A review by tachyondecay
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

adventurous emotional tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


This is my last review of 2022, albeit not the last book I read in 2022 (I am quite behind on writing reviews). But this is a high note to end this year’s reviews on. Last year, I read The Rose Code and fell in love with Kate Quinn’s lush historical prose. Or should I say fell in love again? I didn’t mention this in my review of The Rose Code, but I had read one of Quinn’s earlier novels, Daughters of Rome, eleven year prior, and I had greatly enjoyed that work as well. So when I picked up The Diamond Eye, I had high expectations—all of which were met.

Mila Pavlichenko really was a sniper for the Soviet Army during World War II. She is credited with 309 kills, and after being injured in the line of duty, she ended up as a spokesperson for the Soviet Union. She toured the United States, where she met Eleanor Roosevelt, among others. Quinn’s is a fictional retelling of Mila’s life, from her early days as a young, separated mother and researcher to the steely, formidable sniper touring America. At each turn, Mila finds herself pulled in opposite directions; she constantly has to make choices about who she wants to be in a world that is pretty sure who she already is.

This is a book about war—in fact, it is about the same war featured in The Rose Code and is roughly contemporaneous in many ways. Although Mila is much closer to the front lines than the protagonists of Quinn’s previous novel, she shares with them the obvious quality of being female and being underestimated—harassed, even—by the men around her. The opening scene of the novel is literally a nameless antagonist who is doubtful Mila could truly be “Lady Death,” incredulous that a woman might possibly be such a good sniper. From there, we meet Mila at her youngest: a graduate student, and a researcher, beset by a husband whom she doesn’t love. She resolves to be stronger, and it’s this promise to herself that drives her throughout the entirety of this sprawling story.

Like the best books about war this is a book about relationships more than it is about battle. Mila’s friendships, her romantic dalliances, and her rivalries and antagonisms, all of these come alive as Quinn sketches out her life leading a sniper platoon in the Soviet Army. I don’t know much about the Eastern Front; like most Canadians, I grew up on very Americanized (occasionally British-centric) stories of World War II. Drawing on Mila’s memoir as well contemporary accounts, Quinn does a good job (in my opinion) of showcasing everyday attitudes of Russian and Ukrainian people, especially peasants and other farmers whose lands were trampled over as the Germans invaded. There is a notable scene wherein Mila lines up for a shot at her opposite number in the dead of night. As she does so, she reflects on the fact that he, too, has a family waiting for him back in Germany. Then she calmly squeezes her trigger.

In this way, Quinn captures the awful paradox at the heart of warfare. The cognitive dissonance required to take that shot, knowing it will end the life of another human. The fact that Mila is capable of that should dispel any sexist ideas that men are intrinsically more barbarous, more violent than women. It’s a matter of training, of belief, of making a decision to become that kind of person, a killer. Mila’s ambivalence over that title, over her nickname of Lady Death, is palpable throughout the novel. She doesn’t want to be a hero, doesn’t care to be lauded—she was there to prove herself to herself, to her son, to step out from her husband’s shadow.

As much as I enjoyed the scenes of Mila as a sniper, I also enjoyed her time in America and her budding friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Once again, Quinn demonstrates her remarkable skill at helping readers empathize with very different types of people. Through her omniscient narrator, Quinn can show us both Mila and Eleanor’s reactions to meeting each other for the first time—the misconceptions, the stereotypes, etc., all of which gradually dissolve over the course of Mila’s tour, leading to the nascent bond that becomes the crux of the final act of the novel.

There is an intensity and an intimacy to The Diamond Eye. I loved The Rose Code for its mathematical aspects and the role played by female friendship. This book feels colder, sharper, more isolated than that one. Female friendship is present but only barely (and the same might be said for math). Rather, this is a book about transformation—of oneself and others. This is a book about how we create heroes, how we build myths from the ground up, and how those myths and heroes just want peace and quiet of their own.

If you have enjoyed anything of Quinn’s in the past or enjoy deeply personal historical fiction based on real people, then The Diamond Eye is for you.

Originally posted at Kara.Reviews.