When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby

Carolyn Kirby’s new novel, set during World War II, was published in May to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE day; unfortunately, I was in the middle of a lockdown-induced reading slump at that time, but I added the book to my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would still read it sooner rather than later.

When We Fall, set in 1943, follows the stories of two women leading very different lives but both playing their part in the war effort. First, we are introduced to Valerie – Vee – Katchatourian, a British pilot whose job is to fly planes between airfields for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Forced to make an emergency landing due to fog one day, Vee encounters a Polish airman, Flight Sergeant Stefan Bergel of 302 Squadron. It’s only a brief meeting, but Stefan makes a big impression on Vee and she finds that she is unable to forget about him.

Meanwhile, in the city of Poznań in occupied Poland, Ewa Hartman is helping her father to run his guest house. At the same time as offering hospitality to German officers, Ewa is carrying out undercover work for the AK (the Polish resistance) – a dangerous thing to do, which becomes even more dangerous when she begins to attract the attention of a high-ranking German guest, SS-Obersturmführer Heinrich Beck. Ewa becomes close to Beck, but in her heart she remains loyal to her former lover, Stefan Bergel, whom she has not seen since he became a prisoner of the Soviet army a few years earlier.

Stefan provides the link between Ewa and Vee, but who is he really and where do his true allegiances lie? He is a complex and enigmatic character whose motives and loyalties are never clear, even to the reader who sees both sides of the story, unlike Ewa and Vee who see only their own. This, along with Ewa’s support for the resistance and the dangers of Vee’s work as a pilot, keeps the novel filled with tension and suspense until the end as there is no guarantee that any or all of our characters are going to survive the war.

The novel switches between the two storylines, although Vee’s almost disappears for a while in the middle of the book while most of the action is taking place in Poland. I liked both characters and both settings, but Ewa’s story was the most compelling, I thought. In all of my reading about the war, I don’t seem to have come across many books that describe life in occupied Poland, so I found it very interesting to read about the challenges Ewa faced on a daily basis. With the Nazi occupiers in the process of renaming streets and towns to make them sound more ‘German’ – Poznan becomes Posen, for example – Ewa must learn to respond to the German form of her own name (Eva), to avoid lapsing into her native language, and to come to terms with the local synagogue being converted into a swimming pool.

Names are also important for Vee, who was born in England but whose Armenian surname makes her the subject of prejudice and suspicion, as well as the prejudice she already experiences as a female aviator – even though the ATA was notable for paying women the same as men, Vee senses that she is not always considered an equal. Although I’m not really interested in aviation, Vee’s enthusiasm for her work as a pilot and for the different types of planes she is asked to fly comes across strongly.

Finally, I should mention the Katyn Massacre, a wartime atrocity which marked its 80th anniversary this year and casts its shadow over the lives of the characters in this book. I won’t say too much about it but will leave you to find out how it affects Stefan, Ewa and Vee if you decide to read When We Fall – which I do recommend, as it’s such an interesting and moving novel, very different from Carolyn Kirby’s previous book, The Conviction of Cora Burns, which I also enjoyed!

Thanks to No Exit Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer. I am actually doing better with this than it seems – I have also read another four books from the list and just need to finish writing my reviews!

Caprice and Rondo by Dorothy Dunnett

Caprice and Rondo The seventh in the House of Niccolò series and another one I enjoyed, although it was actually one of my least favourites so far. I know other readers will disagree, but in an eight-volume series it’s inevitable that there are going to be some that I don’t love as much as others and this was one of them. Before I try to explain why, I’ll repeat my usual warning that if you have not read the previous six Niccolò novels, you will encounter some spoilers below – it’s impossible to avoid them at this stage in the series!

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At the beginning of Caprice and Rondo, we find Nicholas in exile following the revelations at the end of the previous book, To Lie with Lions. After allowing his rivalry with his wife, Gelis, to cause financial problems for his bank and almost destroy the nation of Scotland, it seems that his friends and colleagues may not be able to forgive him this time. Spending the winter drinking with the pirate Paúel Benecke in Danzig, Poland, Nicholas appears to be without aim and direction, until the opportunity arises for him to travel to Caffa on the Black Sea in the company of the mysterious Anna von Hanseyck. He is also still searching for the African gold that was stolen from his ship in Scales of Gold, as well as trying to protect Gelis and their son, Jodi, from their numerous enemies who include the former Vatachino agent, David de Salmeton.

I think part of the problem I had with this book was that we are taken to such a lot of different geographical locations and yet none of them really came to life for me as vividly as the settings in the previous books. I realise the cold, subdued atmosphere of the Danzig chapters was probably intended to match Nicholas’s mood and the state of mind he had found himself in, rather as the frozen landscapes of Russia matched Lymond’s in The Ringed Castle, but for me, this was probably the least successful of all the settings in any of the Dunnett novels I’ve read. Caffa is beautifully described, but I couldn’t help thinking the whole section of the book that took place in the Crimea felt a bit irrelevant, though maybe that’s partly because I was finding it difficult to really get interested in the intricacies of Tartar politics. I was much more interested in the other main thread of the story which involved Gelis, with the help of Tobie, visiting Thibault de Fleury and trying to unearth the truth about Nicholas’s parentage. I found myself liking Gelis again in this book after being so frustrated and confused by her since the end of Scales of Gold. I had never doubted that she and Nicholas loved each other and it’s so sad that they had wasted all those years when they could have been together as a family.

We also get a new villain in this book: Julius’s wife, Anna. I was suspicious of Anna from the beginning having learned not to trust characters who seem too good to be true, though I hadn’t guessed who she really was (or not until Adelina’s background was discussed, after which it was quite easy to make the connection) so that was a surprise. I was a bit disappointed though that our established villains, Jordan de Ribérac and Simon de St Pol, never appeared in this book.

While some new questions were raised – the identities of the six children, for example – it also felt as though a lot of things were being tied up in this book in preparation for the final one, such as the death of Nicholai Giorgio de’ Acciajuoli and the end of the mercenary company led by Astorre (I thought Astorre’s death at Nancy was one of the most moving scenes in the book). And of course, the Duchy of Burgundy itself was thrown into disarray with the Duke also losing his life in the battle of Nancy. I also, like Nicholas, finally began to have a better understanding of Ludovico da Bologna who seems to have popped up all over the place in whichever obscure corner of the world Nicholas has been visiting.

“Josaphat Barbaro, speaking of him in Persia, had said, ‘One meets him everywhere, does one not, as one might expect to see the ubiquitous God? But what one meets is not God, but one’s own conscience’.”

Although I started this post by saying this was one of my least favourite Niccolo books, ironically I also found it one of the quickest and easiest to read and I flew through it in a few days over Christmas. I’m reading Gemini now and can’t wait to see how the series concludes!