I was lucky enough to have been approved for an ARC of Gwen C. Katz’s YA debut novel, Among the Red Stars. My review is at the end of this post, but I wanted to gush a little more over this book. Among the Red Stars is a powerful, evocative novel that I fell in love with as soon as I started reading. Based on the true story of WWII Russian bomber pilots, the novel casts a critical eye over the detriments of war, but also provides a hopeful future through the bonds of love and friendship.
I want to say a massive thank you to Gwen C. Katz for generously agreeing to this interview, as well as a thank you to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.
Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.
As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.
Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.
- This was such a powerful debut novel, but as someone who is interested in WWII history, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about this group of female pilots, the Night Witches, before. How did you come across their story?
Not in school, that’s for sure! I actually learned about them from my father-in-law, who’s a big aviation buff. I really hope topics like this will start being taught so that they can stop being arcana and become common knowledge.
- I can only imagine how much research went into writing an historical novel. Can you describe the research process? And could you recommend any books for further reading on the Night Witches?
When you’re researching a historical novel, it’s this funny process where you start out knowing nothing and feeling insecure about how you’ll never master this topic, and then at some point you flip to knowing EVERYTHING and having strong opinions about controversial details and generally being a pain in the ass.
If you want to learn more about the women of Aviation Group 122, I recommend A Dance With Death by Anne Noggle. It’s a book of memoirs told by the women themselves, put together by a former WASP. A more scholarly book is Wings, Women, and War by Reina Pennington. They’re both excellent.
- In the novel, your characters deal with so much in order to prove themselves as worthy as their male counterparts, and it’s only within the past few years that we have come to learn about the achievements of women throughout history. As a writer (and a woman), how important is it to you that women’s stories are told?
I think writers have a duty to fill in the parts of the story that are not being told. One of the exciting thinks about being in YA today is that this is a field that is making a lot of progress towards embracing a plurality of stories instead of a single narrative.
- Was there ever an alternate end to Valka and Pasha’s story?
No, mainly thanks to my husband. He had strong opinions about who was and wasn’t allowed to die.
- I know Among the Red Stars has yet to be published, but are you working on anything else at the moment?
Did anyone feel like the problem with Among the Red Stars was that not enough girls kiss each other? Suffice it to say, my next project fixes that problem.
- What do you love most about YA fiction?
Oops, I already started to answer this one! What I love about YA fiction is what a diverse community it is compared with other media. While we’re still waiting on Marvel, for instance, to give us a movie about ANYONE who isn’t a straight white guy, 2017 has given us wonderful YA books about people of color, queer people, mentally ill people, and of course all kinds of books about amazing girls!
- I see you are a game designer and artist, how did you get into writing?
I’ve been writing since kindergarten! I’m the sort of person who loves to create anything I like to consume. So since I love reading, naturally I love writing. Same with art, computer games, cooking, you name it.
- What’s the best piece of writing advice you have been given? And do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
One of my favorite bits of advice came from my editor uncle: “You can’t put all your good ideas in one place.” I’ve never liked the adage “kill your darlings” because it sounds like, to make your writing good, you have to take out all the parts you really like. That scene you really like is probably good–it’s just not always the right scene for this story at this time. If you think of it as a good idea that belongs somewhere else, it’s much easier to make the cuts you need.
For beginning writers, I’d just like to remind them that writing is a craft that can take a long time to hone, just like if you want to be a concert violinist or a professional athlete. Don’t measure yourself against others, measure yourself by the progress you’ve made.
- Lastly, I’m a publishing student and I’m very interested in the YA publishing process. What was your experience like being published?
I don’t have a terribly dramatic journey to publication, I’m afraid. I participated in Pitch Wars in 2014 and Fiona McLaren did a fabulous job of whipping my manuscript into shape, but I didn’t end up getting an offer that way. I got my agent, Thao Le, through plain old-fashioned querying. She sold Among the Red Stars to Harper about a year later and they’ve been great.
‘Once upon a time beside the blue sea there lived a female night bomber regiment.’
Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz is the WWII feminist book you didn’t know you needed. Inspired by the true story of the Russian Night Witches, Katz takes the reader on an epic, life-changing journey with characters we can emphatically relate to today. From the very first page, I was drawn into this story and could tell it would be a 5-star book by the end of the first chapter.
