As so often with Harris, the joy is in the history as much as the story. There are two conspiracies in this book but...it is only when you reach the end that you realise that the author’s narrative skills have tricked you into focusing on the sideshow ... more drama than thriller. For all its pace—you will zip through it in no time—the rewards are in the meta-story. But Harris’s deceptively effortless prose means you barely notice. The effect is one of total immersion: you can feel the cold, taste the bacon sandwiches and imagine the trolleys squeaking across the floor.
Robert Harris masterfully presents well researched history, with some relevant high-tech gobbledegook, imaginatively embellished with the colourful quirks of human behaviour. V2 depicts British and German antagonists with remarkable objectivity, relieved by hints of conflicting sympathies. Readers in 40 languages will be both educated and entertained.
With its tense plot and familiar characters, some readers may anticipate the novel’s own parabolic curve. But this means it offers the satisfactions we expect. Spies and informers lurk. Period details are piquant, but not overdone ... Technical sections about the rockets, though occasionally droning, are astonishingly precise. Above all there’s suspense. As Graf and Kay plot and counterplot, questions rise and fall like rockets ... V2 will keep you pinned on a compelling trajectory.
... features sophisticated weaponry, devious Nazis, moral compromise and Allied ingenuity ... The entire narrative (save for a coda) unfolds over five days. In a way, very little happens. Rockets are launched and lovingly described; they land or misfire. Kay abandons a faithless lover in Blighty and becomes embroiled with her Belgian host. Graf and his team are visited by an SS man. The scientist’s crisis of conscience is well-timed (in narrative terms) and results in further sabotage, a spot of tragic helplessness, a grisly interrogation and a reckoning. He later asserts a touch of self-determination. A final twist involving Kay is a curveball we saw coming ... There is quite a lot of backstory. In fact, we are still being filled in about the abominable Kammler and his rocket factory with 70 pages to go ... What is impressive, then, is how grippingly Mr. Harris marshals this thin material. Both Kay and Graf are engaging, if clichéd. The pacing is good, the prose brisk, the dual structure largely propulsive. The wartime mise-en-scène is expertly done ... Morally it’s simple stuff. The queasy Graf is designed to play easily on our sympathies, his remorse perhaps a little too convenient. More interesting is the peripheral von Braun. The Nazis are largely dastardly, though the author is careful to remind us that the Brits, too, spread sneaky propaganda, while a single RAF bombing raid killed almost 10 times as many civilians as died from the V2s ... It might be considered whether our literary culture requires another World War II thriller of this nature, especially one juggling such unvexed oppositions. Assuming, however, that it does, readers could do worse than stick with Robert Harris.
Kay’s character feels strangely underdeveloped—the doughty SOE type who shows the men a thing or two has become a staple of the second world war literary landscape and it would have been nice to see Harris give her some edges. Graf is a more complex character ... His conflicted state as the end of the war draws ever nearer is presented with subtlety and sensitivity—this is what Harris does best, the decent man caught in the jaws of history ... It’s peculiar, then, that so much of V2 feels familiar. He wrote it during the lockdown and yet no sense of this feeds through to the reader. Living through historical times, our historical novels have to work harder to justify their existence. Harris’s books are always supremely readable—he has practically trademarked the term 'master storyteller'—but V2 doesn’t tell us enough about the way we live now.
Set over five days, the pace is relentless. You can be staring at the exhaust of a rocket in the sky over Scheveningen in Holland, flick a page, and be in Chancery Lane, feeling the tiny change in air pressure that comes just before a supersonic missile lands. There are times, though, when Harris stops the story dead to hover over a detail that brings the horror of the V2 to life ... Written mostly during lockdown at a time of international political turmoil, Harris is delivering a warning about toxic futility and the ferocious propaganda needed to fuel it. His timing is, unlike the workings of the rockets he writes about, impeccable.
