Review: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

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Code Name Verity is a historical fiction novel set during WWII. It is a story about the horrors of war, the Allied effort against the Nazis, but most of all it is a story of friendship between two young women, one a pilot working for the WAAF (Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force) and one a Special Operations Executive officer (in other words, a secret agent) who would likely never have met in peacetime.

The book is an epistolary novel, and it begins with a record written by a girl who calls herself Queenie. Queenie is a collaborator imprisoned in the Ormaie Gestapo HQ, an Allied spy who was captured on her first mission into France, and has been tortured into giving up wireless codes and other information to her interrogator, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden. She makes a deal with von Linden to write down everything she knows of the war effort in exchange for two more weeks of life. Queenie chooses to tell the story of her best friend Maddie, a pilot who crashed after being shot down in the process of dropping Queenie off in France.

That is all I can say about the plot. Code Name Verity is best read with as little knowledge of the story beforehand as possible, to avoid spoiling several of the major plot twists. As an Allied spy forced to give up information to the Nazis under duress, Queenie is an extremely unreliable narrator, and throughout her story I was constantly trying to figure which parts of her schehezarade are true and which are lies. Queenie herself is an engaging narrator with a strong voice, so that I often chuckled at her sense of humour without ever losing awareness of the horror and hopelessness of her situation.

I found the first few chapters of the book a bit slow and disjointed, as Queenie constantly switches between her own voice and a third person narration of Maddie’s beginning as a pilot. These sequences are well written and give a good sense of both her love for flying and her aptitude as a pilot, but it is difficult to focus on Maddie flying in the cold air and open sky when her narrator has the more interesting story and refuses to tell it.

Luckily, after the two girls meet, the story quickly picks up. I find it interesting that we are only shown a few of their interactions, but those few glimpses are enough to establish the strength of their friendship. As Queenie says, they make a sensational team. Actually, one of my favourite things about this book is its focus on the relationships between women—not just the friendship between Queenie and Maddie, but the companionship and alliances between the many other women of all ages and nationalities who are working for the war effort.

One word of warning: this book gets pretty dark. I have no idea how this got classified as a young adult novel, considering most of the characters are full adults and considering the violence in the book. There isn’t anything too graphic, but people get tortured and people die, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the setting and premise, but I was lulled into a false sense of security by the YA label and got slightly traumatized as a result.

Overall, this is an excellent novel, and very well written from a technical standpoint: it is tightly plotted and well researched, the prose is descriptive when needed and concise when it’s not, the characters are varied and well-drawn, and even the villains are given depth. Code Name Verity is by turns charming, suspenseful and heartbreaking, and definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Notable Quotes

I have two weeks. You’ll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.

That’s what you do to enemy agents. It’s what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine – and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I’m going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France – and Allied Invasion of Two.

We are a sensational team.

Rating

How much I enjoyed it: 9

How good I thought it was: 9

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One comment

  1. […] review here. The short version: female spies in WWII, unreliable narration, and a friendship more heartbreaking […]

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