It’s a cool, high-concept idea: Tell the story of history’s worst maritime disaster (the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloffin the final winter of WWII) through four POVs: a Lithuanian nurse, a Prussian soldier running from the Nazis, a Polish girl, and a self-righteous Nazi sailor.
I’ve read books written in the first person from multiple viewpoints, and it didn’t work. It sort of works here. Mostly because Ruta Sepetys (wisely) jumps back and forth rapidly between her characters, and titles each chapter with the new POV’s name. Sepetys’s research is also astounding. And she gives her characters interesting backstories, revealed bit by bit. This book is also the only book I’ve ever read to cause my jaw to fall open in shock. So there’s that.
Now for the bad.
This doesn’t work in that all Sepetys’s characters sound the same—except the delusional Nazi prig, who sounds more like a stuck-up British prefect than a German boy. (Sepetys should have used more Anglo-Saxon words, fewer Latin.)
Sepetys can pen a decent sentence and paint a vivid scene. But 1) gawky, insistent metaphors/similes, 2) general nonsense, 3) monotonous syntax, 4) bad dialogue with scads of unnecessary tags, and 5) “telling, not showing” besmirch the book.
1) “Fate is a hunter. Its barrel pressed against my forehead.” “Guilt is a hunter. I was its hostage.” “Those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.” (Ew, stop. Alone, these might work. But in the scene, they make you squirm like the wedding toast that goes on too long.)
2) “Someone screamed. Desperate. Panicked. Strangled with fear.” (If they’re strangled, how are they screaming?) “The wandering boy threw himself onto Florian, sobbing and crying.” (Oh, sobbing AND crying! Guys, the little boy isn’t just sobbing, he’s crying! This is serious!)
3) In the same paragraph: “The shoe poet sat by the glowing fireplace, polishing his boots… The wandering boy watched intently at his side, mimicking the strokes…The fire cracked and popped, rolling waves of heat…” “We were finally surrounded by protection and comfort. Sheltered from the snow, the cold, and Russian soldiers, I finally felt safe.”
4 and 5) This is the worst.
“That was a big sigh. [BLEH!!!!] What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Emilia had the baby.”
“The baby didn’t make it?” He seemed genuinely upset. [Oh did he now?]
“The baby’s fine.” I shook my head. “But Emilia isn’t.”
“What happened?” he asked. [Stop telling me he’s asking, just let him ask!!]
“His voice breaking with emotion.” (WHAT EMOTION? And of course it’s breaking! I’m in the scene, I see what he sees, I already heard his voice breaking, STOP TELLING ME.)
Sepetys withholds too much of her character’s backstories for way too long. Characters hang onto secrets (secrets they would have thought to themselves, even if they didn’t share them aloud) until Queen Sepetys decides it’s time to reveal ANOTHER GAME CHANGER. And then the character blurts the truth out of the blue. “I’m a murderer! Not that it’s true. Not that you were even wondering. But I just have to tell you (without explaining how or why) because it will ramp up the tension. Author’s orders. I’m just a puppet.”
Besides the fact that most of the characters are pawns, they’re also lame. Especially Florian, the beautiful noble amazing handsome gorgeous Prussian. EVERYBODY has a crush on him. The boring nurse crushes on him, the silly Polish girl crushes on him, the Nazi prig wants to be him, and—cherry on top—Sepetys has the biggest crush of all.
Sepetys’s infatuation makes her blind. She can’t see that Florian is boring, inconsistent, and unbelievable. Worst of all, he’s a girl. A middle-aged female author crushing on her hero…who’s a girl. If that sounds bad, trust me, it’s worse.
I must be blunt: Florian becomes Sepetys’s masturbatory sex toy, doing and saying whatever a girl desires but which no man could possibly offer so flawlessly: womanishly bestowing kisses, touches, gestures, whispers, secrets, and compliments exactly when and where a girl would want.
The fake, stupid romance between Florian and the boring nurse is only trumped by the all-too-real, stupid romance between Florian and Sepetys. I hated Florian but hated Sepetys more. I honestly enjoyed the Nazi prig by comparison. At least the prig was plausible, consistent, and didn’t trap me in an incestuous author-character snuggle.
Sepetys deserves kudos for her interesting POV technique, vast research, and choice historical setting. But she should read her own dang writing (or get a better editor) and for pity’s sake, ask her husband how men actually work. And confess she’s been having an affair.