Spain, 1936. Felix, a spirited young nurse, has travelled to Spain to help the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But she is also following Nat, a passionate young man who has joined the International Brigades fighting Franco. And George - familiar George from home - is not far behind, in pursuit of Felix ... As Spain fights for its freedom against tyranny, Felix battles a conflict of the heart. With the civil war raging around her, Felix must make choices that will change her life forever. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
There are certain things that I don't, as a general rule, approve of in young adult fiction. One of those things is love triangles. I won't go into the old love triangle argument here, but I just tend not to find this situation realistic in the slightest and a lot of the time, it just doesn't create the tension the author may have intended. Another thing is insta-love. I wouldn't say that I'm negative about this as the love triangle, but it needs to be done very well indeed to convince my cynical and jaded self.
So went I read the blurb of this book, one of the things that sprung to mind was 'that sounds like a certain three-sided shape in romance form with a touch of love of the instant variety'. But it's all good. It didn't matter in the slightest. Because a few other things had caught my attention....
Back in the day, I somehow managed to come out of university with a politics degree (not that I have used it in my professional life whatsoever), and politics has always been something that has caught my attention, especially political history. When I started on this whole YA reading/writing business, I never expected to find the two interests crossed over in such a fascinating way. I mean, the Spanish Civil War isn't something that most folk, even a lot of politically, historically minded ones, know a great deal about. I remember writing an essay on it many moons ago, but ask me to recall any of the facts and I will stare at you blankly, pretend I didn't quite catch the question and offer you a brew and a biscuit to distract you.
So I was definitely intrigued by the premise. And the cover. Did I mention the cover?
THE COVER >
Seriously, I can't take my eyes off it. It's magnificent.
Anyway, back to the contents...
When a story is split three ways, so much relies on making each character engaging in so fewer words. And Ms. Syson more than nails Felix, Nat and George. Sometimes in this situation, I find myself wishing a particular character would hurry up and move the story along so I can get back to my favourite, but this never happened here. Although, I have to say I found George the most compelling, in the sense that this sort of nice-guy character is usually so one-dimensional in most stories, but here he was given another side to his character, one that didn't involve moping after the girl he is never destined to be with (or is he?)
And Nat and Felix - I can completely forgive the insta-love thing when the chemistry is this good. The tension between them and within the story is just fantastic. Wobbly knees a-plenty.
Like a few historical YA books I've read recently (here and here in particular), the quality of the prose is first class. On key political events like war, it doesn't pull any punches, with every smell, sound, every horror right their on the page, unflinching. And like, in war, we're are reminded that not everything is cut and dried as reality begins to dawn on these characters.
If this was a book aimed at adults, I imagine it might be a sweeping epic romance, the size of which might act as an effective doorstop. And when I was about two-thirds of the way through, I was getting a bit annoyed because I wanted it to be longer - I wasn't ready to say goodbye yet. But on finishing, I was converted - this is the perfect length, and all the more skilled because so much emotion and action is within fewer pages.
I know historical YA fiction isn't for everyone, and if you're after a more light-hearted read, then maybe give this one a miss. But if you want and intense, beautiful book that will make you physically melt whilst reading it, then look no further. This might have actually inspired me to pick up my Southern-European history book that's been languishing on the bottom shelf for far too long...