REVIEW: Stateless by Elizabeth Wein
From the beloved #1 bestselling author of Code Name Verity, this thrilling murder mystery set in 1937 Europe soars with intrigue, glamour, secrets, and betrayal.
When Stella North is chosen to represent Britain in Europe’s first air race for young people, she knows all too well how high the stakes are. As the only participating female pilot, it’ll be a constant challenge to prove she’s a worthy competitor. But promoting peace in Europe feels empty to Stella when civil war is raging in Spain and the Nazis are gaining power—and when, right from the start, someone resorts to cutthroat sabotage to get ahead of the competition.
The world is looking for inspiration in what’s meant to be a friendly sporting event. But each of the racers is hiding a turbulent and violent past, and any one of them might be capable of murder…including Stella herself.
Dear Ms. Wein,
The first thing I noticed about this book was the cover. Oooh, I liked it. Then as I started to take in the details (what is she holding in her hand?) I realized you had written it (yes, I can be a little oblivious at times) and that was all it took for me to request it. I vaguely knew that it was going to be another YA novel set before World War II which dealt with flying but, given the subject matter of your other books that I’ve read, then none of that really surprised me.
It’s August 1937 and the era of all kinds of “first flights” with glamorous and daring aviators and aviatrixes vying for records – the first to fly this route, the fastest to fly there. Journalists compete almost as intensely to cover the flyers as the flyers compete to complete their flights and all the while the general public is lapping up the headlines and news. The latest stunt has been dreamt up and arranged by a wealthy British aristocrat with the goal of fostering peace amongst youthful flyers (as you say, using the heady exuberance of youth) from all across Europe. Twelve older teen aviators will start from Salisbury then crisscross the continent in a friendly contest with a sizable, for the day, cash prize.
Stella North – who is representing Britain, although she is not a British subject – is the only female. While she must field silly questions from the press and realizes that there will be intense interest in how well she does, surprisingly her fellow flyers respect her skills and treat her well. Of all of them, only Tony Roberts – flying for France despite speaking execrable French – seems to have many years of flying experience (most were chosen based on essays). He (and also Stella) has strong views on the Spanish Civil War which leads to some ruffled feathers with the German contestant and Tony chafes at being told to remain quiet about the Great Powers staying out of that conflict.
On the first leg of the contest, Stella is horrified to watch what appears to be one plane diving at and forcing down another over the Channel. She circles the wreckage but after seeing no sign of the pilot, she hurries to Brussels to report it. Something makes her hedge on telling all she saw and she soon realizes that there are undercurrents all around her and hidden aspects of her fellow contestants. Did she see a murder and if so, who committed it and why?
There are a lot of details about flying in this book. It’s to be expected and does contribute to the competency of the flyers. My attention wandered when the specific planes were mentioned but I still managed to catch what I needed to know. It’s definitely prewar Europe when conventions require that Stella wear long gloves with her silk frock for the fancy events as well as have Lady Frith as her chaperon. There is also a section in Hamburg that allows all kinds of cool historical details (decadent American jazz, the popularity of Coca-Cola) to be included yet drags just a bit. I did Google Roborovski and now I kind of want a robo dwarf hamster. I’d also never heard of Nansen passports which were very interesting.
Stella knows what she saw over the Channel and soon other acts of sabotage begin to be found. Are they connected? Is someone merely trying to fix the race or is there another reason behind them? The clues and red herrings are scattered nicely. I like that Stella uses some aspects of her aviation skills to eliminate some of the other flyers from her list of possible suspects. She then takes a leap of faith in trusting someone which fortunately pays off for them both.
The underlying reason for the contest, to promote peace in Europe employing a fascinating new technology as used by youth, is an attempt to defuse some of the political tensions simmering across the continent. One character has been in Spain fighting the Italian and German air forces. Many flyers decry how Europe isn’t standing with Spain or Ethiopia against the aggression, and bombs, directed at them. There is a definite feeling of people desperately trying to not antagonize certain countries in the hope of avoiding another war – similar to the one that several of the older aviator chaperones fought in twenty years ago. Knowing what was coming made me ache that as these young men know how to fly, many will probably die in the coming war. And yet, I think the book manages to stay away from heavy foreshadowing (the setting is before Kristallnacht or the takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia) and ends on a hopeful (and yet, we know, doomed) note. I liked the end but yeah, it still left me sad anyway. B