You know, there’s a barrier when it comes to learning history from foreign countries, and I think that’s evident in Traitor; if we want to properly be educated on it, like a bagel with surprisingly too much garlic, we can be easily taken aback with how many different groups with so many different histories we also need to understand if we want to get to the core of all the conflict. There are so many facts glittered throughout Traitor of what it was like for Poland to fall and who lit the fuse before throwing the dynamite. I bet a World War 2 veteran themselves wouldn’t have been able to write it more detailed. Sadly, that isn’t always a positive.
Taking place between different time periods, mainly in a city in Ukraine called Lviv in the middle of Hitler’s reign, we first follow Tolya Korolenko, a half-Polish half-Ukrainian who begins his adventure in the fields, deliberately shooting his commanding officer. He thinks he’ll just stay on the down low and not run away because that would be a confirmation of guilt and no one else saw him do it. His plan is something his girlfriend Koval is completely against. Then Tolya ends up abducted by some small Ukrainian rebel group, headed by a mysterious young man named Solovey. And we also follow another young man from three years back named Aleksey, who may end up familiar to readers involved with Tolya’s story. He has to deal with his city being overrun by Nazis and he gets an offer due to his family history to become a soldier and gets payment up front, a payment he takes and runs with his somewhat unstable brother. So with that, we have two different traitors to follow and read along hoping for both their survivals.
Now, I wanted to like this book. It does several things right, and by the halfway point it became a somewhat fun read. I would never be able to write this subject as good as McCrina does. But said subject matter and the complete embrace of sometimes strenuously detailed environments and cultures render it quite esoteric. I also just have to ask, what happened to Yakiv? There’s a talk about what happens to Mykola, Alexey’s brother, but it’s way too brief to be satisfying. What stands out most in this rather encapsulating debut novel is its unique pacing, and willingness to turn us for a loop with how and when its characters end up in peril. The book reminds us how so many modern stories follow a structure, that it’s quite loop-throwing when we get one that really loosens not only the plot armour protecting the heroes but the grieving process of them too.
I will also admit it was a smart idea to have the two different bouncing timelines and stories. It kept the book in easy adventure segments (even if the very beginning was hard to digest) and the curiosity of what would happen to the characters from cliffhangers before returning to Tolya or Aleksey kept me going. There have been many better books that were worse structured and way less inventive.
But as I had to accept, Traitor overall wasn’t for me. It’s just too hard a sell, reminding me of how before I watched Saving Private Ryan, history always felt not only complicated but unimportant. However, for all its strange decisions on character direction and character dismissal, McCrina is very clearly being careful to properly reiterate the politics and hatred of Poland and Ukraine. Traitor will appeal to those who get a kick out of edgy fugitive books with a hefty whiff of shrouded Second World War history, and newcomers will need to prepare for some exposition.
If you like this, I’d try Henderson’s Boys: The Escape by Robert Muchamore