Publisher: Vintage Books Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)
Length: 360 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s premier authors presents another compelling and powerful historical drama with The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth.
Kate Forsyth is a very talented Australian author whose work I have long been a fan of. While Forsyth is best known these days for her intense historical dramas, I personally am a big fan of her The Witches of Eileanan series, which I read when I was younger. The Witches of Eileanan books, which were Forsyth’s debut series, follows a group of powerful magical users in a troubled fantasy realm filled with dragons, mages and monsters, as they attempt to overthrow a dark anti-magic tyrant and save the world from multiple impending threats. Filled with great characters, impressive magic, a complex setting and some brilliant and occasionally dark storylines, this was a particularly awesome and epic series, and it was among the earliest fantasy books that I ever checked out. I deeply enjoyed The Witches of Eileanan books and the sequel Rhiannon’s Ride series, and I have been meaning to reread them all for a while. In the meantime, I decided it would be good to check out one of her more recent works with The Crimson Thread. This intriguing and captivating historical drama is a lot more consistent with Forsyth’s current writing focus and I was very interested in seeing something from this genre.
By May 1941, the Nazis have conquered Greece and the island of Crete lies before them as the next land to control. As the island prepares for invasion, young Cretan woman, Alenka, attempts to find some semblance of normality amongst the chaos, but chance meetings with two Australian soldiers stationed on the island will change her life forever. When the Germans finally invade Crete in a massive and long-running battle, Alenka finds herself stuck in the middle of the fighting and eventually chooses to hide the Australians when the Germans win.
These two soldiers are Jack and Teddy. Lifelong best friends, the rambunctious Teddy and the shy, scholarly Jack, joined the army together to see the world, only to get caught up in the chaos of the war. Separated during the retreat to Crete, Jack and Teddy manage to reunite on the island, with both falling for the alluring Alenka upon meeting her. When the Germans invade and they are trapped behind enemy lines with no hope of escape, both go to ground, seeking out help from Alenka and her allies in Crete’s resistance movement.
As the Germans tighten their hold on the island, Alenka, Jack and Teddy find themselves in constant danger as they attempt to find some way for the Australians to escape. However, their attempts to evade the Nazis are not their only trouble, as Jack and Teddy’s once close friendship starts to deteriorate through jealously and anger. Worse, Alenka’s brother, Axel, is a dangerous Nazi collaborator, whose long simmering anger and resentment threatens everything Alenka holds dear. As Axel searches for a way to destroy his sister and her friends, all will be forced to make some hard choices, both on the battlefield and in love.
This was a deeply moving and highly detailed historical drama from Forsyth that I had a wonderful time reading. Balancing a captivating historical tale of invasion in a unique World War II setting with a powerful tale of romance, broken friendships and family betrayals, The Crimson Thread is an outstanding novel which really highlights Forsyth’s impressive skill as an author.
The Crimson Thread has an excellent and fast-paced narrative that quickly drags readers in with the wartime action and keeps them there with the subsequent drama and tragedy. Told from various intriguing perspectives, The Crimson Thread does a great job of quickly introducing you to the key characters and settings before bringing the terror in the form of a sudden and devastating Nazi invasion. What follows is captivating tale of survival, endurance and resistance, as the three central protagonists attempt to evade and outwit the occupiers while also dealing with their own simmering feelings of love, betrayal and jealousy. Forsyth weaves together some hauntingly tense and moving scenes throughout this narrative, as you see the characters thrust into all manner of dangerous and tragic circumstances amid the horrors of war. The entire narrative has an excellent blend of action, high-stakes espionage and deep personal drama that I found myself really drawn to, all of which fits together perfectly with the distinctive setting and period. The entire narrative takes place over the course of several years, and I deeply appreciate the long-term storylines that Forsyth utilised as you got to see the various characters grow and change throughout the war, often for the worst. I loved the focus on camaraderie, identity and historical pride that was worked into the story, and all the unique plot points come full circle by the end. Forsyth ends the entire excellent story of survival and war on a tragic, but hopeful note, and while you may end up with some conflicting feelings about the fates of some of the focal characters, readers are going to come away from The Crimson Thread both moved and satisfied with the story conclusion.
