Goodreads: The Only Thing to Fear
Source: Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
In a stunning reimagining of history, debut author Caroline Tung Richmond weaves an incredible story of secrets and honor in a world where Hitler won World War II.
It’s been nearly 80 years since the Allies lost WWII in a crushing defeat against Hitler’s genetically engineered super soldiers. America has been carved up by the victors, and 16-year-old Zara lives a life of oppression in the Eastern America Territories. Under the iron rule of the Nazis, the government strives to maintain a master race, controlling everything from jobs to genetics. Despite her mixed heritage and hopeless social standing, Zara dreams of the free America she’s only read about in banned books. A revolution is growing, and a rogue rebel group is plotting a deadly coup. Zara might hold the key to taking down the Führer for good, but it also might be the very thing that destroys her. Because what she has to offer the rebels is something she’s spent her entire life hiding, under threat of immediate execution by the Nazis.
In this action-packed, heart-stopping novel of a terrifying reality that could have been, Zara must decide just how far she’ll go for freedom.
The Only Thing to Fear is an imaginative dystopian featuring two strong leads and a chilling setting. Author Caroline Tung Richmond takes readers to a world where Hitler won WWII, and the Axis powers divided America. Nothing of the old republic is left besides old memories. Protagonist Zara, however, is determined to change that by joining the underground rebel group and helping plot the Fuhrer’s assassination.
The Only Thing to Fear is creative, and it has a lot of atmosphere, with Nazis patrolling the streets and swastikas decorating the towns. It is not, however, as much of an actual alternate history as I had envisioned. Richmond does follow a few threads of history into the future, imagining a world where the Nazi still hunt down “undesirables” like the Jews and encourage good Aryans to have large families to perpetuate their lines. German children attend military academies, and everyone else goes to work. Despite all this, it becomes apparent early in the book that the plot and characters could have existed in any other dystopian world. With the added science fiction element (some humans have developed superpowers from all the Nazis’ genetic tinkering), this book does not need Nazis at all. They add a specific flavor to the dystopian world, but they are not necessary.
As for the characters, Zara is an excellent protagonist, one whose skills balance out her flaws. She occasionally lapses into what are pet peeves for many YA readers—being overly dramatic over nothing and taking stupid risks in attempts to look brave—but these are decisions she makes, moments in her life; they are not her defining characteristics. As a whole, Zara is brave, and determined, and beguilingly trusting in a world where she has no reason to trust.
Love interest Bastian is subtly swoony, the forbidden German romance in a handsome six foot package. He also has a spectrum of character traits, strong enough to renounce his role in German society and tender enough to look after his mother in a hardened world.
The rebels could use a little more work, or at least a little more intelligence. Several years ago, one of their members was captured and the plans of a vital mission were revealed during torture. So one would expect them to stop revealing the full details of important plans to everyone who comes along, including new recruits whom they have no reason to trust. This is perhaps a silly detail, but readers may have trouble believing in the validity of a rebel group that has no idea how to properly plan a mission.
While the setting and characters are generally strong, the themes of the novel disappoint. Alternate history and dystopian are both genres that readily lend themselves to exploring important life questions—and The Only Thing to Fear misses its chance to do so. Although the book is about a teenager who joins a plot to kill the Fuhrer, it does not really address the implications of what it means to kill someone. And that is a mistake. Zara is not a dystopian automaton who has been raised to kill, like the protagonists of Legend or Reboot. She is a farmhand and a cleaning girl. No matter how many executions she has witnessed, she is not a murderer.
There are also a few moments in the book where there are clear opportunities to segue into a discussion of how the rebels are different from the Nazis. Both are killing people they do not like. So are they different? If so, why? The book never tackles this question either, even when it seems a second away from raising it.
In the end, I really did enjoy The Only Thing to Fear. The writing is strong and clear. The characters are complex and well-developed. And the setting is chill-inducing. The book simply is not keen on philosophy or on discussing any of the themes it clearly brings up during the course of the action. It is all about the show and the ride, and is not very concerned with what it all means, which is disappointing.