Nina Markova – Sestra, Night Witch, Nazi Hunter

Cover of Kate Quinn's "The Huntress".

I pretty much gave up writing book reviews after publishing my first novel. To me, one writer critiquing another is more than a bit awkward and littered with literary and professional land mines. During this hiatus, I have read many great books by great authors, so please do not assume that my choice to not review them reflects their merit. But having just completed Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, I had to make an exception.

As an author of historical fiction, I know what Ms. Quinn put into this story, so maybe I can appreciate it more than other folks. Anyone who has read my novels knows that I research details until my eyes blister. By my estimation, research and accuracy are what make the difference between good historical fiction and great historical fiction. But you don’t have to be a research-obsessed writer to love this book. All you need is a love for unique characters, untold history, and great story-telling.

Which brings me to Nina Markova, one of the most original characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a long time. She is a totally-believable, no-nonsense, anti-victim who delights in bombing the hell out of Nazis and loves with the passion of Tatyana Larina. According to the novel’s jacket, “The Huntress” is a “fascinating historical novel about a battle-haunted English journalist and a Russian female bomber pilot who join forces to track the Huntress, a Nazi war criminal gone to ground in America.” But for me, the story is all Nina Markova’s, who singlehandedly carries the history and all-but-suppressed legend of WWII-Soviet women combat aviators on her worthy bad-girl shoulders.

Polikarpov Po-2 biplane

A little perspective… My father was a tail-gunner in a B-24 Liberator during the war. Bomber crews of his era and theater were rotated back home if they managed to survive 25 missions. (Other crews had to fly 30 or 35 missions depending on time-frame and theater.) The crews of the Soviet all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment (later known as the 46th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment NEVER rotated out…alive. Their commitment ended when the war was over or until they were killed. Now, comparing the missions of the comparatively huge Liberator to the tiny Po-2 (aka U-2) wood and canvas biplanes flown by the Soviet women aviators is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. (Actually, more like comparing mortars to howitzers.) But the difference does not detract in any way from the unbelievable number of missions these women flew. Many flew over 800 sorties during their service and one, Irena Sobrova, flew a mind-boggling 1,008. Just damn!

According to Steve Prowse (as documented on History.com), “The Germans nicknamed them the Nachthexen, or ‘night witches,’ because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made resembled that of a sweeping broom. ‘This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes were too small to show up on radar… [or] on infrared locators,’ Prowse said. ‘They never used radios, so radio locators couldn’t pick them up either. They were basically ghosts.’”

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. “The Huntress” is a great book. LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it. But I get lost in the history and could go on with this for hours. I do pause to make one point; any arguments that women can’t perform in combat were totally obliterated by these women more than 70 years ago. Conducting such a discussion today is an insult to the courageous Russian combat aviators whose endurance and skill put their male counterparts to shame. While there may be room left for discussion of which combat roles they are better suited for, women as a gender do not have to prove anything. If you don’t believe me, you could ask the thousands of German soldiers who met their demise at the hands of these sestras of the air, but they ain’t talking.

God bless you, Kate Quinn, my historical-fiction-writing sestra. I love you…but I love Nina Markova even more.

For more reviews, profiles, and interesting tidbits on writing, check out www.billfurney.com.

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