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The Hinge of Fate
David L. Robbins's War of the Rats

"You know, if I had my way, I'd send that genius son of a bitch an engraved invitation in iambic pentameter. A challenge in two stanzas to meet me out there alone in the desert....Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We'd stop about twenty paces, we'd get out, and we'd shake hands, and we'd button up, and we'd do battle, just the two of us. And that battle would decide the outcome of the war."

Patton (1976)

If you don't believe that the actions of one person can affect the outcome of a war, may I remind you of Hector and Achilles? Or David and Goliath? Or how about the rival snipers Heinz von Krupp Thorvald and Vasily Zaitsev, who together determined the outcome of the Second World War's battle of Stalingrad?

Never heard of them? Most people haven't. Luckily, we now have David L. Robbins's superb new novel, War of the Rats, to fill us in.


The Stalingrad siege was a six-month-long excursion into hell on earth. It claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and that many again in civilian causalities. There was a lot at stake, and each side needed desperately to come out on top. Germany had already claimed victory against Russia, and defeat at Stalingrad would be so demoralizing that it could lead to its ultimate collapse.

Russia, on the other hand, just needed to survive. No outside invader—not even Napoleon—had ever penetrated this deeply into the country. If the Russians couldn't hold at Stalingrad, Hitler had a route to Moscow.

It's no wonder the ensuing battle was called "the hinge of fate."

Unfortunately for the Germans, it didn't go according to plan. While they favored a blitzkrieg style of engagement that used lightning-quick maneuvers to overwhelm their opponents, the bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets slowed them down enormously. Soon, the two armies were reduced to crawling through the streets like rats (in fact, the German foot soldiers called it Rattenkrieg—the War of the Rats). Building to building, hand to hand: it was a style that favored the Russian soldiers, who were, after all, fighting for their own turf—and it therefore meant that the armies were at least evenly matched enough to draw the engagement out for half a year.

The sluggish advances and subsequent siege heavily favored snipers. And the best Stalingrad sniper—Vasily Zaitsev—was the peasants' Red Baron of his day. A skilled hunter from Siberia, he became so adept at hunting humans that he was ordered to train a group of student snipers. One of the students was a talented female sniper named Tania Chernova, and Zaitsev and Tania fell in love while skirting through the street rubble together.

Soon, Zaitsev's group became so effective that the Germans realized their victory depended on their ability to kill Zaitsev. So they brought in their best sniper from Berlin. But Heinz Thorvald, the opera-loving shooting instructor who could hit a small target from a thousand meters, was only marginally a soldier. "I pull a trigger and people fall down," he says, in War of the Rats. He was a master of the shot, but not of the hunt. So the two snipers were fairly evenly matched. And each sniper knew they were there for one reason—to kill the other.

As you might guess, War of the Rats climaxes with each of the two master snipers trying to get inside the head of the other and out-think him before the final duel. It's something like High Noon on the Russian steppes, but this time the whole town is behind Gary Cooper. And Grace Kelly can fire a gun with the best of them.


One of an avid reader's great delights is watching a young, strong author develop and prosper. While I enjoyed Robbins's first novel Souls To Keep (1998) and found it to be both humorous and spiritual (a rare feat), it didn't begin to prepare me for what Robbins would do in War of the Rats. His second novel seems certain to rank with some of the finest of the genre.

He's a deft storyteller who has learned that the best historical novels use history merely as a backdrop in order to allow human drama to develop in the foreground. It's a rare skill among historical novelists; for every hundred books of historical fiction, a full ninety-eight spend most of their time wallowing in the author's research. Fortunately, Robbins is in the select category, and his research (while superb) doesn't overshadow his novel—it enhances it.

With two books now under his belt, both well-written and with the second one receiving the kind of support most young writers can only dream of, it's only a matter of time before Mr. Robbins's name is recognized as readily as James Clavell's or Tom Clancy's.

—Review by John Porter

Posted August 1, 1999



About the Author

Photo Credit: Doug Childers

David L. Robbins is a former lawyer and freelance writer. His second novel, War of the Rats, was released by Bantam Books on July 13th of this year. His first novel, Souls to Keep, appeared last year and is now available in paperback. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.



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