I received a copy of Winter Sky from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Winter Sky follows Lucas one of Poland’s Devil’s Rebels. Lucas recieved a head injury before the start of the novel and is unable to remember who he is, or where he came from. His only clue to his identity is a ripped photograph of what he assumes to be his family. Lucas is left in the village of Gorndask by some comrades who believe it might be his hometown. With nothing else to do, Lucas begins to search for his family.
The strongest part of the novel is its setting. Winter Sky takes place near the end of the second World War. Stewart clearly did his research and paints a vivid picture of a war torn Poland. In the introduction, he gives his reader’s a brief summary of the setting and the decline of the Nazis and the rise of Stalin.
The village of Gorndask is located between the German and Russian lines. With every day the Russians get closer and the people of the village lose a little more hope. The village serves as a mirror to Lucas’s mental state. Trapped between two forces that do not care for them, all the people can do is live off of scraps and try to survive.
For the first half of the novel, Lucas wanders through Gorndask trying to put together who he is, what he believes and if he has a chance of a future. I loved the distinction between what Lucas could remember and what he couldn’t.
“He thought, I can break down and reassemble a Blyskawica sub machine gun in less than sixty seconds. I know that it was designed by Waclaw Zawrotny specifically for the Polish resistance. I know that it was assembled with screws instead of welds so that we could repair our own weapons. I remember all of this, but I don’t know if I believe in God.” (33)
At the centre of Lucas’s character is his struggle with his faith. He can’t come to terms with the idea of loving God who can let the horrors surrounding him exist. As Lucas interacts with the people of the village he comes to see both sides of the argument. Stewart walks a fine line between hope and hopelessness and is ultimately successful. It would have been very easy for the villagers to function as avatars for arguments, but this is not the case. The villagers are three dimensional and doing everything they can to survive, even if it means hurting others.
Stewart explains this in my other favourite quote of the book:
“It’s just people get hard when they’re fighting to survive. They lose a bit of their humanness when they think they might die. A bit more when they are hungry. A bit more when they are cold. A lot more when they have children who are also cold and hungry. it doesn’t mean they’re bad people, just that they’ve had a bad time. Bur you have to know the difference…” (49)
Along with Lucas’s story we follow Colonel Müller a member of the SS tasked with hunting down and killing all of the Rebels by Hitler himself. When Müller is first introduced, he makes an imposing villain. He’s completely controlled, yet unpredictable. He incites violence but never participates himself. He is completely unknowable. In the second half of the book Stewart offers more insight into Müller’s character. Like everyone else in the book he tries to make him human. Unlike the other characters, he is less successful. By the time he gives you Müller’s backstory you’ve witnessed him perform a battery of cruel acts, you don’t want to relate to him.
The writing style of Winter Sky is a mixed bag. When it’s good, it’s very good. Yet, there are still passages that flow awkwardly and seem out of place. Since the book is so short, Stewart rushes to set up all of his characters earlier on, creating this awkwardness. Once this is out of the way Winter Sky seems to relax into itself and find its rhythm. There is a slight tonal and genre switch near the end. If you’re playing close attention you can easily see it coming. It might be a little off putting to some but it worked for me.
Winter Sky had my attention from the Introduction until the very end. Though short, Winter Sky packs a punch. If historical fiction is your thing, or you’re interesting in World War II, than I suggest you pick this book up.