Cover of Traitor, with a shadowy figure emerging from a tall old building swathed in fog

About the Book

Title: Traitor: A Novel of World War II
Published: 2020
Swoonworthy Scale: 1

Cover Story: Montell Jordan
BFF Charm: Let Me Love You, Love
Talky Talk: The History Channel, But Awesome
Bonus Factors: Psychology, WWII
Anti-Bonus Factor: Tribalism
Relationship Status: I’ll Be Seeing You

Cover Story: Montell Jordan

GIF from Montell Jordan's music video "This Is How We Do It"

Did I accidentally pick up a “literary fiction” book? How classy! I love this cover, even more so now after reading the story and understanding why the building is so prominent: the city itself is just as much a character as our protagonists.

The Deal:

Lwów/L’viv has always been a city divided. Years before Soviet and German soldiers ravaged its people and streets, the city was constantly traded back and forth between Poland and Ukraine, and you can imagine the tension that was incited amongst the citizens of both nations. By July 1944, the occupying Germans were leaving in droves as Soviet soldiers marched in, “liberating” the city once more.

And what of those permanent residents? In general, the Ukrainians, banking on the Germans’ promise for a future free Ukraine, had been supporting the Germans’ regime and using the arm of their underground radicals, the UPA, to further their own agenda—which involved a lot of murdering Polish people because they were Polish. The Polish Resistance was created, in a part, as retaliation against the UPA’s slaughter, and they weren’t above taking help from the Soviets. (This is a massive oversimplification of the situation that I only just learned about myself, but I promise it’s explained much more eloquently within the book!)

Our story begins with Tolya, a Soviet sniper who accidentally-on-purpose shoots his squadron’s political officer after he finds him harassing a woman in the streets (but he also recently sentenced a friend of Tolya’s to death, so…). This impulsive murder is an immediate death warrant for Tolya, as there’s no way the NKVD—essentially, the Soviet CIA—will not instantly torture a confession out of him. But salvation comes in the most curious of forms: a group of UPA freedom fighters who need Tolya’s sharpshooting skills to help assassinate the head of the NKVD. Who can you trust in a war where everyone is trying to kill you, especially when you barely trust yourself?

BFF Charm: Let Me Love You, Love

BFF charm with teary eyes hugging a heart

Seventeen-year-old Tolya is a unique—and reviled—product of his environment: his mother was Polish and his father Ukrainian, and both were murdered for simply being themselves when he was still young. He’s lived in a world that has spit on him and starved him within an inch of his life, and to top it all off, he considers himself a traitor to his parents for voluntarily signing up with the Soviets so he had access to things like food and clothing. Tolya is a sad little cinnamon roll I just wanted to hug. I wanted to sit him down and explain to him that doing what it takes in order to keep yourself alive in a world that is hellbent on making sure you die would in no way be a betrayal to parents who loved him. He has an air of naiveté around him, despite the things he’s lived through, and his mixed heritage has given him a unique perspective to understand “both sides”. As a consequence, though, he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.

BFF charm that says "true love"

On the other hand, Aleksey (code name: Solovey, which instantly meant I already had a soft spot for him since that’s also the name of an excellent horse-friend from another Russian-related book I adore) deserved no fewer hugs, but I also ended up with a bit of a crush after our time together. He’s got that wry, self-deprecating charm and intelligence that, in war-time, is more of a hindrance than a help (ignorance is bliss, y’all). When Tolya meets “Solovey”, he’s a grim and insightful twenty-one year old UPA fighter, but readers are also privy to a younger, less hardened version Aleksey, whose sole concern is keeping his family, including his younger brother and his jailed Ukrainian political activist father, alive and well. 

Swoonworthy Scale: 1

There are some very, very small hints of romance, but there is literally no time for that. We are dealing with life and death! While my knee-jerk reaction to “no romance” is always to be a little disappointed, rest assured that you won’t really need it for this book.

Talky Talk: The History Channel, But Awesome

There have been countless pages written about World War II, and with good reason. It’s a complex and fascinating glimpse into the human psyche and the socio-political complexities of the world. I feel like I’ve read my share of books set during WWII, but when I saw McCrina’s novel was set in Poland, focusing on an aspect of the war I haven’t ever read about before, I was instantly intrigued. Then I learned that the author of another WWII book that made me bawl like a baby endorsed the shizz out of it, and I couldn’t wait to dive in. (And warning: this book definitely got a few tears out of me too.)

Happily, Traitor was completely worth it! I got sucked in by Tolya’s earnest and slightly naïve viewpoint and fell hard for Aleksey’s battle-weary optimism. And when I say sucked in, I mean I sat down on a Saturday morning to “start reading” the book and when I looked up from the last page of the author’s notes it was early Saturday evening. McCrina’s writing was so immersive and rich, layering historical facts with fiction and tiny-but-important set-building details that made Galicia, this unfamiliar region of Poland, jump off the page and into my mind’s imagination. Her ability to capture the emotional core of the characters and relate their stories to universal truths also makes me deeply excited to see what she does next.

I will warn you that this book is not going to be for everyone. It’s unflinching in its portrayal of the terrors of war, and while I think it’s good for us to be exposed to things that make us uncomfortable sometimes, you know what you can handle. Some may be annoyed that the ending isn’t going to be tied up in a perfect bow, and while I could’ve used more at the end, myself, I was at peace with it.

Bonus Factor: Psychology

Outline of a human head with smaller and smaller outlines inside it

Understanding yourself and your motivations are big themes throughout the novel. Rectifying your beliefs with your actions in a world that forces you to choose between honor and survival can be a level of self-actualization that few can ever achieve, and it can manifest in some crazy cognitive dissonance. Understanding the motivations of others is almost just as murky, and forgiving them for also being human is a Herculean task. I was alternately fascinated and horrified by the psychological aspects of the story as you watch everyone figure out who to trust…and who to kill.

Bonus Factor: WWII 

Rescue workers searching in crumbling buildings in England during World War II

So. Much. Was going on back then. Obviously life around the world today is still constantly way more complex and nuanced than whatever picture we get in our media, but this particular war changed and destroyed generations and civilizations as we know them. I wish we spent more time in school discussing history in a more engaging and dynamic way to really “bring to life” topics that go far beyond Allies = good, Axis = bad. I loved learning more about an area of WWII in which I had no real familiarity or formal exposure to, which is a shame.  

Anti-Bonus Factor: Tribalism

Little white game pieces standing around by a red game piece lying on its side

It’s not hard to strip back the brutality of war and recognize the dozens of tiny ways the aggression and hatred between the Ukrainians and the Polish and Soviets and Germans seems, well, scarily familiar. Are we not fighting and perpetuating the same kinds of wrongs in so many places today, with opposing factions believing their side is superior to the other, “othering” that which they don’t agree with while resorting to violence and propaganda, and closing ranks to keep out anything “undesirable” from their own community? We, as the human race, have really learned jack-all from our pasts. You know what they say about history and doom…

Relationship Status: I’ll Be Seeing You

I’ll still be missing you long after our tryst is over, Book. Your raw honesty and the horrors you’ve seen touched me, and yet you haven’t let this world make you cold and hateful. Life isn’t fair, and though we have to part, we can always remember these moments we had together.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Macmillian Children’s Publishing Group. I received neither money nor peanut butter cups in exchange for this review. Traitor is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.