One of the things that I have always appreciated about books set during World War II are the sheer number of unique stories that can be written, as there were so many different battlefields, conflicts and personal dramas that resulted from them. While I am fairly knowledgeable about history and World War II, I honestly knew very little about the occupation of Crete during the war, nor did I realise that Australian and New Zealand soldiers were stationed there when the Germans invaded. As such I was pretty in the dark when it came to the historical context of the novel, but Forsyth was well on hand here and spent substantial time exploring the entire Nazi conquest and occupation of Crete during the war. Everything is covered here, including the initial 11-day battle to take control of the island, the subsequent disorganised evacuation of Allied forces, the harsh occupation of the Cretans, which included several massacres, the resistance movements, and everything else that occurred from first day to the end of the war. I was particularly intrigued by the role that Australian troops played during this conflict, and Forsyth made sure to really highlight why they were there and the various hurdles they faced during this war, including being trapped behind enemy lines with few options to escape. All of this is worked into the story in a clever and impressive way, and the various characters find themselves involved in many of the key events, either as witnesses or participants. You really find yourself getting drawn into the midst of these compelling historical events, and I personally found it incredibly fascinating to see them, especially as Forsyth did some substantial research for this book.
I also really appreciated Forsyth’s dive into the culture, history and iconic landscape of the main setting of Crete. Most of this book takes place on this beautiful island, and I felt that Forsyth really captured the heart and soul of Crete and its people throughout the story. There are some compelling dives into the identity and culture of the Cretan people, including the importance of their dress, their customs, their speech, and their defiant nature. Due to most of this explanation being done to show the undercover Australian citizens how to blend, it proves to be very informative, and readers without much pre-knowledge of Crete come away with a lot of detail and appreciation for its people. There are also some fun dives into the history of the island, particularly its ancient association with legend of the Minotaur and palace of Knossos. Due to my background in archaeology, I found this to be extremely interesting, especially as there are also some compelling depictions and discussions about the famous excavations that took place on Crete during this period. Throw in some breathtaking and highly detailed descriptions of the various environments and settlements on Crete, including its treacherous and massive mountains, which serve as a great setting for some particularly intense scenes, and you get an outstanding appreciation for this island. All of this is utilised in The Crimson Thread’s story really well, as the characters, like the reader, really get to know the island and how it impacts many of their decisions and actions.
Forsyth also came up with some excellent and distinctive characters for The Crimson Thread, and their unique and emotionally rich storylines are a powerful part of this great book’s story. This includes Alenka, who finds herself caught between her culture, her troubled family past, and her attraction to the two Australian soldiers she grows close to. Despite primarily being shown as a strong and clever woman, Alenka goes through some real tragedies and trauma in this book that slowly wear away at her psyche. I found it fascinating to see her growth throughout the book, as well as her attempts to overcome the various obstacles and indignities that come her way. Alenka was really well counterbalanced by her brother, Axel, a dark and dangerous youth who serves as the book’s central antagonist. Initially shown as a youth who grows into a dangerous teenager throughout the narrative, Axel is a complex figure. A half-Cretan boy who is the result of an extramarital affair with a German archaeologist, Axel has borne the shame of his heritage for most of his life and endured the ridicule and disdain of everyone on the island. Focusing on his German heritage, Axel becomes obsessed with Hitler and the Nazis and quickly grows to be a valuable collaborator for the occupiers, helping them root out the resistance and hidden Allied soldiers. While he is an extremely repulsive and evil figure, you fully understand while he idolises the Nazis and tries to join them because of how well Forsyth explored Axel’s motivations and past. Forsyth writes a very dark storyline around Axel, and it was fascinating to see him corrupted by both his own unfair past and the invading Nazis.
The other two main characters are the Australian soldier protagonists, Jack and Teddy. Despite being old friends, these two are very much the opposite of the other, with Teddy being a wild, confident and arrogant figure, while Jack is a kind and shy man with a stutter. While you wouldn’t think that they would be friends, Forsyth does a good job establishing their bond, and you fully understand why they are close to each other. Both characters are interesting in their own right, and I appreciated how Forsyth highlighted their differences and showed how their relationship eventually broke down over their mutual attraction to Alenka. Teddy’s slow crawl from causal larrikin to arrogant jerk is subtle, but well formed, and the author shows some compelling, but damning, change in views in his mind throughout The Crimson Thread. Jack, on the other hand, grows from unconfident scholar to strong-willed fighter, all thanks to his love of Alenka. I loved how Forsyth showed all his artistic skills and passions, such as poetry, as a strength, and it was pretty fun to see him succeed in the specialised spy school both characters end up in. This poetry actually had an interesting role in the wider book, and you can see a great example of it at the start of different chapters. Forsyth really excelled at creating some amazing and captivating character arcs throughout The Crimson Thread, and I had an outstanding time getting close to these figures and experiencing their triumphs and dark pains.
Overall, The Crimson Thread was a wonderful and deeply moving read that ended up being one of the better historical dramas I have read this year. Kate Forsyth continues to shine as an extremely talented Australian author, and I had fun exploring a book from her current genre of choice. Featuring some damaged characters, a powerful story and some exquisite dives into Crete and its wartime history, The Crimson Thread is a captivating and clever novel that I had an outstanding time reading.