A couple of Cannonballs ago, I reviewed Kate Quinn’s novel The Alice Network, a work of historical fiction about female spies and the two world wars. With The Huntress, Quinn returns to familiar ground. This riveting novel is set during WWII and the five years following the end of the war. Like The Alice Network, The Huntress features strong female characters who defy social norms, taking on jobs traditionally reserved for men and insisting on getting their due. It’s a long story that reads very quickly thanks to fast-paced action, shifting narrators, and well drawn characters. Quinn has done her homework and provides the reader with lots of interesting factual information, especially regarding the “night witches”, i.e., Russian women who served in the Red Air Force and performed daring nighttime bombing raids against the Germans, and also about Nazi hunters working in Europe and the US.
The novel focuses on and provides the point of view of two women who might seem very different from one another but share important characteristics. Nina is from Siberia, from the Lake Baikal region to be exact. She has had a hard scrabble life and fears nothing but the possibility of drowning thanks to an extraordinarily abusive father. When she witnesses the emergency landing of an airplane, it is love at first sight, and she devotes herself to becoming a pilot and then killing Germans as one of the feared Soviet “night witches” in the war. Jordan is an all American girl in Boston, still in high school as the war ends. She’s being raised by her devoted father and has an attentive boyfriend who would have been a US pilot in the war if he hadn’t been injured. Jordan’s dad, an antiques dealer, expects Jordan to marry her beau and help with running the shop, but Jordan dreams of college and becoming a professional photographer. Her father thinks this is nonsense, but Jordan finds his plans for her oppressive. She dreams of adventure and accolades as a famous photojournalist.
Both Nina and Jordan have ambitions beyond what society and family deem appropriate, but there is something else that links the two and we learn about that link through our third narrator, Ian Graham. Ian was a British war-zone journalist in the Spanish Civil War and WWII. At the end of the war, he encountered Nina in a Red Cross hospital. She was weak and barely able to walk, but she also knew what happened to Ian’s younger brother Sebastian who died in the war. He was a victim of die jagerin, the huntress — a Nazi known for luring her victims (many of them Jewish children) with food and then murdering them. When the reader meets Ian in 1950, he has left journalism behind to live the life of a Nazi hunter. With his American sidekick Tony, a charming, sweet talking polyglot, he has set up his own center in Austria for tracking down Nazis and bringing them to justice. For Ian, the huntress, aka Lorelei Vogt, is his white whale. No one has seen her for years and the case has gone cold until Tony, unbeknownst to Ian, contacts Nina, now living in England. Nina’s desire to hunt down the huntress is no less intense than Ian’s and the reader learns why as the story progresses. Ian meanwhile has very conflicted feelings about Nina’s involvement, also for reasons that become clear as they work together.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Jordan’s father has remarried a woman named Anneliese Weber, a German refugee who has a small daughter named Ruth. Jordan loves Anna and Ruth. They are kind and sweet, and Anna has very progressive ideas about women. She sees what Jordan wants, what she is good at, and that marriage is not in her best interests. Yet, Jordan also has questions about Anna and her past. Part of Jordan is suspicious of Anna but part of her also feels that she might be overreacting and letting her imagination get the better of her.
As you might guess, and as is made clear from the first part of the novel, the worlds of Ian, Nina, Tony and Jordan will collide. The Nazi hunters get a lead on Lorelei Vogt that places her in Boston. This is a bit of a problem for Ian and company since the US government has not prioritized bringing Nazis to justice and extradition laws are trickier than in Europe. Moreover, once in Boston, the trail seems to run cold, but one way to pick up the scent again is through antiques dealers, who just might know something about forging documents.
The action in Boston gets quite thrilling. Jordan becomes more independent and hones her photojournalism skills while also helping to run her father’s shop. Tony, the new employee, is a charming flirt and Jordan does not mind that one bit. Ian and Nina’s relationship gets complicated and the reader slowly learns about the past of each of these characters. Nina’s backstory is especially well done, detailing both the experience of war and of Soviet oppression. Nina also has a love interest among her fellow night witches, which gives her story a special poignancy.
The Huntress was just a fun read. It’s got it all — history, intrigue, romance and Nazis getting their asses kicked. Quinn has a way of giving readers very satisfying endings in her novels, and frankly that is exactly what I was needing right now. If you enjoy historical fiction and fascists being forced to reckon with justice, I recommend The Huntress.