A deeply felt antiwar suspenser about the savagery preceding the fall of Hitler's Berlin.
We see the giants—Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin—jockeying for political advantage as WWII enters its final months. Crafty, experienced power players, super-patriots, and super-egotists, all are devoted to their own nation's well-being but also have a lively interest in how history will measure each of them. We follow the three, viewpoints shifting, as they charm and are charmed by, bluff and are bluffed by their opponent/allies in a contest that could hardly be more consequential. The Germans have been crushed; not even Hitler doubts the totality of his defeat. The only unresolved question is which of the victorious armies is going to be first in Berlin, and the maneuvering over this is both intricate and intense. Robbins renders his real people superbly, making them vivid, even fresh—a notable accomplishment, given how often these portraits have been drawn. But the heart of the story is his imagined cast: a Russian solder in disgrace, a German cellist hiding from horror behind her music, and an American photojournalist, sent by Life magazine to wherever the fighting is most vicious (think Robert Capa). In particular, Robbins's embattled Berliners are, in their diversity, convincing and unforgettable. Each experiences the war differently, of course, and yet the damage inflicted is, at the core, grievously similar. In the German capital, waiting to be taken, the people—panicky, starving, guilt-ridden—face stark choices in dealing with one another: “Be a hero or a monster” is the way one of them puts it. Robbins views it all unsparingly. Quoting Plato, he writes: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Brilliant storytelling by an author who continues to grow and impress (War of the Rats, 1999, etc.), and who, here, seems in absolute control of his material.