City of Fate by Nicola Pierce

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City of Fate by Nicola Pierce

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Get this for a clever, moral and eye-opening look at a forgotten corner of WWII, as long as you can forgive its episodic imperfections and slightly dry manner.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: February 2014
Publisher: The O'Brien Press
ISBN: 9781847173379

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Just as war can tear families apart, so it can create them. One family we meet in this book is teenaged Yuri, forced out of kindness and duty to look after an abandoned five year old boy, and the older teenaged Tanya and her mother. Yuri was left alone to fend for himself when his own mother and child-in-arms surrendered, young Peter's mourning his Mama, and Tanya's is just shellshocked and crabby from living in a basement room. It's Hitler's invading soldiers that have done the killing – and, therefore, the forging of unlikely bonds. Elsewhere, four other youngsters, including Vlad and the militarily-minded Anton, are forced to leave their secondary school to sign up and face the consequences alone. It's Stalin's ignorant tactics that have led to that order being sent down. We are in Stalingrad, in one of the prime killing fields of World War Two, and the actions of two fighting superpowers are having their shocking effect on those who can cope the least – the young.

I'm pretty sure that the target audience will seldom have been confronted with WWII in quite such a way. Yes, with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and other similar titles they will have seen the guts and drama of warfare and all its associated horrors, but even given that I think this book branches out further. For an audience of eleven and up this takes us to the exotic realms of deeper Soviet cities, where it's Nazi versus Stalinist, and if it weren't for the obvious connection with the younger characters it would appear to be Enemy of Britain versus Enemy of Britain and nobody should expect to count as the goodie.

Of course this narrative certainly provides for goodies. The selfless way young Peter is adopted by Yuri, who then has to cater for two – and hush him up when his ignorance or quick tongue could cause lethal problems – certainly makes Yuri a hero. But the book is more subtle and clever than just dressing people up in black and white. It takes its time to ask measured questions, provoke moral debate, and more. Several people, from Yuri's mother walking out on down, are forced to make moral choices, and no one side can be said to have the high ground.

Unfortunately, to some extent, this also seems to have pushed the book in quite an off-kilter way. The divided narrative, concerning each unusual family in turn, is sustained for a very long time, so we don't see the join, but it could have been done more successfully. Partly this is because the lads aren't such well-defined characters as the Stalingrad residents. But more than that is the problem that in overview the book has an awkward style, both trying to bring the childish Peter to our sympathy without sentiment, and also providing a PG-friendly grittiness regarding the war in general. It felt to me the style was in a no-man's-land, neither as universally child-friendly nor as all-ages-friendly as the books I mentioned earlier. It might have been more sprightly for the young, which I don't think would have been to the book's detriment for the adult reader it should also aspire to.

Again, in overview, the book also runs as a series of set-piece scenes, but to its immediate credit is the very nature of those scenes. I won't elucidate too far, but they relate in a way to the various unusual kinds of ghosts that war builds alongside the families. The orchard owner, the breadmakers' visitors, the actual journey to Stalingrad for the soldiers – all concern the nightmares of war in their own individual ways. The writing is clear and mature enough to show that 'Uncle Joe' was a phantom father to the lads, sending them on their ill-fated way, proving that this book is a welcome look at innocents lost in a war zone. I would have preferred more engagement with it, and a feeling greater than that left by just a few sterling episodes, but I would hail this as an intelligent and worthwhile effort, bravely taking us as it does away from the theatres of war Britain and her literature normally considers.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The author's debut, Spirit of the Titanic, went down very well with us - pun unavoidable.

Buy City of Fate by Nicola Pierce at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy City of Fate by Nicola Pierce at Amazon.co.uk


Buy City of Fate by Nicola Pierce at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy City of Fate by Nicola Pierce at Amazon.com.

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