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Review: The Huntress, by Kate Quinn
Morrow, 2019. 531 pp. $27

In spring 1946, memories of the war are just beginning to fade — for some. Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride, who lives with her widowed father in Boston, meets his new fiancée, an Austrian widow. Jordan welcomes her future stepmother and half-sister Ruth and takes them into her heart, luxuriating in the warmth and support she receives in return. Even better, Jordan’s stepmother encourages her to dream of higher education, something Dad doesn’t think a girl needs.

Four years later, in 1950, former British war correspondent Ian Graham; his assistant and translator, Tony Rodomovsky, an American; and Nina Markova, a former pilot with the Red Air Force, join forces in Vienna to track down Nazi war criminals. The Nuremberg Trials have focused on the big fish, but thousands of minnows have swum to safety, whether in various corners of Europe or the New World. They may be former assassins, concentration-camp guards, or petty functionaries who oiled the machinery of murder and appropriation, and Ian and Tony want them all, though they know that’s impossible.

Rare color photo of defendants at Nuremberg, taken by Raymond D’Addario, November 1945 (courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Nina, however, wants one in particular, a woman nicknamed die Jägerin (The Huntress), with whom she has a score to settle. So does Ian; and in one of the strange but clever twists in this thriller, Nina and Ian are married, though they’ve met only once, five years before for a couple days, and haven’t seen each other since.

Confused? Read The Huntress, and you won’t be. Quinn’s a fine storyteller, and she does an excellent job of stitching together many disparate pieces to make a coherent, exciting whole. The pages turn quickly, nothing happens too easily (except for a happy coincidence or two toward the end), and the stakes are plenty high enough. The reader knows long before the main characters who die Jägerin is, and where, but Quinn strings the inevitable confrontation out beautifully.

Of all the essential elements, I like the plot of The Huntress best. I do salute Quinn for calling attention to the problems of tracking down war criminals after Nuremberg, a forgotten cause. And I also like her attempt to explore the means one is permitted to use to see justice done. Ian rejects violence; Tony wouldn’t mind slapping around a witness or three; and Nina always carries a knife.

She’s the most interesting, fullest character by far. She’s done her best to amputate her heart, yet she comes across in part because she’s the only one with a developed past. Born by the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, she styles herself a rusalka, a water witch, the type who drags down the unsuspecting victim. That lake figures heavily in her psyche:

The lake was frozen in a sheet of dark green glass, so clear you could see the bottom far below. When the surface ice warmed during the day, crevasses would open, crackling and booming as if the lake’s rusalki were fighting a war in the depths. Close to shore, hummocks of turquoise-colored ice heaved up over each other in blocks taller than Nina, shoved onto the bank by the winter wind.… Nina stood in her shabby winter coat, hands thrust into her pockets, wondering if she would still be here to see the lake freeze next year. She was sixteen years old; all her sisters had left home before they reached that age, mostly with swelling bellies.

Nina’s half-savage, knows it, and likes scaring her friends. But scaring her enemies feels even better, for in a life lived without sweetness, revenge is the only substitute.

The other characters don’t grab me particularly. Jordan, though she represents feminism in wanting a photojournalism career, lacks angles or corners and seems too all-American. Tony’s too good to be true, a composition of charm, chutzpah, and linguistic wizardry. (The narrative rather dubiously depends on the relative ease with which certain characters pick up, say, fluent German or Russian in a matter of months.) Ian feels like a compendium of elements rather than a complete person, and though his heart’s in the right place, I don’t entirely believe him.

But the story’s the thing, here, and aside from the occasional detail that makes me raise an eyebrow (having mostly to do with photography or firearms), Quinn has researched her ground thoroughly. I note a few present-day idioms that someone should have flagged, and too many bizarre verbs replace said, often followed by unnecessary explanations of what the character means by what she says. But The Huntress is a top-notch thriller with an unusual premise, and I think it’s worth your time.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.