This book…wow… I read, no, flew through Matt Killeen‘s WWII thriller in two days, I couldn’t put it down. Orphan Monster Spy is just so…good! And terrible…and engaging, and cringe-inducing. It’s so nuanced and complex, if you’re a lover of historical fiction that has some dark overtones, this is possibly the perfect book for you.
(You can also listen/watch my vlog here.)
The book starts out with a bang, kind of literally–Sarah wakes up from a car-crash, her mentally ill and alcoholic mother dead in the driver seat beside her, gunshot wound to the head. Sarah starts running. Eventually, she meets a mysterious man–a spy?!–who convinces her that the way to save Germany is to infiltrate an “elite” Nazi girls school. Sarah has mixed feelings: she feels German, but because of her mother, Germany sees her as nothing more than part of the Jewish problem. But Sarah has nothing left, no family, nothing to lose, so she agrees and thus begins a thrilling, emotional adventure.
There are some parts of this book that are simply devastating–the child abuse that Sarah and her Nazi-peers endure at school (she often refers to it as an asylum run by psychos), the evil scientist who’s evil for reasons beyond just trying to build an atomic bomb, the former SA officer who is haunted by his guilt and therefore is super creepy and weird with Sarah…
But then, there are parts that are hopeful, funny even–little Mouse, Sarah’s one true, and possibly first ever friend; the horses who try to save Sarah’s life (and her lies). And of course, there’s Sarah’s relationship with the mysterious man; their witty banter and any scene with the two of them and espresso made me laugh.
This is an excellent thriller that integrates history, fear, espionage, and hope all into one engaging story. While there are certainly aspects of the book that may be shocking or difficult for some readers, it’s a view of WWII that we don’t always see. As Killeen points out in his author’s note–y’all know I love a good author/historical note–juvenile espionage was huge. We just don’t always hear about it. Something else that I found fascinating was the Nazi façade of excellence that Killeen broke down. So many works of fiction and documentary alike claim that the Nazis were meticulous and orderly. But OMS shows a different side, and it was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Killeen didn’t go in-depth about where he looked to for research, but it’s clear that a lot of time and thought went into developing Sarah’s world.
The pacing was excellent, the characters were well developed, and I loved seeing into Sarah’s psyche. While she definitely has some baggage she needs to work through, I thought her “conversations” with her mother (or herself?) as she worked through problems was a unique touch. She’s just such an interesting character that she was what kept me up late reading. I wanted to know more, I needed to know what she was going to do next! I also enjoyed–even if I didn’t literally understand–the smattering of German throughout the book. It gave the story a sense of authenticity.
Another delightful surprise was seeing Dr. Lise Meitner! If y’all remember, I reviewed Hannah’s War, which was, more or less, a fictionalized account of a Meitner-like character. (I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with the author, Jan Eliasberg) To see, albeit briefly, this doctor, without whom we wouldn’t have developed nuclear physics, was so cool. Again, the addition of this character gave a sense of authenticity (and urgency) to Sarah’s story, and I was 100% here for it.
So, if you like WWI, espionage, historical fiction, thrillers, this is a book you’ll probably really enjoy. If, however, mental health, child abuse, WWII are particularly triggering, it might be a difficult read.
Ooh, and, if you do read the book and love Sarah as much as I did, there’s a sequel that’s just been released too!
That’s all I’ve got for now! Next week I’ll be reviewing A Sea Change by Will Barnett.