Publisher: Hutchinson (Ebook – 15 September 2020)
Length: 312 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
One of the most talented historical fiction authors in the game, Robert Harris, dives deep into the history of the infamous Nazi V2 rocket program in his latest novel, V2.
Harris is an impressive and well-regarded novelist who has been writing fiction for nearly 30 years. A former journalist, Harris’s initial books were a series of non-fiction novels in the 1980’s on various subjects, including a book that is considered to be the definitive account of the investigation into The Hitler Diaries scandal which later inspired a drama-documentary miniseries. His first fiction novel was the 1992 release, Fatherland, an alternate history novel that depicted Germany wining World War II. He has since gone on to write a number of other fascinating novels, most of which have a historical edge to them, including Pompeii, The Ghost (later adapted into the film The Ghost Writer), The Fear Index and Munich. Harris is one of those authors I have been meaning to read more of, but so far I have only checked out his 2013 release, An Officer and a Spy, which featured a fascinating account of the Alfred Dreyfus affair in 19th century France, and which was an outstanding piece of historical fiction. I also currently have his 2019 release, The Second Sleep, on my bookshelf and it was one of the novels I most regret not reading last year. As a result, I was rather interested when I got a copy of V2, which sounded like quite a fun and intriguing historical read.
In November 1944, while the Allies advance on Berlin, the Nazis are desperate to avoid defeat at all cost. Placing his hopes in new technology, Hitler funnels vast resources into his V2 rocket program, the most sophisticated weapon on the planet. The V2s are powerful ballistic missiles capable of delivering an explosive warhead deep into enemy territory at immense speeds. Hitler has ordered the production of 10,000 rockets and from an isolated forest in occupied Holland, the Germans launch them towards London, causing immense damage.
Rudi Graf is a German scientist who has long dreamt of sending rockets to the moon, and who now regrets his role in the creation of the V2. Stationed at the V2 launch site, Graf desperately tries to hang onto his humanity as he watches his dream cause only destruction and death. At the same time, in London, Kay Caton-Wash, an officer in the WAAF, is experiencing the full horror of the V2 rockets as she barely survives one of their strikes. Over the course of five days, these two strangers are about to be connected by their circumstances. As Graf is forced to launch even more of his rockets at London, Kay becomes involved with a secret mission to locate and destroy the V2 launch sites in Holland. Travelling to Belgium, armed with only a slide rule and some equations, Kay works to end the V2 menace once and for all. However, danger and duplicity are around every corner, and both Graf and Kay soon begin to realise that they cannot trust anyone. As both rush towards their destinies, their actions will have unintended consequences on the over, changing the course of history forever.
V2 was a clever and compelling novel from Harris, who did a wonderful job wrapping an intriguing, character-driven story around one of the most remarkable military programs of World War II. Like the majority of Harris’s novels, V2 is a standalone book that can be easily enjoyed by anyone in the mood for informative historical tale or war story that shows the horrors of war and the terrible ways that a person’s dreams can be twisted for evil purposes.
Harris has come up with a captivating narrative for this book. The focus of V2 is split between two fictional point-of-view characters, Kay and Graf, and follows their respective experiences over a period of five days, with several flashback scenes thrown in for context. This proved to be a rather intriguing read, and I liked how the author tied a mostly fictional story around some fascinating historical events, such as the creation and implementation of the V2 rockets. Both of the two separate storylines are quite intriguing and both go in some exciting directions, including Kay getting involved in a secret military operation while Graf tries to keep his sanity as he navigates the politics, treachery and sadism of his Nazi controllers. However, the real appeal of this narrative is the way in which the two separate story arcs intersect throughout the novel. For example, the novel starts with Graff witnessing and assisting the launch of a V2 rocket, which then lands and changes Kay’s life. As the story proceeds, the various actions and reactions of these two point-of-view characters impacts the events occurring around the other character, resulting in danger and tragedy in equal measures. While I really liked the fascinating individual narratives and the cool way in which the storylines overlapped, I did think that the main story ended rather suddenly and lacked a substantial or satisfying conclusion. This narrative desperately needed some big, exciting hook at the end to really tie everything together, even if it was historically inaccurate. Still, V2’s story was really good and easy to get into, and I had a fantastic time reading it.
In order to tell this fascinating tale, Harris utilises two great fictional characters, Kay and Graf, through whose eyes we see the events unfold. Both of these characters are rather interesting and I quite enjoyed both their individual character arcs. However, of the two, I definitely found Graf to be the more compelling character. This is because Graf is a particularly tortured individual, a brilliant scientist who is forced to work for the Nazis to bomb England. There are some excellent scenes throughout this book that show Graf agonising over his actions working for the Nazis, who have perverted his childhood dream of creating spacefaring rockets into weapons of mass destruction. Harris also spends much more time exploring Graf’s past, investing in a series of flashbacks that show how Graf became obsessed with rocketry, how he became involved with the V2 project and some of the tragedies that working with the Nazis have brought. Add in a very captivating storyline that shows Graf starting to rebel against the actions of his Nazi handlers and attempting to find a small measure of redemption out in the wilds of Holland and you have a very impressive and enjoyable character arc that does rather outshine the storyline Harris sets up for Kay. That being said, Kay is still an interesting focus character in V2, and I did enjoy her arc of trying to find and destroy the V2 launch sites by travelling to Belgium with several other members of the WAAF to work out the trajectories of the rocket flights. It was also really cool to see this portrayal of a WAAF, a female air force officer, throughout the book, especially one deployed outside of England, and I found it interesting to examine the varied roles that they played throughout the war. Overall, these two characters do an outstanding job telling this story, and I had a great time seeing how their individual arcs unfolded.
The real highlight of this novel has to be the author’s incredible and captivating portrayal of the infamous V2 rocket program. Harris has clearly done his research on the subject as he does an amazing job examining all the key aspects of the program and bringing them to life. This includes a detailed examination of the history of the project, the technical aspects of the rockets and various examinations of how they fly and what they can do. Harris makes good use of the various flashback sequences in Graf’s chapters to examine the full fascinating history of the project, including the origins of the rockets, identifying who the key architects of the project were and how the project came to the attention of the Nazis. This includes some compelling depictions of several major historical figures associated with the V2s, such as the project’s leader and main creative driver, Wernher von Braun, as well as several key Nazi characters who had a hand in the project in some way or another. The author also provides the reader with an unfiltered depiction of the devastating effect that these rockets had on the inhabitants of London when they hit and he actually features several real, historical rocket strikes that occurred during the timeline of the novel, including the most devastating attack that hit London. The depictions of the horror and the carnage that the rockets caused were really striking, especially as Harris tries to capture the psychological impact that these unstoppable and ultra-fast rockets had on the populace. I really loved learning more about the V2 rockets and it was easily the most fascinating and captivating part of the entire book. I especially appreciated the way in which Harris used his dual character perspectives to examine the project from the point of view of the Germans and the Allies, and it was great to see the clash of understandings and opinions about the rockets. It was also really fascinating to learn more about the Allies’ covert attempts to identify and demolish the V2 launch sites, and this was a great addition to the novel. All of these historical aspects are immensely enjoyable and fascinating and they add a heck of a lot to the story.
V2 by Robert Harris is a particularly clever and intriguing World War II novel that presents the reader with a fascinating and memorable examination of the infamous V2 rocket program. Featuring a compelling story, fantastic characters and an outstanding historical focus, V2 was an awesome and captivating read that is really worth checking out.