Among the Red Stars is a tale of strength, aspiration, dreams, love and friendship. It’s the story of Valka as she struggles to prove her worth for the war effort, and it’s a story about Pasha, her best friend, through a series of year-long letters that show you the depravity of war and the hopefulness of growing love.
‘A hundred years ago, we would have had to disguise ourselves as men and run away and fight, like Nadezha Durova, the cavalry maiden. Now we don’t have to do that sort of thing, but nearly everyone had to move heaven and earth to get here.’
Even though this story is set during WWII and in a foreign land I couldn’t possibly understand, I found myself connecting deeply with every character in the novel and their circumstances. Read the above quote and tell me you don’t connect to that – I may not be a pilot and I don’t have to disguise myself as a man for my dream job, but I have had to prove myself time and time again simply because I am a woman. I too have had to move heaven and earth to get to where I am today, and it is a testament to Katz’s brilliant writing that women who read this book can see themselves in characters who lived in a different century. We may not have the same struggle as they do, but we understand it.
Valka has easily become one of my favourite YA protagonists and she now holds a position in my prestigious ‘badass ladies’ shelf on Goodreads. She’s ambitious, strong-willed, loyal and fierce. She wants to be the Red Army’s greatest fighter pilot and will stop at nothing to ensure her dream becomes a reality, but as the story develops, Valka comes to understand that war is not as glorious as she thought it would be. Valka’s weakness is her own hubris, but she overcomes it much like she overcomes the rampant sexism of the 1940s (which – surprise, surprise – is very similar to todays!).
I am enacting the ‘Protect-Pasha-2k17-Society’ because this boy is an actual angel and needs to be protected … although Valka is pretty good at doing that already. Pasha is one of the sweetest, gentlest characters I’ve ever come across in YA, and I sorely wish he were a real person so we could be friends. He’s Valka’s best friend, and he never treats her with disrespect due to her gender, unlike many of the other men in the novel. He is a pacifist at heart, and struggles with being conscripted into the Red Army, even as a radio operator. I was also very intrigued by his synesthesia, a condition where sound, letters, shapes, or numbers have a sensory perception, such as smell, colour, or even flavour. When Pasha hears people speak, he visualises colour.
‘Bomber pilots are all about objectives. Destroy this bridge. Take out that ammunition dump. So I set myself this objective: We will prove that we can fly as well as any male regiment. No. Well prove that we’re the best damn bomber regiment the Red Army has ever seen!’
The novel is told through a mix of narration from Valka, an ambitious 18-year-old girl, and of letters between her and Pasha. The letters were by far my favourite parts of the novel as the reader can physically see their friendship developing into so much more as through these letters they are brave enough to say what they can’t in person. But the letters are also significant as they shed light into what was happening at the Front with the war effort, and you learn how deeply unorganised and unprepared Russia was for war and all the poor souls who suffered for it. Katz’s writing is just superb as she vividly describes historical fact, while developing distinct and empathetic characters. At its core, this novel is about hope during the darkest times, and with every that is happening in the world today, I hope many people read it and learn from it.
But what I love most about Among the Red Stars is the fact that there is no girl hate! Yes, I’ve finally found a novel where, although not all the girls are friends, there is no unnecessary girl hate because of a guy or to create drama or just because!! Throughout this novel, I had that fantastic quote by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in my head: ‘We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man … We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.’ In Among the Red Stars, the female pilots are all in healthy competition with one another to prove themselves the best fighter pilot, but they all cheer and encourage each other too. It’s a fantastic representation of positive female relationships and I want more books to feature these friendships too.
Among the Red Stars is one of the best books I have read this year. It’s a riveting, touching story that will stay with readers a long time. Please do yourselves a favour and get your hands on a copy of this book the moment it’s released. You’ll thank me for it. I love the book so much that even though I received a free copy of it, I’ve already preordered a finished copy! If that doesn’t tell you how good this book is, I don’t know what else will.
Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist easily identified by her crew cut and ability to cause trouble.
Originally from Seattle, she now lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient mammals.
She is represented by Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.
Among the Red Stars is slated for publication on October 3, 2017. All quotes used in this review were taken from an advance reading copy and should be checked against the final copy of the book.
Have you read Among the Red Stars? Did you love it as much as I did? If you haven’t, does it sound like something you can’t wait to read? Let me know!
**Banner image credit: Gwen C. Katz. Used with permission.