I enjoy historical fiction because it takes me out of the present and puts me somewhere else. That’s not a bad idea when you consider today’s headlines. I usually learn something and, hopefully, I’ll get a good story in the bargain. Justine Saracen delivers on all counts with her latest, The Witch of Stalingrad. And may I say, that pulp magazine cover is brilliant.
WWII American photojournalist Alex Preston is on assignment in Russia in 1942, covering the effects of the German Blitzkrieg, including the efforts of a squadron of female Russian pilots. These “Night Witches” as the Germans call them, harangue the Nazi troops and generally make life miserable for their enemy. And Preston falls for the most successful pilot of all, Lilya Drachenko. They bond immediately, but can that bond survive POW life, imprisonment in Lubyanka, miserable conditions, and all the other hardships of life at the front? Well, this is a romance, after all. But, oh, the places Saracen takes you… And that cover is wonderful.
I had no idea these brave women existed, and I really loved seeing this world through Alex and Lilya’s eyes. Along the way, I learned not only that, but I also got to know quite a bit about airplanes and wartime flight procedures. Saracen has clearly done her homework, but she never lets the technical details overwhelm you. She knows just when to throttle back, and you’ll not find an anachronism here. But all the research in the world won’t help if you don’t have good characters driving an interesting plot. One or the other usually winds up being sufficient, but Saracen delivers both here. The cover is also superb.
As a character, Alex Preston is a real corker. Of Russian ancestry herself, she moves effortlessly between the Americans, the Russian pilots, and her fellow journalists at the Metropole Hotel. Fully three-dimensional and fearless, she even asks favors of General Eisenhower to get what she wants. And what she wants is Lilya, who is just as strong as Alex but in other ways. Alex has some experience with love, but Lilya doesn’t. Neither one of them is prepared, however, for the depth of attraction they feel for each other. Their encounters are few but memorable, and Saracen does a wonderful job of creating those special moments that provide a respite from the routine deprivation of war. And the cover is something special.
The Witches of Stalingrad is a terrific read. historically rich with deep, interesting characters. Even if books about war aren’t your thing, this is worth a try. Oh, and did I mention the cover?
© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler