Mike Perry is a novelist and former special operations history writer for SOFREP. Here is his review of Steven Hunter’s “Sniper’s Honor.”
I first became aware of the fictional sniper Bob Lee Swagger when watching the movie “Shooter,” starring Mark Wahlberg as Swagger. Over time, my interest grew; I wanted to know about this famous creation of author Stephen Hunter. So I ended up reading “Sniper’s Honor,” and entered into the world of intrigue and action as experienced by Swagger.
The story switches back and forth within two timelines, the first as modern day with Swagger and the second with the hero of the book, World War II Russian sniper Ludmilla Petrova. And I must say, it took me for a ride I thoroughly enjoyed.
It begins with a hooded Petrova stalking German prey in the ruins of Stalingrad. Once she achieves her kill, the Germans catch a glimpse of her. She is unlike anything they’ve ever seen. As she rises in the distance, her hood comes off, and they see the long, flowing blonde hair of a woman already feared and named ‘Die Weiss Hexe,’ German for ‘The White Witch.’
As she disappears into the battle, the story turns to the present day, with the famous Bob Lee Swagger sitting on the front porch of his horse ranch, retired and contemplating the ghosts of his past while dealing with the one constant of men like him who have seen and done so much: boredom. That is until he receives an email from an old friend, the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent, Kathy Reilly.
Her questions are unusual. They involve sniping. What kind of sniper rifle did the Russians use in World War II? What kind of scope? Where was this used? He soon learns she has stumbled onto an intriguing mystery: an old magazine from 1943 and a photograph of women snipers of the Eastern Front, four of them with arms locked together, tunics covered in ribbons.
One of them stands out. She looks like a model. Her beauty is not even approachable by the other three. ‘The White Witch,’ Ludmilla Petrova, or ‘Mili’ as she was affectionately known. And mysteriously, that’s where her story seems to end. In identical magazines, Reilly finds her picture has been cropped out, a victim ‘disappeared’ by Stalin’s propaganda. All follow-up attempts made by searching the Internet reveal nothing. It’s as if she never existed.
This spikes Swagger’s interest. He wants to know more. Russian female snipers were a celebrated lot, and his curiosity regarding why one was deliberately confined to anonymity soon finds him on a plane to Moscow to meet Reilly. Yet, unbeknownst to him, his search will involve risking his life for the answers as an assassin tracks him.
He finds that she disappeared sometime in mid-1944 in the Ukraine, specifically, the Carpathian Mountains. She’d been on assignment to kill an SS Obergruppenführer (major general), Hans Groedl, a ruthless Nazi doctor notorious for committing atrocities. He is served by an SS police battalion made up of Islamic soldiers that ambush Petrova and her Partisan protectors. She survives the attempt and heads into the mountains where she is befriended by two men, one known as a teacher, and the other a peasant.
Swagger is convinced she never got the chance to kill Groedl and he wants to see the lay of the land where it was to take place. By now, he finds himself obsessing over her, wanting to find a conclusive answer. He’s still unaware he is being tailed by an assassin. Through a chance discovery, though, he finds proof that everything he assumed about Petrova was wrong.
She made the shot.
Petrova worked herself to within lethal range and once there, camouflaged by the forest, laid her sights upon a man she was convinced was Groedl. After pulling the trigger, she got away. Afterward, while the SS enacted reprisals, she found herself high in the mountains under fire from a German parachute unit and was taken prisoner. The commander of the unit, Von Drehle, soon determined who she was and just how valuable. The events unfurl quickly as a massive Soviet offensive launches in the distance.
Von Drehle offers to execute the White Witch before the SS gets ahold of her. She grants him permission.
Swagger’s investigation soon helps him discover what rifle she used and the cave in which it was hidden with an arms cache. There, he and Reilly finally realize they must make a stand against the approaching assassin and attempt to lay an ambush. After springing it, they find just how deeply the story of the White Witch runs. It involves the current Russian government, an anti-Semitic politician, and the infamous Zyklon B—the gas used to kill Jews during World War II.
As for the White Witch, at last Swagger, it seems, finds his answer. Sort of. He soon returns home to his ranch with the problems of the present day taken care of and tries to put the White Witch’s memory to rest. But he can’t. Something keeps pulling at his soul, a feeling that she survived. But it’s just a hunch he can’t prove. That is, until he receives a phone call from Kathy Reilly. How Petrova ended up will surprise the reader.
I don’t want to give any more away, as I believe readers of such action-adventure novels should find out for themselves. Once I finished the book, I reviewed the story and can say that Hunter knows his stuff. The characters are well-developed and the descriptions of combat and weapons used are accurate. You find yourself cheering not only for Petrova, but Swagger as well, though you may feel a bit of pity as he comes across as getting up there in years, not able to pull off the feats he once used to.
It doesn’t matter. The White Witch’s exploits make up for that. She proves to be every bit as cunning, determined, and skilled as any of the real women snipers of the war. Hunter could have written the whole novel just involving her and it would still come across as a strong story.
I plan on reading more of Stephen Hunter’s works on Bob Lee Swagger in the future. “Sniper’s Honor” is a fairly new release, and should provide an exciting journey for Swagger fans, old and new.