A historical novel dramatizes the Royal Air Force’s attempt to avert defeat during World War II.
In 1940, Germany’s conquest of Europe begins to look like a fait accompli. The British still control the sea but suffer a catastrophic loss of equipment following the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the RAF were badly outnumbered by Luftwaffe fighters. However, Eleanor Rand, a brilliant mathematician from Oxford University and a volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, attempts to apply the principles of game theory to a strategic plan that efficiently maximizes the use of the British military’s scarce resources. Despite her genius, she often struggles to navigate a world chauvinistically unreceptive to her contributions. Meanwhile, Johnnie Shaux is a fighter pilot constantly engaged in parlous combat, thrillingly depicted by Rhodes (A Painted Ship: A Thomas Ford Mystery, 2009). He ascends the ranks thanks to a combination of skill and poise under pressure, but the pilots under him are increasingly unprepared. There simply isn’t enough time for thorough training. Johnnie is also plagued by his past—both his parents died during World War, and he grew up in an orphanage. He is friends with Eleanor. Johnnie is a mathematician as well; they met at Oxford. They’re reunited during the war and realize they harbor deep feelings for each other, but Johnnie stoically resigns himself to death, afraid to “be drawn into a universe where life and death had meaning and the future held purpose and perhaps even hope.” Rhodes memorably portrays Europe’s terrifying crisis. It’s easy to forget just how grim the future seemed. Also, the slowly brewing romance between Johnnie and Eleanor is touchingly drawn, especially Johnnie’s strenuously concealed existential despondency. The construction of one character—Rawley, an old romantic obsession of Eleanor’s—is hyperbolically overwrought, a breathless caricature. However, this fictional failing only stands out so prominently because it’s so incongruent with an otherwise dramatically authentic story.
A gripping, emotionally bracing account of a critical moment in history.