Kate Quinn follows her word-of-mouth bestseller, “The Alice Network,”with another compulsively readable historical novel about courageous women who dare to break the mold of what’s expected of them. At the heart of “The Huntress” is a woman accused of committing unspeakable war crimes against children in Poland during World War II. The novel begins with this unnamed woman on the run, afraid that her past has finally caught up with her.
From there, the novel breaks into three story lines, told by three narrators, in alternating timelines. Quinn effectively uses this structure to deliberately reveal the past in an increasingly suspenseful story about characters who will risk their lives to track down Lorelei Vogt, known as the Huntress.
The most vivid of these threads begins before the war and centers on Nina Markova, one of the famed Russian bomber pilots known as the Night Witches. I have long been fascinated with these iconic fliers, and Quinn does a fabulous job bringing the female squadron to life. From the moment Nina steps into the story, she owns it. The backstory of this smart, ferocious, unconventional female character is mesmerizing — a girl growing up dirt-poor in a nearly savage family, on the ice-cold banks of a lake in the farthest reaches of Siberia. In many ways, she is a feral child, learning the harsh lessons of life and survival on her own. After a dark and tragic childhood, Nina finds peace in the air and purpose in fighting. For the first time in her life, she is a part of something that matters to her. But it is after her stint with the Night Witches, when she is struggling to survive in war-torn Poland, that she comes face to face with the female Nazi known as the Huntress.
In 1950s Boston, aspiring photographer Jordan McBride is surprised to learn that her gentle, antiques-dealer father has fallen in love with a beautiful but secretive German woman named Anneliese, whose young daughter, Ruth, is so traumatized by the past that she barely speaks. Jordan tries to accept her father’s girlfriend, then wife, but she senses that something is wrong with Anneliese’s story. After uncomfortable accusations fly, Anneliese explains away troubling evidence about her past by recounting the horrors she and Ruth lived through during the war and the emotional scars they carry. Ultimately, Jordan forms a close bond with her lovely stepmother — and with Ruth — and tries to believe that Anneliese is everything she says she is, even though Jordan can’t quite rid herself of a lingering sense of disquiet.
In England, former war correspondent Ian Graham, has become obsessed with bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. Of personal interest is the lethal Nazi woman who killed his brother in cold blood. The only person who has ever seen the huntress and lived is Nina Markova, with whom Ian has a complicated past. At long last, Ian has a legitimate lead, sending Ian, his charming partner, Tony Rodomovsky, and Nina to Boston.
Quinn braids these story lines and characters together in a seamless narrative that builds toward a dramatic showdown. Although Ian’s viewpoint is less persuasive than those of the female characters, he is an engaging presence. Along the way, he finds the peace that eluded him after his years as a war correspondent, and Jordan comes to terms with what it means to be an independent woman in a time and place not quite ready to welcome women as such. The love story that emerges between Jordan and Tony is refreshing and straightforward and hints at the social changes in the years to come.
“The Huntress” is sure to be a hit with fans of commercial World War II fiction. Nina’s and Jordan’s narratives truly sing in this powerful novel about unusual women facing sometimes insurmountable odds with grace, grit, love and tenacity.