Click here to read reviewer Myra Junyk's take on Hornet Flight.
Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a World War II spy novel fan. There's just something about the old-time feel of these books that makes them much more interesting than modern-day ones. So when I saw Ken Follett's Hornet Flight in a used book store, I had to pick it up. I loved his previous novel, Jackdaws, and figured this one would be good, too. I was definitely right about that. Only a few things mar what would otherwise be a terrific, impossible-to-put-down thriller. As it stands, it's good despite these flaws.
June, 1941. Denmark is under German rule. Thankfully for the residents there, the Germans haven't really cracked down too much so life hasn't changed that drastically for them. The Danish island of Sande houses a secret military complex that could be the key to the British holding out. Britain has been attempting to bomb Germany into submission - they don't have any other option - but their flights have been massacred by a German Air Force that seems to know they're coming. What does the Sande installation have to do with that? Will young Harald Olufsen have to be the one to get word to the British? And how will he do this?
The major thing wrong with the book is actually from a marketing point of view: the title and the blurb give way too much away. It makes the first part of the book drag considerably, considering you know a few too many things without even having started the book (and a spoiler warning for those who don't actually read the cover copy, though the title still gives it away):
All the rest is just details. While they are wonderful details, it hurts the narrative to know so much about it going in.
- Harald will be the one who has to finish the job of getting the information to the British
- He'll have to fly an outdated Hornet out of Denmark somehow in order to complete the mission. When Harald first sees the Hornet, very early in the book, we know immediately what's going to happen.
Follett does a good job setting up the main characters, but the plotting is too obvious and one of the storylines goes nowhere. Digby Hoare, a man who works in Churchill's office, has been tasked with finding out why the German Air Force is waiting for the British bombers all the time. Follett sets up a potential romance with Hermia Mount, who is able to look past Hoare's fake leg and see the true man inside, but her fiance, Arne Olufsen, is still in Denmark. While Hoare tries, nothing ever really happens with the relationship; it just seems like so much filler in a book that's already over 500 pages.
That doesn't mean the characters aren't interesting, though. Harald is a typical 18-year-old schoolboy with hormones to match, into jazz and horrified at what the Nazis are doing around the world - especially at the thought of what they might eventually do to Denmark. Hermia is an English woman who lived in Denmark until the Nazis invaded and wants to do as much as she can for her adopted country.
Peter Flemming is a cop to whom the law means everything, no matter who is actually creating the laws. The Germans are the masters in Denmark now, so he does their bidding. It's even more delicious for him when he stumbles upon the Danish Underground spy ring and it turns out that two of his family's mortal enemies (the Olufsens) are involved. He thinks that if the police were allowed to be harsher on the perpetrators of crime, people would be cowed not commit crimes. But, as Follett usually does with his main villains (at least in the two books I've read), he gives Flemming a more human side as well. His wife has practically become a walking vegetable following a car accident (the results of the trial of the perpetrator feed into his "all criminals should be harshly punished" mindset), and he feels an irresistible attraction to one of his underlings.
Though some of the characters seem a bit thin and there only to play their part in the story, the coincidence-laden plot is the main problem. The character setups are extremely slow, because we already know how the book is ultimately going to turn out; we just don't know how the characters are going to get there. Secondly, as the plot builds to a climax, it's too obvious that Follett is manipulating his characters to appear in the right place at the right time to add tension to the novel. Some of it doesn't seem natural, such as Harald's friend Karen (an aspiring ballerina) having to delay Harald's escape for one day because a virus rips through the ballerina company, giving her a chance to perform for the king. This, of course, gives the bad guys a chance to figure out what's going on and work toward stopping the whole plot.
All that said, it was still almost impossible to put the book down as I became engaged with the characters and wondering what was going to happen next. Follett's prose keeps you riveted, with very few missteps - this despite the fact of the occasional obvious plotting. You do grow to care for some of these characters, and even if their eventual fates seem quite obvious, it's still interesting to read about them.
Put this in your "not good enough to love; not bad enough to hate" folder. There are definitely more pluses than minuses, though not by a wide margin.