Book: The Diamond Eye
Author: Kate Quinn
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Mila talks to her friend Vika about her dissertation, and numerous other non-man related topics are discussed by female characters throughout the book.
Content Warnings: War, PTSD, alcoholism, blood & gore, mentions of sexual assault, sexism, emotional abuse, death, grief, violence, mentions of adult/minor relationship, gun violence, murder, medical trauma, stalking, sexual harassment, toxic relationship, sexual assault, child marriage, forced marriage
After loving both The Rose Code, and The Alice Network when I read them last year, Kate Quinn’s latest release The Diamond Eye immediately went to the top of my radar, particularly when I found out it was based on the life of a real woman sniper from WWII. I’m glad to say that I enjoyed The Diamond Eye just as much as I did The Rose Code and The Alice Network, and I’m once again impatiently waiting for Kate Quinn’s next book to come out (I will probably end up reading The Huntress soon to fill the void, as that’s the only one left of her WWII books that I’ve yet to read). Here is a short synopsis of the book:
In the snowbound city of Kiev, wry and bookish history student Mila Pavlichenko organizes her life around her library job and her young son – but Hitler’s invasion of Russia sends her on a different path. Given a rifle and sent to join the fight, Mila must forge herself from studious girl to deadly sniper – a lethal hunter of Nazis known as Lady Death. When news of her 300th kill makes her a national heroine, Mila finds herself torn from the bloody battlefields of the eastern front and sent to America on a goodwill tour.
Still reeling from war wounds and devastated by loss, Mila finds herself isolated and lonely in the glittering world of Washington, DC – until an unexpected friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and an even more unexpected connection with a silent fellow sniper offer the possibility of happiness. But when an old enemy from Mila’s past joins forces with a deadly new foe lurking in the shadows, Lady Death finds herself battling her own demons and enemy bullets in the deadliest duel of her life.
Based on a true story, The Diamond Eye is a haunting novel of heroism born of desperation, of a mother who became a soldier, of a woman who found her place in the world and changed the course of history forever.
As with all of Kate Quinn’s other novels, I loved the narration of this one, I’m so glad that Kate Quinn has Saskia Maarleveld as the narrator for all her books because she just does such a wonderful job. Once again Maarleveld does a myriad of different accents (largely Russian of course for this book) and she does an impeccable job with all of them, and reads in such a engaging way that you can’t help but be drawn into the story. I swear I would listen to anything if Saskia narrated it, she’s that good!
Where both The Rose Code and The Alice Network had multiple main characters, Mila is of course the star of the show in this one and I have to say, I LOVED HER. Her wry sense of humour was immediately endearing to me, and I loved how fierce and determined she was, & how skilled she was at her job. Mila is such a complex, interesting character, she’s fierce and ruthless when she needs to be but she’s also a history nerd with a cracking sense of humour who just wants to make the world a better place for her son, and I think Quinn got the dichotomy between sniper and student just right. I definitely came away from the book wanting to learn more about the real Mila, because Quinn’s version was just so fascinating. It was so weird thinking throughout the book that Mila was the same age at the time as I am now, I definitely could not imagine going through everything that she went through.
Quinn also has a very colourful cast of supporting characters, who in this case were actually largely real people. I really loved Mila’s friend Lena Paily (this is probably spelt wrong, I’m very sorry but I’ve only heard it said and not seen it written down), she was so funny and added a good dash of humour to the story as well as just having a lovely friendship with Mila, I loved seeing how they supported each other in the male dominated world of the military. Quinn always does such a good job of portraying female friendships in her books and this one was no exception.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a particular standout for me also, I loved seeing how her and Mila’s friendship blossomed (and yes, that part is real, they were friends in real life!), their scenes were some of my favourites in the book and the part where they discussed Mila’s fear of failure is one that really stuck out for me. I don’t really know a huge amount about Eleanor Roosevelt (I didn’t do a massive amount of American History in school, and whilst I did do some in Uni, we discussed FDR more than we did Eleanor) but this book definitely had me wanting to know more.
On the flip side, Mila’s first husband, Alexei was the ACTUAL WORST. He’s emotionally abusive to Mila, very heavily implied to be a child groomer (He and Mila married when she was only 15 because he got her pregnant, and throughout the book, he’s mentioned as being attracted to “very young women”) and I just wanted to hit him every time he appeared. When Mila was finally able to stand up to Alexei, I practically cheered!
As with all the other Kate Quinn books I’ve read, this book follows two different timelines, though the “past” and “present” timelines are much closer together in this book than in any of her others: the “past” follows Mila in 1941 and early 1942 during her time fighting on the Eastern Front and the “present” follows her in the summer and autumn of 1942 during her American goodwill tour in DC. I much preferred the war storyline to the one in DC, as it was more action packed and we got to see Mila’s skills as a sniper. The DC storyline was kind of slow to get going, though it did get better towards the end.
