The Sleeper is an espionage thriller set just before Britain enters World War II. David Ashby is living in Germany with his family, but international tensions become so compelling that a British citizen is unable to live there safely anymore. Splitting from his German wife, he grabs their seven year old daughter and goes back to the UK with her. The German government is determined to retrieve the child, and the struggle over little Karen is the basis of the story. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review.
This one is tough to review, because it has so much going for it, and yet other aspects hold it back. Foremost among the latter is the premise; would Hitler really send this much firepower after one kid locked in a domestic dispute? Youth were a big part of his recruitment campaign, yet it’s hard to conceive of all this time, money, and attention being lavished on the retrieval of one solitary child—and at that, a girl, who by Nazi definition is bound for motherhood, church, and her kitchen. But once we just leap in and let ourselves believe either that this could be true, or that there may be a secondary reason as yet to be revealed to us for Hitler’s diligence, it’s an enjoyable read.
Janes is painstaking in his attention to historical detail. The culture, the more formal reference to others, with the salutation of Miss, Mrs., or Mr. (or their equivalents in other languages) rather than the common use of first names used in Western nations today resonates, along with technology and a host of other historical minutiae. His attention to all aspects of setting is equally outstanding. He weaves a complex, hyper-literate plot that at times is compelling, but the story would be better served if he were to streamline it a little, because there are a lot of side details that lend nothing to the story. For example, whether Ashby has a gay relationship has no bearing on the main story or its outcome. In fact, there is way too much of who is sleeping with whom; I can see why his ex-wife would be motivated partially by jealousy, but the reader is treated to the romantic or sexual inclinations of just about every woman in the village, and it’s distracting rather than useful, and it gets in the way of stronger character development. I also found many of the transitions ragged, sometimes startling, but this may very well only be true of the galley; sometimes the DRC doesn’t include little dividing marks that will be in the final copy to cue the reader of a change of scene; thus I didn’t include this issue in my rating.
About halfway through , the style of writing changes, becomes less fluent and takes on some odd quirks that made me flip to the author page to see whether the writer was perhaps not a native English speaker and the book translated from another tongue. However, since he credits two others with helping him with the brief bits of dialogue in German and French, that doesn’t seem likely. There is one particularly distracting feature of the grammar that I tried to ignore, but after awhile found myself highlighting its frequency to see whether it was really occurring as often as I believed. The specifics of this I will send to the publisher, in the hope that perhaps it can be mitigated by the time it comes out. With this distraction removed, the book would be 3.5 stars, maybe even 4.
The climactic scene in the mine tunnels is absolutely riveting, and the stilted language and grammatical quirks that occur roughly from the 50% to 80% portions are nowhere to be found during this critical part of the book. It is largely Janes’s outstanding word-smithery with regard to setting that makes the climax so palpable and taut.
Should you invest in this novel? I guess that depends on your fondness for WWII fiction, and how deep your pockets are. There are other novels in the same vein that I recommend more highly, but it’s such a large field, and you could certainly do worse.
This title becomes available for purchase December 15, 2015.