The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein

History Mystery

1940. Facing a seemingly endless war, fifteen-year-old Louisa Adair wants to fight back, make a difference, do something-anything to escape the Blitz and the ghosts of her parents, who were killed by enemy action. But when she accepts a position caring for an elderly German woman in the small village of Windyedge, Scotland, it hardly seems like a meaningful contribution. Still, the war feels closer than ever in Windyedge, where Ellen McEwen, a volunteer driver with the Royal Air Force, and Jamie Beaufort-Stuart, a flight leader for the 648 Squadron, are facing a barrage of unbreakable code and enemy attacks they can’t anticipate.

Their paths converge when a German pilot lands in Windyedge under mysterious circumstances and plants a key that leads Louisa to an unparalleled discovery: an Enigma machine that translates German code. Louisa, Ellen, and Jamie must work together to unravel a puzzle that could turn the tide of the war—but doing so will put them directly in the cross-hairs of the enemy

After reading two books in the intense Code Name Verity series, I needed a break. Turns out it was a longer break than I anticipated but here I am again, ready to sign up for whatever you’re going to dish out.

At first I was leery of the descriptions I read of it being a Young Adult book as I associate this mainly with high school (14-18) age characters but this is an earlier era when perhaps people were a touch more mature by then. Plus there are actually two characters of this age range as well as 19 year old Flight Leader Jamie Beaufort-Stuart of whom we saw and heard a bit in the first two novels. And most of the world was at war which ages people emotionally.

Jamie is certainly feeling aged by his time in the air. Flying first in the Battle of Britain and now over the North Sea against the Luftwaffe, he’s lost many friends and squadron mates. He’s also fighting his commander who is a by-the-book man even if the book is tattered and useless. Louisa Adair is a fifteen year old on her own as both parents have been killed – her father when his merchant marine ship was torpedoed and her mother due to a bomb in London. Louisa knows it won’t be easy for her to find work due both to her age as well as her race. Jane Warner – who was actually born Johanna von Arnim – hasn’t lived in Germany for decades and definitely doesn’t share the views of the Nazis but she’s eighty-two and needs help getting to her niece’s home in Scotland near an air base. Ellen McEwen has successfully hidden her Traveler identity from those around her and is now a JOB working in Windyedge. All of them are keen to do their bit to help Britain but the way they find to do that will put them in greater danger than ever.

As with the other two books, this one took a while to take off. In fact, it took longer than the other two by far. There is the usual setting up the plot and characters to wade through but having three first person narrators actually tended to pull me out of the story. I would need to stop and make sure I knew who was telling each chapter and reorient myself to their POV. Some of the chapters – especially during one action sequence – only had a paragraph or two and flipped views quickly. What should have been a tense, on-the-edge-of-my-seat scene got chopped up instead of keeping me on the edge and desperate to know what happens next.

Then the Enigma machine enters the story. I know something about Enigma machines because it’s 2020 and I’ve read and learned about them for over 40 years but these characters know nothing about them. And yet they quickly work out what it is, how to use it, and then use it. After a while I began to quirk my eyebrow that it would be this easy for them. The way they get their hands on it is just one of those “truth might be stranger than fiction but this is on the edge of far fetched” things.

Still, I enjoyed getting to know these characters, seeing them interact even if at times this was painful due to Ellen’s and Louisa’s personal reasons to be considered “outsiders” in mainstream British society. Ellen realizes that she has it easier as she can pass for a person the people around her will accept while Louisa can’t hide her darker skin. All of these main characters desperately want to aid the war effort and most have personal loss driving them. Their self justification reasons to keep the Enigma machine rather than “passing it up the chain of command” make sense in that light even if it’s hard to believe that they actually thought these things must be thick on the ground at every RAF base and it wouldn’t be missed.

When the story really took off for me though is when a certain character who stars in the first book appears – in disguise – and completely steals the show. I loved, loved, loved this section and wanted it to go on for another 200 pages. Fortunately the rest of the plot also picked up and it was a quick zip through some heartache – well, this is set during a war – to the end. I know what will happen to some of these characters but I do hope that we will see more of Ellen and Louisa as they take on new challenges during the war.

~Jayne