The creators did their homework on this one. The Grand Duke is filled with so much detail of World War II that dedicated scholars can have a field day with this book. Being an American, I wasn't that familiar with the German-Russian front, as it's kind of glossed over in U.S. history classes. I had no idea how much else was going on between these two nations and knew next to nothing about the aerial battles between the Germans and the Russians—never mind the mechanics of night aerial combat in a time before night vision and infrared. The Grand Duke shed light on all of this, as well as the “Night Witches,” one of Russia's all-female fighter units. There are a ton of fighter models introduced, and the book manages to give enough details about how these planes operated and what their advantages and disadvantages were, without ever growing dull. This book laid the groundwork for many a Google search looking for more info about these battles, units, and planes. I was amazed not only by what I learned but by how much The Grand Duke got right with regard to accuracy.
I was already familiar with the political situations in both countries at this point in history, but The Grand Duke does a great job of comparing and contrasting the Nazi and Communist parties as the book's two main characters, Wulf and Lilya, fight against the strict political requirements imposed by these groups while still wanting to serve their respective countries. The political drama is frustrating to watch unfold due to all of its restrictions and bulls--t rules, but Wulf and Lilya's stand against these political parties makes them likeable protagonists and highlights the friction even a simple act like refusing to have a swastika on your plane would impose.
The “romance” was easily the weakest part of the story for me. As regular FBC readers may note, I'm very picky when it comes to story romances, believing they are often tacked on because they're considered “necessary” even when they don't really belong. Sex (there's quite a bit of nudity in this book) definitely belongs in The Grand Duke as does love, but it doesn't come in the form or manner you'd think from the pitch. The relationships between the characters establish the stakes of the story, whether that's the relationship between wingmen, a father and his daughter, or a one-sided love. Love makes people do crazy things, and The Grand Duke does a great job of showing these moments, but the “Romeo and Juliet” characters' relationship felt more about the physical act than ever about the emotion for me and was easily one of the least satisfying relationships in the story.
As a fair warning, The Grand Duke does not shy away from the reprehensible parts of war. Characters die and are maimed, tortured, and raped, and what happens to them is never fair. The book doesn't get overly graphic with these moments but does push right up against the edge. The treatment of captured female pilots in particular was difficult to stomach for me, but The Grand Duke manages to never make this book about rape, but focuses on the overall unequal treatment of women whether that's the disrespect they're shown as prisoners of war or how their own side dictates their future after the war as having babies and working in the kitchen. Lilya and the other female characters don't take s--t from anyone, reveling in their freedom and fighting hard for their rights, which in the end earned my respect for both the fictional Night Witches and the real life ones.
While it doesn't live up to its pitch, The Grand Duke is an amazing World War II story, which focuses on a neglected area of the war, delivers a lot of historical detail, and tells a dark story of politics, gender inequality, and fast-paced aerial combat.