Michele Lang, Dark Victory, ISBN: 9780765330451, Tor, January 2012.
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
Dark Victory, the middle volume of Michele Lang’s Lady Lazarus trilogy about a supernaturally-inflected World War II, delicately explores the themes of risk, fate, and resistance, asking how victory is defined in a profoundly unequal contest. Yet its thematic complexity is not matched by similar depth in plotting or characterization. The resulting novel is thoughtful but not particularly absorbing or memorable.
Magdalena Lazarus, the orphaned Hungarian-Jewish protagonist, has the power to return from the dead, like the narrator of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” who is killed in the Holocaust but comes back to mock her murderers: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”
In a Europe where magical beings live side by side with normal humans, Magda’s sister Gisele has a vision of the coming genocide and her immortal sister’s death. Magda sets out to prevent her sister’s prophecies from coming true. When Dark Victory starts, she has captured Asmodel, a fallen angel allied with Hitler, but Germany is poised to invade Poland. When Asmodel lures Gisele from Axis-leaning Hungary to war-torn Poland, Magda and her angelic lover follow. They will witness the horror of the Nazi invasion and navigate the divisions amongst the resisters.
Unfortunately, Magda’s first-person narration is hackneyed, full of formulaic phrasing such as, “I was no innocent, not any longer. I would not hesitate to kill…” (195), “He had resolved to die with honor,” (204) and “Now I had nothing left to lose.” (304) During the climactic battle, Lang fails to create a sense of real danger. The cast is full of stereotypes: a child too innocent for the world, a righteous man who exudes holiness, a cautious official turned courageous fighter. Asmodel is a stock antagonist. There are vivid exceptions: Magda’s patriotic Transylvanian boss Bathory, the gutsy and funny spy Eva, and Churchill, whose cameo brings the book’s main theme to the fore.
He and other romantic characters consider it victory enough to die fighting. Magda, who is a woman, Jewish, and an orphan responsible for others, finds the powerful Churchill inspiring but too cavalier. “I prefer to think of survival as the ultimate victory,” she informs him. (25) She appeals to a resistance member to ignore the “eminent old men” who “left you… in the slaughterhouse to sacrifice you for the cause. I come here to say, ‘live.'” (150) It’s a powerful theme, given the Nazis’ intention of completely eliminating the Jewish population, and all the more so because the romantics are given strong arguments; Gisele’s seemingly suicidal mission saves lives, and Magda must risk all to protect her family and her people. Though risking everything is a different proposition when death isn’t permanent, as several characters point out.
Magda’s experience of the afterlife leaves little doubt that God is real, and chooses not to intervene. Throughout Dark Victory, characters wonder whether they are fighting fate, whether all these horrors are meant to be. Though not observant, Magda believes in God and is haunted by this thought. Lang skillfully integrates religious references into her magic system and Magda’s affirmation of the value of her soul, a “candle-flame” which will return to God undefiled, is moving. However, the religious aspects of Magda’s magic and the importance of angels to the plot make other fantastic elements, such as werewolves and dwarves, feel artificial.
Despite its fierce, complex message and harrowing scenes of death and renewal, Dark Victory is undermined throughout by clichés. Given its emphasis on survival as victory, I wish Lang had more deeply developed the characters fighting for their lives.