I liked them). This time, I was able to read all four in the series, the newest having come out in 2020.
All four books are based during or just before/after WWII, and all are focused on women, and their specific roles during the war. They're WWII books about weapons and airplanes, mechanical stuff, and, of course, war... without feeling like they're about those things. Because they're actually about female friendships, shared pain, building community, the strength of women, and the importance of the jobs they held during WWII. Not to mention the historical fiction aspect - that these specific characters may not have existed, but their roles did, and every one of them is based in well-researched reality.
Overall I would say that I really loved Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, and that The Pearl Thief and The Enigma Game were fine... the latter two being good, but having much more of a YA feel, and they just didn't live up to the first two, with their stellar writing, clever plots, and difficult but thoughtful subject matter.
I'm going to review them one by one below, but I do have to offer trigger warnings first. They're going to make it sound horrible, and like you would never, ever want to read any of these books, but I PROMISE that at the very least, Code Name Verity is so worth your time, and it does not hurt in the way these trigger warnings make it sound like it would.
So, with that said... TW: Holocaust concentration camps, torture, violence, rape, war.
Code Name Verity - 5/5 stars
This book is fantastic. Legitimately a top-10 of all time kind of book for me. And you will want to re-read it immediately after you finish it, even if that's not usually your thing. Because it is so clever and well-plotted that you'll want to go back and see all the little hints that were dropped, and the code words you didn't know yet that make the writing, and the ending, even more impressive.
As one Goodreads reviewer commented: "Everyone on Goodreads, stymied by the impossible task of saying anything about what happens in this book without giving away the entirety of it, sputters and stutters, and eventually says, READ IT. read it read it read it readit readit."
But I'll give it a go, and say a few things that avoid spoilers.
Maddie and Queenie are best friends, both serving in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Maddie is a pilot, flying small aircraft while delivering other pilots, soldiers, translators, or high ranking officials to different bases. Queenie, fluent in English, German, and French, is a wireless operator and translator, working increasingly classified jobs. When Queenie is captured by the Gestapo in France (and Maddie is lost in transit after a plane crash), she convinces her captor to let her write down her confession/testimony, which is how we, the reader, learn about she and Maddie's wartime work. The characters, including the Nazi captain and underlings who torture and imprison her, are complex and authentic. None are all bad or all good. The shades of grey add depth to the story.
Rose Under Fire - 4/5 stars
I liked this book almost as much as the first, but I did find it more challenging to read, because at least half of it takes place inside Ravensbrück, the real-life women's concentration camp located in Germany during WWII. This is the one book of the four where I'd say if you really don't want to read a narrative told by concentration camp prisoners - skip it. In part this is because Rose Under Fire is the most true-to-life of the four. The characters are fictional, but every single thing that happens in the camps and to the women there is based on written or photographic evidence, and on testimony given by Ravensbrück survivors at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-6. Where Code Name Verity felt like well researched historical fiction, Rose felt like a really devastating memoir, even though it's not.
Rose Justice is an American pilot working in the British Air Transport Auxiliary, and an amateur poet. While flying a mission to France and back, she gets turned around and lost, and ends up landing in German territory. She is sent to Ravensbrück, where she befriends a group of Polish women, mostly resistance fighters, who have been subjected to medical experimentation in the camp. They are nicknamed "the rabbits" because they're treated like lab animals. Rose helps her friends cultivate hope by reciting and writing poetry, and through the bonds formed, her friends help her to endure the camp conditions.
There's a little bit of character overlap with Code Name Verity. Maddie makes an appearance as Rose's friend before her capture. Like Code, this story is told through the narrator's journal entries, but Rose isn't as interesting - or as much of a force! - as Queenie. But the strength of this book lies in its telling of the real Ravensbrück women's stories.
The Pearl Thief - 3/5 stars
This is a prequel, and timeline-wise it is the earliest narrative of the four books. But it's better to read after Code Name Verity, to avoid potential spoilers. As such, I don't want to reveal who the main characters are, but they appear in Code, and show the life of one particular young teenage girl visiting the country manor house of her Scottish grandparents. Her grandfather has passed away, and grandmother is selling the house, so it's her last summer to enjoy the beautiful home and grounds. Out walking in the moors on her first day back, she is attacked by someone or something, hits her head, and loses her memory of the incident. A group of "travelers," also known as gypsies, care for her and bring her to the hospital to recover. As she slowly gets her memories back, they start to match up with other strange happenings around the property - precious river pearls going missing, the man cataloging the estate's holdings also going missing, a body found in the river... and she joins forces with two of the travelers, Ellen and her brother Euon, to put all of the pieces together.
The Enigma Game - 3/5 stars
This was my least favorite of the four. I didn't find it as compelling, I think in part because there were a lot more chapters with a male narrator (nothing wrong with that, just not as unique a voice), and also there was a lot more that felt like "typical" war-time novel stuff - types of planes, in-air battle scenes, men being heroic. *shrug*
What I DID like was that Wein finally introduced a non-white character!
Jamaican-born Louisa moved to England as a young child with her Jamaican father and British mother. Now, with both of them having died in separate WWII bombing incidents, 15-year-old Louisa has found a way to support herself - she's made her way to Scotland to work as an aid for the elderly, and secretly German-born, Jane Warner. Jane's niece runs a pub near an air force base which caters to British pilots, like Jamie Beaufort-Stuart, and the others who work there, like Ellen McEwen (the traveler girl from The Pearl Thief). When a German soldier risks his life to deliver an illusive, code-breaking Enigma Machine, Louisa, Ellen, and Jane (the only German speaker of the bunch) join forces to decode German messages. They pass these on in secret to Jamie. who uses them to help avoid German attacks, and take down enemy ships and planes.
The narrative hops back and forth between Jamie, Louisa, and Ellen, making it a little difficult to really engage with any of them properly, and there were a number of side characters who could have been fleshed out more. And while the other three books are based in very well researched reality, the idea that a teenager would accidentally come across and then successfully use an Enigma Machine was a little far fetched.
UP NEXT: The House Girl, by Tara Conklin