The last WWII battle between the Russians and the Germans produced a crescendo of death and destruction—and, now, a surprisingly flat novel.
In 1943, Hitler, still reeling from his Stalingrad debacle, rolls the dice in Russia a final time, hoping to recoup by taking the key city of Kursk. It’s heavily defended, but Hitler has a dazzling new weapon: tanks, or rather a particular tank, the mighty Mark VI, a.k.a. the Tiger. This war machine dominates wherever it appears, inspiring the kind of blind adoration that undercuts tactics and makes fools out of generals. The Russians have their T-34, clever, darting lightweights, but the Tigers are super-tanks: “proud and powerful like fresh angry bulls.” Hopelessly in love, Hitler counts on them to deliver victory in Operation Citadel, the monster battle that will soon involve two million men—and a few women. Among them is Lieutenant Katya Berka, one of the so-called Night Witches: female bomber pilots who fly tiny, fragile planes, fly them “low and slow” in the interest of maximum accuracy, and fly them in almost constant peril. But Katya never thinks much about peril. Cossacks don’t, and that's what Katya is: a horseless Cossack with attitude intact. It’s a description that applies with equal force to her father Dima and big brother Volya , T-34 men who drive their tank as if it had four legs and a flowing mane. In the coming fight, gallant Katya will do her share and more; still, everybody knows it will be a tank battle, epic and Tiger-centered, but nobody has a true fix on how that will translate in terms of carnage.
Some interesting characters and compelling set pieces, but from this talented storyteller (Scorched Earth, 2002, etc.), it’s a slow-moving disappointment, impeded by all that tank lore.