Sunday, July 19, 2020

#BookReview: The Night Witches by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun

Historical Graphic Novel
War Era Fiction

As the German Army smashes deep into the Soviet Union and the defenders of the Motherland retreat in disarray, a new squadron arrives at a Russian forward airbase. Like all night bomber units, they will risk fiery death flying obsolete biplanes against the invader--but unlike the rest, these pilots and navigators are women. In the lethal skies above the Eastern Front, they will become a legend--known to friend and foe alike as the Night Witches.

With casualties mounting and the conflict devouring more and more of her comrades, Lieutenant Anna Kharkova quickly grows from a naive teenager to a hardened combat veteran. The Nazi foe is bad enough, but the terrifying power of her country's secret police makes death in battle almost preferable. Badly wounded and exiled from her own people, Anna begins an odyssey that will take her from the killing fields of World War II to the horrific Soviet punishment camps--and at the top of the world, high above the freezing Arctic Ocean, this Night Witch finds she has one last card to play.

My first thought on Garth Ennis’ The Night Witches was a question. Would the story fall closer to Kate Quinn’s The Huntress or Aimie K. Runyan’s Daughters of the Night Sky? My second thought was to chastise myself for assuming the three-volume collection would resemble either, but I suppose such comparison should be expected when one reads as much as I do.

Ennis’ The Night Witches is comprised of three volumes: The Night Witches, Motherland, and The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova. These books were initially released as standalone volumes 1, 6, and 8 in Ennis’ Battlefields Series and follow the experiences of their fictional heroine from 1942 to 1964. I am not familiar with the series, but I was delighted to discover Anna’s collective story published in a single release. Graphic novels often appear in segmented installments, but I felt this formatting allowed me to understand and appreciate Anna’s character development in a way I wouldn’t have if I’d been forced to track down each of the stories independently.

That out of the way, I caution readers from assuming the collection centers on the famed female Night Bomber Regiment. The first volume of the collection covers the tactical bombing techniques employed by the unit, as well as the impact of PTSD on both sides of the conflict. It is the most graphic of the collected volumes and presents fascinating questions about retaining humanity amid the carnage and violence of war. That said, it is the only volume to center on the Night Witches as Anna’s story extends beyond the unit’s existence.

Volume two tackles advances in both aircraft technology and warfare as well as sexism in the military. The impact of personal loss and PTSD also played a role in this volume, and I liked how it picked up on the themes of its predecessor. Though the story is very much centered on Anna, I found myself drawn to Colonel Golovyachev, Zoya, and Mouse. The supporting characters of volume one were interesting, but Ennis branches out in this installment, allowing the supporting cast to develop genuinely compelling arcs of their own.

Though I appreciated both volumes one and two of this collection, I admit volume three my favorite. Anna’s capture allowed Ennis to take the story to a Nazi prison camp, a detail I would have liked anyway but loved for its introduction of Chris Cohen, a character who singlehandedly expanded the political scope of the entire collection. Anna’s subsequent treatment by Soviet counterintelligence is equally illuminating, and I liked the political fluidity this episode illustrated between WWII and the Korean War. I admit that Anna’s return to captivity in a Siberian punishment camp during the finale scenes of the volume made hard reading, but even here, I was touched by what this chapter revealed about both Anna and Mouse.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Publisher
Read: July 18, 2020


  1. GASP. I can only wonder what the visuals brought to the heft of this story. Must explore further.

    1. I liked the edgy quality of the drawings a great deal. ;)