The worst thing I can say about this book is that it was unevenly written, meaning there were times that the pacing and story didn’t hold my interest, and other times I couldn’t put it down.
The best I can say about this story is that it’s a roller coaster ride of a spy thriller plus a detailed historical novel about the role of women as pilots and spies in World War II Britain.
Code Name Verity is written from the point of view of a young British spy captured by the Germans. She’s being tortured by the Gestapo and forced to write down her story. She intends to tell the Germans everything to avoid further torture, but she’s also clearly diverting them with a story about her best friend Maddie, a female pilot who flew her into Nazi-occupied France on her last mission. The Gestapo already has Maddie’s ID and knows about her plane so there isn’t too much harm in talking about her.
Here’s how it starts:
I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers – and even though I am a girl they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Haupsturmfuhrer von Loewe, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.
It’s hard to describe the narrator, who doesn’t even have a name for a good part of the book (she goes by many names but we’ll call her Verity). She’s stripped of all identity and context as she writes.
For much of the first half of the book I struggled with the flip tone of the narrative. I had to keep reminding myself that Verity is writing for her captors, so her references to torture are meant to be defiant. (Plus they already know what they’ve done to her, and she’s being forced to write her story, not theirs.) She’s a difficult character to get to know because you don’t know how much of what she puts on paper is her real self. She also refers to herself in third person a lot and with oddly self-flattering descriptions like “[she] let out a peal of her giddy, infectious laughter” but you come to realize she’s making fun of herself as she writes.
As she tells her backstory (how she got into spying, how she and Maddie became friends) it’s a little difficult to stay engaged. She writes in a rambling style, and given the urgency of her current situation, you wish she would get to the point a little quicker. Of course, she’s writing to prolong her own life, so her intent is NOT to get to the point quickly.
As a plot device, author Elizabeth Wein has taken on a challenge. Unlike books where a journal or letters are used simply to tell the story, here the writing IS the story. As a plot device, this could succeed or fail – I think ultimately it succeeds.
I’m trying very hard not to give away anything, but I will say this: if you’re struggling with the book in the early parts, stay with it. There’s a point where the plot picks up and you will NOT be able to put this book down. Wein brings it all together in a way that made this book worth every minute.
I’ll say the same thing regarding the historical nature of this novel. If at first it seems a little plodding, it doesn’t end up that way. Wein clearly did an incredible amount of research on female pilots and spies in World War II, as evidenced by a lengthy bibliography at the end of the book.
This is the second YA book I’ve read recently (The Drowned Cities is the other one) where I want to say this is WAY too dark for YA. But as I thought more about it, I changed my mind. One, this is history — and two, what we often forget about YA (and what makes it such a great genre) is that teenagers WANT darkness. Their own lives are difficult and confusing and a book like this puts a lot of teen angst in perspective.
So while I found it a little hard to get into, in the end I would highly recommend it. For you and for any teens you may know.