This is the second book in the Front Lines series, following the first book of the same name. We pick up in 1943 where the last book left off and continue to follow Rio, Jenou, Frangie and Rainy through the invasion of Italy as they grow more accustomed to war and military life.
Okay, here’s the thing… I’m just not a person this series was intended for. That’s all there is to it. With the exception of my gender and my general enjoyment of YA fiction, I’m part of the wrong demographic in every imaginable way. So don’t misunderstand me when I say I just cannot enjoy this. It’s well-written, and I understand what it’s trying to do. In many ways, I could appreciate the author’s skill and what he was trying to do. At points in the story, I would find myself engaged and gripped…only to fall out of the narrative again within a few pages at most.
I’m in two minds about some of this, because this book started trying to do exactly what I mentioned I wished it would do in the first book, and began to address the “us” and “them” mentality—and it didn’t resolve my problem at all. So let me talk about that a bit.
Hansu Pang and the Portrayal of “Us” vs “Them”
The mainest of our main protagonists, Rio, lost her sister Rachel in a Japanese submarine attack at the beginning of Front Lines. This has instilled in her a hatred of the Japs. After an internal tirade about her hatred of the Japs early on, this sentiment seemed to get mostly forgotten, only brought up once or twice in Front Lines after Rio enlisted. While this made it easier to relate to her, it was also jarring that a hatred so fundamental to her and so fundamental to the war she has decided to fight is so seldom mentioned.
We were introduced to Hansu Pang. I mentioned him in the last review as a non-Japanese Asian character…but apparently that was not the case. Silver Stars refers to him explicitly as Japanese American. Since the last book seemed (to my memory) to leave that ambiguous, and neither Hansu nor Pang is a remotely Japanese name (Pang isn’t even pronounceable in Japanese), I had assumed that his fellow soldiers were mistakenly assuming he was somehow Japanese due to his appearance and generally Asian-sounding name. But no. According to Michael Grant’s website, he is Japanese and Korean. Okay, then.
But now I’m even more confused. Hansu Pang is, to my understanding, an entirely Korean name. Japan had, by this time, invaded Korea. Why does he go around identifying as Japanese? Why does he never counter attempts to peg him as a “Jap” with the argument that he is American, but ethnically he is also Korean, and Koreans have even more reason to fight the Japanese than the Americans? I understand that he doesn’t identify as either Japanese or Korean. I understand that he wants to be identified as simply American. Believe me, I get that. But he does get called a Jap. He does have conversations about it. And it utterly confounds me that Korea never once merits a mention.
But let’s put that aside as a quirk of Hansu’s personality, shall we? Let’s say that he had his reasons. So now we have this Korean-Japanese-American who’s Rio’s friend, and she goes through an admittedly brief and small crisis about how she hates the Japs, but not Hansu. This scene was something I would have appreciated in Front Lines. But in this book… Frankly, it felt to me like something that the author shoehorned in because someone else with an opinion similar to mine told him that such a scene should exist. It felt jarring and out of place. Why should Rio worry about lumping Hansu with the other Japs? She hasn’t up until that point, and the only person who has is an unpleasant person who expresses racist and sexist views all around. So it was a scene that came out of nowhere and then after it ended was never mentioned again.
It would have worked better for me without that so-called crisis. Rio exempting Hansu from the category of “Japs” has not changed or developed her character in anyway. She still sees them as the evil foes that she did in the first book. Her “us” versus “them” mentality is unchanged, and since Hansu was always a part of the “us,” the crisis only makes her seem all the more unlikable, because it implies that after they had established friendship and camaraderie, she was considering that perhaps he should be part of the “them” after all because of his family’s origins. Her rejection of that notion does not rectify this, but only serves to make it feel like a pointless thread.
Growing Up in a War
I know that I’ve basically been complaining up to this point, but there were honestly some elements of the book that I thought were exceptional. One of those points is the portrayal of our main characters growing up in the middle of a war.
This is honestly a coming-of-age story set in the midst of World War II. The war mostly gives the characters something to do, and sets their priorities. What we’re really reading is the tale of these girls reaching adulthood, each in her own way.
In that respect, Grant did an excellent job with Rio. It’s her relationship with Strand, full of grand expectations unmet. It’s in her odd relationship with Jack, where she thinks of how he doesn’t know the “real” her back home, never realizing how much she is changing and how Jack probably knows the present “real” Rio far better than Strand. It’s in the many times friends try to offer Rio an excuse to leave a battle, or the war, and she refuses to go. It’s in the conversation when she tells Jenou that the loss of her virginity weeks ago was nothing; but the Krauts she’s just killed, that was something.
This isn’t what I want from my war novels, so it didn’t pull me in. I was more of an objective observer than anything. But I appreciated the writing, and the dexterity with which Grant dealt with these issues and carried the characters through their varied opinions and choices and actions.
There were other things to enjoy. The detail is amazing: Grant’s research efforts shine through. I wasn’t impressed by his descriptions of transportation and weaponry half so much as I was impressed by his vivid descriptions of daily life, like the food. That’s how you research a good war novel.
I said that Rio’s growth into adulthood wasn’t what I want out of my war novels. But Rainy and Frangie’s stories had plenty that I do want out of my war novels. The honest to God willingness to die if it calls for it. And when it came to these two, I appreciated the formerly unknown revelations (unrelated to the war) about their families that force them to reevaluate their understandings of their own worlds. It’s not a thing I’d typically like in a war book, but for a coming of age story, these worked remarkably well.
I wish I could feel through the page that these people are all laying their lives on the line. This grates at me, because I feel it from Rainy, and sometimes Frangie. So why don’t I feel it from Rio or Jenou? I don’t have an explanation, but if I were to attempt one, perhaps I find their reflections on death a little too cerebral.
So once again, I seem to have been pretty onboard with Rainy and even Frangie’s stories, and it was Rio’s that just didn’t work for me. I find myself wishing the books had been divided by character rather than by time. I think I would devour Rainy’s story, the way it’s gone so far. But the other characters’ chapters drag me back out just as I’m getting into it.
I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I’m probably not going to go out of my way to read the third book. If the book and the time fall into my lap then so be it; but otherwise, I’m perfectly happy leaving it here.