The DC storyline also heavily relies on a lot of fictionalisation which I didn’t love. Whilst the storyline following Mila’s war years is largely based in fact, the DC storyline follows a fabricated assassination attempt on President Roosevelt which I just felt was largely unnecessary as it was so clearly made up and honestly Mila’s life was exciting enough without it. There were parts of it I enjoyed towards the end, and I did not see the twist with the “marksman” who follows Mila throughout the book coming (especially that Alexei was the one who was able to work out his identity) but generally it just felt over the top to me and I didn’t feel like the book really needed it. I really didn’t like the marksman either which made his chapters a bit annoying to read, all I could think when listening to them was how much of an idiot he was for underestimating Mila.
Quinn had clearly done her research, I love that so much of the story was pulled directly from Mila’s memoir and that she put so much effort into making sure that the historical detail was right. I appreciated that in her author’s note (which I was so glad was actually included in the audiobook version of this book as it wasn’t in either The Rose Code or The Alice Network) explained where she had pulled from the real history and what bits she had fictionalised, the large majority of it really was taken from Mila’s memoir, which was so cool!
I really enjoyed Quinn’s writing, she created such a vivid setting of the Eastern Front battlefields in WWII and her writing is so engaging, it really pulled me into the story. I didn’t love the repetitive chapter intros though, whilst I appreciate the idea behind the “official/unofficial” memoir, showing what Mila really thought as opposed to the Soviet propaganda version, it got a little dull after a while.
There was lots of action in this book which I liked, Quinn was very good at portraying the horrors of war on the Eastern Front, and I loved seeing Mila in action as a sniper, I know some reviewers said they found the sniping sections overly detailed, but I really loved it, and it made sense to me that Mila would be that detailed about it, as the book is narrated in first person as if Mila is telling you her own story.
As with Quinn’s other books, this one does also have a helping of romance in it, and as expected, it was not my favourite part of the book. Lyonya and Mila have a sweet relationship, and I was crushed for her by what happened to him, but I can’t say I would have massively missed him if he hadn’t been there. Kostia is also really sweet and supportive (and the fact that he typed and bound her dissertation for her definitely had me swooning) but I did roll my eyes slightly that Mila ended up involved with both of them. I guess I can’t be too mad as Quinn did take that detail from her memoir, but it’s just so cliche in a book that a woman with two close male friends in her life would end up having both of them be interested in her. I do kind of wish Kostia and Mila had stayed friends, just because it would have been nice to have them be platonic sniper partners only and to have that intense connection not necessarily be a romantic one, but they did at least have good chemistry so it’s probably more a me just not being that into fictional romances thing than anything else.
The emotions definitely hit hard in this one, Quinn does not shy away from the horrors of war and the trauma that Mila experiences, which I appreciated and thought was really well done. I also appreciated that she did balance the horror with the levity of some humour, with the scene where Mila rips into a male journalist for asking a sexist question at a press conference during her US tour being a particular highlight.
The chapters were generally quite short which I appreciated as it kept me engaged with the story and kept it ticking along nicely.
Quinn hinted at a couple of potential ideas for new books in her author’s note which had me incredibly excited: if she really is going to write a book about Vika, the tank driving ballerina who plays a minor role in this book, I would be THERE FOR IT. Her talking about “British Intelligence, Russian Blood and American Steel” also suggested that there might be a book from her focusing on the American side of the war (as we’ve already had British Intelligence in The Rose Code and now Russian Blood with The Diamond Eye).
Obviously the timing of this book’s release is a little unfortunate given the current war between Russia and Ukraine, though that’s not Quinn’s fault. There are some parallels between the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and it was interesting to hear the conversations about Ukrainian vs Russian identity between Mila and Fartanov, Mila who is staunchly Russian in her identity, despite being Ukrainian by birth as she does not see any difference between Russia and Ukraine, and Fartanov who is staunchly Ukrainian. Those conversations definitely had me wondering how Mila would feel about the current invasion if she was alive today.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Diamond Eye! I loved Mila, I thought she was a fantastic main character and I so want to learn more about the real Mila now, I loved the friendship between Eleanor and Mila, I loved wartime storyline, and as always, the narration was fabulous. I think had it not been for the fictional assassination storyline, this book could easily have been a five-star one, but as it was, it was still a fantastic book which highlighted the contributions of a lesser known historical woman fantastically. I can’t wait for Kate Quinn’s next book, whenever that comes out!
My Rating: 4/5
My next review will be of Portrait of A Thief, by Grace D. Li, which I’ve already finished, so it’s just a case of finding the time to write the review up!