Thursday, September 25, 2008

Night of Flames: A Novel of World War II by Douglas W. Jacobson - 384 pgs

Book CoverIn 1939, Hitler's forces invaded Poland, creating havoc and destruction throughout the country with air raids, infantry and tank operations. Many citizens joined the resistance, secretly carrying out operations aimed at hindering the German war machine while aiding the Allies in any way possible. On this backdrop we meet Anna and Jan Kopernik, a Polish couple separated by the war. Jan is a Major in the Polish Calvary, stationed in western Poland very close to the German border, who eventually becomes a secret operative. After the invasion, Anna must flee alone to Belgium, reluctantly becoming part of the Belgian resistance. In their search to find each other amidst the frantic war, Anna and Jan will come face to face with the senseless death and tragic brutality that has overtaken their world. Surrounding Anna and Jan's adventure are the stories of the dozens of wartime heroes who risked their lives and freedom to root out the Germans from their countries, some quietly slipping into the night, and some paying the ultimate price.

Though the story in this book was very gripping and engaging, there were many areas that I thought the book could have been better. Firstly, the characters seemed somewhat wooden and unrealistic. Introspection by any of the characters was slim and sparse. They never reflected deeply, nor thought and let the reader see how their mind was working. It was all exposition and reaction, never anything substantial or meaningful. I felt like I didn't know any of the characters or the reasoning behind their actions, which cut me off from elements of the story. This, coupled with improbable dialogue, made the players seem unbelievable. Another problem was that many characters were mere stereotypes -- the histrionic war widow, the taciturn and emotionless soldier, the distant informer -- which made them seem like cardboard cut-outs instead of real people. I wanted to be able to connect with these people and their situation, but couldn't. I found that their personalities and behaviors made them remote and inaccessible. There wasn't enough meat there to really get into, and it affected my immersion in the story. Then there was the introduction of so many characters in such a short space of time. Many were only touched once and then forgotten. Others would be revisited long after a brief introduction, making it difficult to remember who was who and what situation they had came from. The effect was very cluttering and claustrophobic.

This was a big book, with big ideas and a lot to say. The problem was, everything was crunched down and compacted. There were a lot of situations that I felt should have been more deeply covered, and story lines that were left cold. In particular, there was one point where the storyline jumped from 1939 to 1943 with no mention of what had happened in between, making the story seem a bit disjointed. I would have liked to know how the characters had fared and what had happened during this huge space of time, and what accomplishments had been made on the war front. Another irritating aspect of the story was all the coincidences that took place. The timing and situations were designed to make the ending tie up neatly and quickly. The coincidental aspect of so much of the story was off-putting.

There were points to praise though. The amount of historical detail and research that went into this story was impressive. I could tell by the authors confidence in the writing that he had done his homework regarding the multiple battles and significant aspects of this war. Also, there was a good amount of tautness in the storyline that kept my interest and kept me wondering about the outcomes of each specific engagement. Each mission was painted with great intensity and detail, stretching out to capture the imagination of the reader. As a story of war, I would consider this a very successful book. It had all the action and strategy, and combined with meticulous research, it kept packing punches. The human element though, was less developed and more troublesome.

I do think there are many who would enjoy this book. War enthusiasts, particularly of WWII, will get much from this novel, as well as those who are interested in well-dissected history. I learned a lot from this story, particularly about the Polish resistance and its many successful endeavors during the invasion. An interesting concept that in some instances was executed well, and in others was not.


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