Published by HarperTeen on October 3rd 2017
Source: Publisher, Edelweiss
Genres: Young Adult, Historical, Romance, War & Military
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World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.
Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.
As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.
Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.
Triumphant, emotional, and fully exploring the courageous feats of female pilots during WWII in the Soviet Union, Among the Red Stars is a great historical read to pick up. I have to admit, some parts of the plot were bogged down by how it was executed, making the overall action scenes a bit underwhelming. Instead of a fast, heavy, action-orientated war story, Katz really focuses on the emotional journey of Valka and her journey from the small town of Stakhanovo towards the German enemy lines of the war as a night bomber.
My overall impression of this book is fun, awesome, and emotional – if not a bit slow at times. I loved reading about these fantastic female pilots of Russia during WWII, their ferocity, their strength, their fears, and their hopes. Katz’s research is obvious in the meaningful details put into the scene, whether it’s the personality of an antagonist or the extremely immersive, ashy war setting. One of the biggest things was also the huge amount of girl-power (yay!) expressed in the book. Many of the men and comrades of the war look down upon the all-female aviation regiment that Valka is a part of, but these fierce and stubborn female pilots prove them wrong with their strategy and dedication.
We will prove that we can fly and fight as well as any male regiment. No. We’ll prove that we’re the best damn bomber regiment the Red Army has ever seen!
I really enjoyed the exploration and discussion of war in this book, especially as the main characters fight under the Communist flag of the Soviet Union as Allies in WWII. There are characters that know how corrupt the system is, even as they fight to defend their Motherland against the Nazis. Katz really puts nuance into the concept of war and the emotional battles that the people must face, whether they lose a loved one or are the ones taking away the lives of a loved one of someone else. Valka has to examine her own thoughts of doing what she’s always wanted to do – fly a fighter plane – while destroying the lives of innocent people as a consequence of war. It really puts into perspective the gray areas of war and destruction that comes out of it.
We might save our Motherland and our homes, but we could never really return.
The highlights of this book were definitely the female pilots that Valka meets and befriends! Her navigator is her trustworthy and close cousin, Iskra, whose strength and support was just awesome to read about throughout the book. Although Iskra’s parents were taken by the government and labeled as traitors, she is still patriotic to the country and fights to defend it. There is also the sunny and talented Lilya, sweet relationship of Tanya and Vera, and forgiving Zhigli, all of whom are characters that really leap off the pages with personality and spark. Even though this historical story has lots of research and real-life happenings, the flowing narrative is told as a story and never gets stale (unlike many of my history textbooks).
The thing that bogged down the plot for me, however, was the way the author decided to execute some events. The story is told part in first person POV of Valka, and part in letters sent between Valka and Pasha, her childhood friend who was drafted to fight in the front lines despite his peaceful and honest disposition. The thing with the letters is that they are long and drawn, reading not only the emotions of the characters and what they want to share, but actual events. Many of Valka’s flights and missions are told through letter, and likewise with Pasha and what’s going on at his side of the war. This caused the events to be quite underwhelming, especially as it’s told through the voice of the characters after it actually happened. Because of this, I could never really get a sense for the dangers that happened, as scary as they were. These long-winded letters were actually what made the middle of the book drag much for me, and I admit, I looked forward to the chapters back in Valka’s first person narrative to get a more direct sense of the action and events happening.
There is a slight romance that develops between Valka and Pasha, albeit so extremely light it’s almost not there (which is pretty nice). Childhood memories and fondness develop into something more as both Valka and Pasha fight for their lives and see death and suffering around them, all the while knowing they could be next. I found it quite lovely, even if I wasn’t totally onboard or anything. It was a nice and light addition to the overall storyline, and especially added dimension with the emotional highlights of the story. Not emotional concerning the relationship, but emotional concerning the thoughts that Valka and Pasha shared with one another as each’s experience becomes tainted with the deaths of war.
Based on the true adventures of the Night Witches of WWII, Among the Red Stars is full of history and heart as readers explore the journey of Valka, one such Night Witch (although her character is fictional, many of the names and her compatriots mentioned in the story appeared in real life). As a historical YA book, it is fully triumphant in setting an immersive setting and getting readers to really experience the emotional turmoil of war. Although the pace was a bit dragging at times, as well as sometimes awkward dialogue, there is still a bunch of heart and love for the female pilots and their battle against the patriarchy, even as they fought for their homeland. Readers looking for an emotional read that will pack a punch with an ashy historical setting should definitely pick this one up, as Katz really makes readers connect with Aviation Group 122 and the people a part of it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Thank you Edelweiss and Harper Collins for the review copy!