I'll Tell You No Lies is a YA historical novel about a Soviet-pilot defector who's brought to the U.S. to be interrogated about Soviet technology. On an Army base in New York, Maksym is interrogated about his loyalty (once a traitor always a traitor?) and his knowledge of new aircraft technology.
But when the American officers discover that Maksym has been lying to them, the ever-present threat of danger comes to a head. He turns to Shelby Blaine, the daughter of the Commander who's accusing him of being a Soviet spy.
I received I'll Tell You No Lies as a digital ARC from Netgalley, and it was the one that I was most eager to get. I was thrilled to see it on the "shelf" finally. I'm a sucker for historical romances, really of any time period and culture. I'm always all-in. I typically don't read a lot of YA historical, but I really love WWII novels that focus on the Soviet Union (probably because my favorite historical novel is The Bronze Horseman and I'm always trying to find books like it).
I had really high hopes for this novel, but I found myself underwhelmed. It if was longer (because it felt very short), I probably would've even been bored. There are three main issues with this book.
1. The main character has zero personality and just flits all over with no direction of her own (just going where people point her and figuring out nothing). The main plot of this story is Shelby trying to figure out the truth.
The author seems to think it's about Shelby helping Maksym, but that really doesn't happen much. Rather, she spends the whole book trying to figure out what the truth is about Maksym and the people around them, but she doesn't do any investigating on her own. She simply listens to all the lies and believes every new one....
Another character, who she knows she can't trust, points her in a direction that could be dangerous, and she just goes anyway, because the character wanted her to. And nothing happens, because there's no tension in this book.
2. That brings me to my second point: there is zero tension and the entire plot is just people talking. And despite the title, the book is just characters continuously lying to each other until the end.
NOTHING HAPPENS. And Shelby has nothing to do with the minor things that do happen. The two incidents that could drive tension happen off page, and Shelby only learns about them after the fact when there are no stakes anymore.
If this went on any longer, AKA if the book wasn't so short, I would've been really frustrated and bored. All the "twists" are just being told a new lie. It goes back and forth so many times with Shelby being told something new and believing what she's told without doing any leg-work. There's nothing happening. It's a boring three days.
3. Lastly, the relationships have no substance. This is true of Shelby's "relationship" with Maksym, but also Shelby's interactions with her own father and others around her. Everything is really shallow, and there are moments that just make no sense. For example, Shelby's father is really absent, but that's realistic because of his job and responsibilities. But when it comes down to the moment that he can show some concern and depth toward his daughter, he doesn't. He learns the truth of what she's been up to... and he leaves... that was incredibly underwhelming and unrealistic.
Shelby's relationship with Maksym is so shallow. It's only over three days, but it happens so quick, even within those three days. She has this defector Russian soldier who's on the run... and she just... kisses him with no build-up. I'm all for "he might murder me but he has a cute dimple," but there needs to be some actual struggle over that. She doesn't seem concerned either way.
To add another point, she's a 1950s single eighteen year and she does doesn't really even think about how taboo it is to have a man alone in her house, let alone a Russian spy who threatens to kill her.
Even when it comes to this relationship, Shelby is the one who is TOLD why Maksym might've trusted her in the first place. She doesn't connect the dots as to why he might've gone to her. Worse than that, she doesn't even see the dots. Everything is so shallow and boring. There's nothing about either character that excites me, and they're certainly not interesting together.
I know that there's a belief that YA books (and romance) are a muted version of adult romance. Of course that's typically true when it comes to sexual aspects (SIDE EYE at whoever decided to market SJM as YA), but the relationships and feelings should be just as visceral. There needs to be a build-up in the plot and romance that leaves the reader on-edge, but that doesn't happen here.
Shelby has no autonomy and doesn't lead the novel. She doesn't do anything concrete for Maksym or the plot. In fact, she makes really dumb choices that end up having zero impact on the book at all. Which is the book's fatal flaw. It's fine for a character to make dumb decisions, but they have to have some sort of effect on the book.
Lastly, this didn't feel like a historical novel. Yes, the author says it's a Soviet time period and refers to that idea of the "Red Scare" where everyone might be a traitor, but it didn't feel that way. It didn't invoke the 1950s. Shelby sounds and reads like a modern teenager (for example, she wasn't worried about decorum or speaking/getting into the car/meeting with random men), the whole vibe of the book felt modern. You could take this entire novel, delete the words "Soviet," "Russian," and "Germany," and plop anything else in there. Maksym could've been an alien, for how blasé the time period felt.
The single reference to long skirts and saddle shoes just didn't do it.
I really wanted this book to be great. It was so excited when I found it on Netgalley, and checked so many times to see if it landed on my shelf. Unfortunately, it was a big let down. I gave it two stars on Goodreads. That feels harsh, because there was nothing overtly bad about the novel, it just wasn't good. But a three, to me, means I enjoyed it or aspects of it, and I didn't really enjoy this one.
It was short, which kept it from being frustrating, but there was nothing in there that kept me hooked. It's such a bummer.