Rating: 4 Stars
This book was provided to me by the author, Alan Bardos, free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
I am almost embarrassed to admit how little I really know about World War I. But, think back to your own education - particularly if you are from the United States. How much did you really learn about the start of the war, about any of it prior to the US joining the conflict and being the 'rescuers' so to speak? All I recall from high school or college was that an assassin (never named), killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg Empire and within a month Europe was engulfed in war.
I first started to remedy this lack of knowledge when I stumbled upon 'Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War', a travelogue by Tim Butcher. In it I finally learned (or possibly relearned) the name Gavrilo Princip, the young man determined to free his country of what he saw as an oppressive regime in the Hapsburg family. Despite the fact that this young man and his compatriots planned and carried out a terrible deed that indirectly or directly, depending on your point of view, results in the deaths of nearly twenty million soldiers and civilians, it is hard to not have a little sympathy for him.. Since then, I meandered my way back to my more typical fare of British history before 1600, and not read much else about The Great War.
This changed about a week ago when an author contacted me and requested I review his book. it was historical fiction, so I did hesitate a bit, but decided that given my coming-and-going interest in the topic, I would give it a try. I was not disappointed. Not, at least in the actual content of the book and the plot. I was HIGHLY disappointed in the absolutely infuriating main character, Johnny Swift, but don't you worry, I will get to him in a moment.
The book follows the fictional character of nineteen year old Johnny Swift, who is employed as a clerk at the British embassy in Paris. He made the dangerous mistake of having an affair with his superior's wife. Not only that, he's gambled away a large sum of Sir George's money with her in Monte Carlo. As a punishment, and in the hopes Johnny will get himself killed while on assignment, Sir George sends his wayward clerk off to see what information he can get about the Young Bosnians and their plans to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand in order to free themselves from Hapsburg rule.
Entwined in Johnny's story are two incredibly important perspectives of the period - that of the Archduke, and his murderer. We see as all three men make decisions that will ultimately lead them to that day, at that time, on Appel Quay, in one fateful moment. We see Gavrilo and his fellow conspirators working together, plotting diligently, even arguing and eventually making final preparations. We also see Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, even small glimpses of them with their three young children before leaving for Sarajevo.
Swift manages to gain the trust of the assassins and becomes a member of the group. He has not, however, lost his poor decision-making skills despite the high stakes. His contact is a man by the name of Lazlo Breitner, a Hungarian man who had been all but banished to his current job due to a previous dishonorable association with a corrupt official who had been allowed to commit suicide rather than face the consequences of his crimes. Johnny keeps himself from being discovered as a spy, right up to the assassination, and after...and the rest is history.
I knew very little about Ferdinand or Sophie before this. I certainly did not know their background, how the marriage was so despised by his family. It was very easy to become sympathetic to the Archduke for this, and as he is shown with his wife and family in the days leading up to the trip. Even though this is a fictionalized account, it is still heartbreaking as he and Sophie leave their children to go on a trip he did not want to take in the first place. I guess there is some comfort in the fact that Ferdinand and Sophie were able to die together, though still tragic that they left three young children behind. Prior to this, I did not have much of a picture of Ferdinand in my head relating to his personal life. I kind of viewed him much like Princip would have - part of this oppressive government that did not allow freedom to the people. While this is a work of fiction, it certainly helped see another side of the Archduke.
Johnny Swift is entirely fiction, and thank goodness for that. I could not stand him. From the start he is arrogant and selfish and a total weasel for stealing both Sir George's wife and money. I did not much care for Libby either, Sir George's wife. I get that they were both young, but what a meaningless existence she had, just hanging around in Monte Carlo and wasting her husband's money, then traipsing from spa to spa and whatever random old moneyed guy she could find when she grew bored with Johnny. I honestly do not know who was worse. Libby disappears for a while and I found myself in those times wanting Johnny to be successful in his mission. I can't say anything else without giving away some things, but she shows up at the worst time and makes Johnny a terrible person all over again, just when I thought he could be a little redeemed. Again, being fiction, I knew he could not stop the assassination, but I was hoping for some effort.
I found the chapters focused on Gavrilo and his fellow conspirators just as enthralling as those relating to Ferdinand. There really is so little information available about these young men, to see them come to life even just a little bit is quite fascinating. I am torn on how I feel about Princip especially, being the one who actually committed the murders. I touched on this in my review of 'Trigger' as well. He had no way of knowing his actions would bring about such a tidal wave of death and misery in the following four years, he was doing what he had always done his whole life - be the little guy, standing up to those who he viewed as the bullies. He repeatedly refers to Ferdinand in the book as 'the tyrant'.
Now, logically of course, this book can only end one way. Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie will be shot on Appel Quay by Princip, they will die, and this spark will ignite the entire world. I also know this was historical fiction, not speculative fiction, so it had to stick to the real events. This means Johnny could not REALLY have done anything to stop the assassination, but come on! What a self-centered dope!
Overall I was very pleasantly surprised with how much I really got into this novel and wanted to see how Johnny would handle the situations he was thrown into. I had no idea what to expect, but the author did his research and it shows. I always appreciate when an author leaves a note for his or her readers, when they have used real people from history. As I read through this note, I was pleased not only to see the author used books that I have on my to-read list, but to see a few texts as well that I had not yet heard of. I enjoyed the multiple perspectives, especially as Johnny began his mission and was interacting with the group. I only wish he could have been successful and there is a brief moment where you think, despite logically knowing better, that he might actually be able to save the royal couple. But it is not to be. I definitely recommend this one to those who enjoy historical fiction, but who have a special interest in World War I.