... the inherent challenge in simultaneously telling the V2 story from both the British and German sides is that the author must get the reader to have at least a little sympathy for the German character --- and if you humanize the German character, so must you humanize the British character. Unfortunately, this is the part of the book that doesn’t work quite as well. The WAAF analyst is bland, competent and long-suffering in the classic stiff-upper-lip style. The German engineer is earnest, conflicted and grieving a recent loss, and thoroughly disgusted with the war and its suffering. But you can’t let the German character off the hook for the outrages of the Nazi regime, and Harris balances what sympathy the reader might have for the engineer with his complicity with the slave labor used to build the V2 bases ... What I think Harris might be doing here, in pitting these two unmemorable characters against each other, and having them attack each other at long distance by proxy, is saying something about the impersonal nature of modern war ... There is a lot to like about V2. The history is presented accurately and fairly, the emotions of the characters are on point, and the technical details are interesting but don’t swat the reader over the head the way that modern technothrillers tend to do. But the best historical novels have the characters drive the history; here, though, it is the history that drives the characters. V2 is more than worth it for the history --- particularly the hidden history of the WAAF --- but Harris can’t bring the characters up to that high standard.
... another page-turner ... Mr. Harris is a master of technical and historical detail, as evidenced by his extensive bibliography, and takes the reader effortlessly through several back stories throughout the book that add to the development of the two main characters ... The mood and setting of the time are also excellently capture by the author, from the tension of Londoners digging through the rubble of an attack while wondering where the next missile will strike to the live for today mentality of the German rocket troops who secretly know they are losing the war ... While the plot heads to a seeming crescendo, it almost seems like the author pulls his final punches and rather quickly heads into the somewhat anti-climactic post-script. There are several interesting side stories teased along about the eventual fate of the German rocket scientists as America and Russia rush to secure the remaining V-2s and all the associated plans and materials, including the scientists, but the remainder of the book doesn’t have a definitive conclusion ... Overall, with its attention to detail and swift narrative, fans of Mr. Harris’ previous historical novels will not be disappointed with this work that really captures the feeling of those last desperate months of World War II.
... this is not his best novel ... the central thread of the novel turns out to lead nowhere in particular. Along the way we meet the conventional cast of Second World War novels ... the twist is signalled far too clearly to come as a surprise. The scrupulous reconstruction of the wartime environment, and careful attention to the engineering detail, is all well done, but there is still a keen sense of déjâ vu. The choice of the V2 as the peg on which to hang the novel is less understandable than, say, the Enigma machine which Harris drew on twenty-five years ago, and which really did make a major contribution to the Allied war effort.
... In Graf’s chapters we follow the exploits of a man haunted by his past and now determined to achieve the greater good, even if it means risking his life. For a while he feels like one of the rockets, 'launched on a fixed trajectory, impossible to recall, hurtling to a point that was preordained.' When he finds the courage to go it alone and betray his superiors, the novel builds in tension. Kay’s equally gripping sections track a woman who begins as a victim in love and ends up a tough and resourceful operative in control in hostile situations. On this occasion Harris fails to deliver any of his trademarks twists. However, V2 still manages to be a superlative historical thriller, one that is well researched, deftly plotted and expertly paced.
While Kay’s story supposedly has the urgency of a people under attack — real casualties are listed for emphasis — her tale is a bit wooden. There’s the privileged background, the memories of Cambridge, and the inevitable winning over of her skeptical colleagues. It’s fun, in a clockwork kind of way, and long before the two meet, the outcome is obvious ... It’s not that Harris downplays history. His work is clearly meticulously researched, with everything from the new rocket’s specs to the atrocities committed to create it in an underground factory. When he’s writing about the new hardware, he’s at his most poetic ... there’s a softness in V2, a sentimentality. This is history from a distance. His characters feel more real when they’re working out the equations that will make a missile fly or fall than when they’re fleeing a double agent or a misfiring rocket. Maybe that makes this an ideal read for the times, but it also makes Harris’s latest novel a bit of a disappointment, its expected explosion a squib.
Crosscutting between those launching the rockets and those on the receiving end proves to be a superb narrative device, as Harris juxtaposes the engineers at work (scientists more than warriors) against their targets on the ground ... Reminiscent of the multiple stories about the Bletchley Park code breakers, Harris’ novel combines fascinating technical detail with a wartime drama that finds human ambiguity on both sides of the battlefield.