My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Length: 423 pages
Release date: 20 March 2018
After her mother is shot at a checkpoint, fifteen-year-old Sarah–blonde, blue-eyed, and Jewish–finds herself on the run from a government that wants to see every person like her dead. Then Sarah meets a mysterious man with an ambiguous accent, a suspiciously bare apartment, and a lockbox full of weapons. He’s a spy, and he needs Sarah to become one, too, to pull off a mission he can’t attempt on his own: infiltrate a boarding school attended by the daughters of top Nazi brass, befriend the daughter of a key scientist, and steal the blueprints to a bomb that could destroy the cities of Western Europe. With years of training from her actress mother in the art of impersonation, Sarah thinks she’s ready. But nothing prepares her for her cutthroat schoolmates, and soon she finds herself in a battle for survival unlike any she’d ever imagined.
“You’re a flea on a tiger. You’ll kid yourself that you’re part of the animal, but if you jump around too much, it’ll scratch you off with the rest.”
There’s a lot of Holocaust fiction out there. A possibly surprising amount of it, considering the dark subject matter, is children’s fiction. Number the Stars and The Book Thief are hallmarks by now, and if you haven’t read them, you’ve seen them more times than you can count. It’s been a long time since I last read Number the Stars, Once, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but books like that haunt your memory a long time after you put them down.
Reading Orphan Monster Spy felt, on one level, similar to reading all those books. There’s the same feeling of being unable to empathise with, but completely comprehending, the terrible things that people believe and do. There’s the same inspiration in a story of astonishing human resilience. Orphan Monster Spy lives up to its genre and delivers what’s nowadays one of the most sensitive historical subjects the respect it merits, but on another level, it carves out its own path in the best of ways.
For one, this novel takes place in the opening days of the war, before Auschwitz turned into the killing machine it eventually became, back when people still believed that universal ostracisation and the Ghetto was the absolute worst possible fate. You don’t have to be a WWII expert, but it helps to have a basic amount of historical background to fully appreciate what goes on in this book. We start out on the 28th of August, 1939, four days before the start of the deadliest conflict in human history, and end early in January 1940.
So it’s during the time of the Phoney War, when most of the action you’ve come to associate with WWII has yet to take place. The spying can’t be all that treacherous, right? Wrong. Because, as with the best historical fiction, there’s just the right amount of historical wrangling to make a story that’s suitably exciting but still within the realm of factual possibility.
Notice that I didn’t say particularly plausible, just possible–as per the premise, Sarah gets into the nasty business of sabotaging a Nazi nuclear bomb five years before the Manhattan Project actually makes theirs. Historically accurate, no, but there’s enough justification and inclusion of details faithful to history that Orphan Monster Spy is unquestionably one of the best YA historical novels I’ve read yet. (See, I don’t want to say the best, because I’ve been getting very lucky lately–first with The Defiant, and now this.)
Half of Orphan Monster Spy‘s amazingness is its lead. Sarah is the heroine I’ve been waiting for. Wow. Honestly, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting for a character like her, so frustrated every time I came across someone who almost but didn’t quite fit the bill. I don’t mean to criticise other protagonists, but personally, I rooted for Sarah in a way that I rarely root for characters that aren’t of my own creation.
Here’s why I liked her so much: Not only does Sarah have the once-in-a-lifetime kind of brilliance that you associate with the Einsteins (and Oppenheimers, of course) of the world, she’s relentlessly pragmatic and understands to do whatever it takes. Sarah’s inner monologue is fascinating to read. She’s a survivor, first and foremost, a crazy mature fifteen-year-old girl with better judgment than I’ll ever acquire. She’s cruel at times, but wartime Nazi Germany is a cruel place. Even at her worst, when she slips into the role of one of the monsters, Sarah doesn’t lose sight of her end goal.
That is, of course, to destroy them all.
Captain Floyd is an equally engaging deuteragonist. He’s the consummate morally grey spy fighting for his version of justice, whose first instinct is to kill Sarah as a loose end but ends up becoming a father figure to her instead. There’s a really obvious plot “twist” that could have been taken with Floyd here (you may not even need to read the book to guess what I’m getting at here), and Orphan Monster Spy gets extra extra (yep, x2) brownie points in my book for not going down that rabbit hole.
More brownie points for having zero romance. It’s been forever since I read a YA novel with absolutely no romance, because it’s actually everywhere. To be fair, I may be being a bit unfair to novels where romance occurs in the past, is only a tangent, or is negatively represented as an abusive relationship, but those are far outweighed by yet another novel with wafer-thin leads who somehow end up making out at some point. Also, who would Sarah even get with in this novel? A Hitler Youth SS officer-in-training? Oh hell to the no. I was lowkey scared the author would try to force something in, just because. Thanks for doing a good, Matt Killeen.
Still more brownie points for one of my absolute favourite literary cameos of all time. I never in a million years thought I’d see her in a YA novel of all places, but oh dear, here she is, making a snarky comment and refusing to build an atomic bomb. It’s Lise Meitner, who is her awesome self in Orphan Monster Spy, and did you know she has an element of the periodic table named after her? Well now you do.
So yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve been well and truly “I-need-this-now” hyped for a sequel. I am now well and truly hyped for Orphan Monster Spy‘s Book Two. I need this now.