I requested this from NetGalley without realising it was a sequel, which happens to me way too often. I think the universe has something against letting me read books in series order, and I’m not sure what I did to deserve it. It should therefore me clear that my understanding of the book isn’t the same as that of somebody who has actually read the first one and knows what’s going on.
Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke deals with the lead-up to World War II from the point of view of a girl who grew up in Hitler’s inner circle. In book one, I inferred, she fell in love with a Jewish boy and realised how wrong it all was, before fleeing to England; now she’s back, trying to solve a murder and reveal the lies about the Reichstag fire so that the Nazis won’t come to power.
The book suffers from the major issue which plagues all historical novels: it’s hard to be invested in something the characters are trying to achieve if you know from school history lessons that they failed. Inevitably, that takes some of the tension — and the hope — out of the reading experience.
That said, the fictional aspects of the book — the murder mystery, even the love story — were engaging enough. I didn’t find Daniel and Gretchen too sickening as a couple, probably because they’d already gone through the whole ‘falling in love’ part in book one, and were now at the sensible stage. It felt like a solid relationship: acceptance that being together might not always make them happy and that the other’s happiness was crucial, for example.
Actually, bearing in mind that I had no idea who the characters were or what they’d gone through, this book worked remarkably well as a standalone. While in places I wished I had more detail about Gretchen’s relationships with her family etc, which I assume readers would learn in book one, I didn’t find myself lost at any point, and was able to get invested in the characters despite not knowing their history.
The writing was… okay. It was good enough to make the narrative engaging and not to pull me out of the story, except for a couple of lines that I found unintentionally hilarious. (Gretchen, experiencing a positive emotion, describes something ‘warm and golden’ trickling through her body, which made me think she’d wet herself.) On the whole, I wouldn’t say the writing was the selling point, though.
Gretchen herself is a solid protagonist and a good heroine: she’s brave, and tough, and self-sacrificing… but she’s also got weak points, things that scare her into barely functioning. She’s dealing with past traumas and isn’t so strong that she can just shrug them off.
Daniel’s cool too. He’s got a passion for reporting, and for stories; he’s also got an injured left arm, which he frequently has to deal with. Seeing a disabled character overcome those odds and be as much a hero as anyone else was great, especially as it wasn’t overlooked in favour of daring escapes, but was consistently represented.
Actually, there weren’t any characters I particularly found uninteresting. Obviously, some are underdeveloped because they don’t play a large role, and others relied a bit on backstory that I didn’t have because I started with book two, but I felt like it was a solid, interesting cast.
As I’ve already mentioned, aspects of the plot were engaging, though others suffered from being based around historical events that I remember learning about in school, because there’s no getting around that unless you want to write alternate history.
I think the characters were probably the book’s strongest point, and the reason I kept reading. I’m giving it three stars, not because it lost two stars due to failings, but because it didn’t do enough to gain them. That said, my disordered reading might be marring my experience, so you might find it a four-star read or whatever if you read it in the right order.