Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War by Gordon Zuckerman

"The first step in this scheme involves the German families delivering their gold to Switzerland without being discovered.  That would be their problem.  The second step involves the transformation of the gold bullion into gold bearer bonds.  That would be the responsibility of the participating Swiss banking group.  The third step requires our obtaining the U.S. Federal Reserve's and the gold center banks' approval of the terms and conditions of the transaction.  Finally, we must print the bonds and deliver them to the Germans.  That would be our job."

"With you so far," Mike said.

"Then there's the fifth step, where the fun comes in.  It's the part where we siphon off one hundred million dollars of the ownership of the gold."

Mike immediately choked on his drink.  (from The Sentinels: Fortunes of War, page 65)

In the first book of a new series about six friends capitalizing on their extensive knowledge of the way money and greed play a role in creating war, Gordon Zuckerman, a graduate of Harvard Business School, draws heavily upon his studies in banking, international finance, and history.  Zuckerman has taken this knowledge and transformed it into a well-crafted, engaging story of six people who risk their lives for what they believe is right.

In 1932 Berlin, financial adviser Karl von Schagel meets with Germany's most influential industrialists, who plan to use their money to get Hitler elected as chancellor and use him to push their own agenda.  Von Schagel's job is to become Germany's deputy minister of finance and funnel their money to the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party.

At the University of California, Berkeley in 1938, six doctoral candidates unveil what they call "The Power Cycle," a seven-step process that predicts the rise and fall of world powers.  It focuses on corruption, in this case industrialists using their money for political purposes, which played a role in Hitler's rise to power and the start of World War II.  These six students -- the Sentinels -- meet again in 1943, when the German industrialists, recognizing that they no longer have any influence over Hitler, want to transfer $2 billion out of the country.  Thus begins a complicated tale involving the Sentinels forging $100 million in gold bearer bonds in the hopes of preventing a repeat of "The Power Cycle" and funding an independent watchdog organization to identify corruption before it gets out of hand -- an organization they believe could have prevented World War II had it been in existence in 1938.

The Sentinels have the connections that enable them to commit this righteous crime:  Claudine Demaureaux, the mastermind of the scheme, is the daughter of an influential Swiss banker; Jacques Roth is the son of a top French banker; Cecelia Chang is the daughter of a Hong Kong trader and works as an American secret agent helping Japan's enemies convert money into gold and move it into Hong Kong; Mike Stone, Cecelia's boyfriend, is the son of an influential New York banker; Ian Meyer's family runs an well-known auction house in London; and Anthony Garibaldi's family is famous for wine in Italy, and the war has prompted him to snap up land in the Napa Valley to transfer the family business to the States.  When the forged bonds are discovered by the Germans, the Sentinels must fight for their lives -- but they aren't about to give in.

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War covers a lot of ground.  There is a lot of financial talk, but it is explained in a way that simplifies the information without making it dry and boring.  I know next to nothing about the bond markets and the Federal Reserve outside of what I read in the newspaper, and I was able to follow the storyline and actually found it very interesting.  Zuckerman writes plenty of action into the story, from kidnappings to shoot-outs, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering if the Sentinels would make it through unscathed.  There's even some romance, with Jacques having to contend with his feelings for Claudine while juggling a new relationship with an English theater actress.  The romance wasn't necessary and at times slowed down the main plot, but at least it wasn't overdone.  Zuckerman tells the story in the third person, but the characters' thoughts are frequently inserted in italics in the first person, which broke up the narrative and became distracting, but overall, I thought the story was so engaging that I could overlook it.  Zuckerman does a great job juggling the many characters.  He focuses on each character at various points in the novel, emphasizing both their strengths and weaknesses and making it easy to tell them apart.

Zuckerman has written a unique novel about World War II that concentrates on the economics of war, rather than battle scenes or concentration camps.  It really got me thinking about greed and how the lines between businesses and governments can blur, which is relevant to the current state of the economy.  I found the book hard to put down, and I think it would appeal both to those interested in World War II and readers simply looking for a fast-paced read with some war, history, economics, action, and romance thrown into the mix.

Read the first chapter of The Sentinels: Fortunes of War here.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Sentinels: Fortunes of War from Planned Television Arts for review purposes.

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War counts toward the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations.


Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I'm glad that you mention they were able to break everything down without it being dry and boring. I still would thin twice before tackling this one.

Blodeuedd said...

I am glad to hear there wasn't too much dry financial talk cos then I would be lost for sure

Serena said...

You didn't tell me about this book....interesting...though not sure this one is for me.

bermudaonion said...

At first I thought this was a true story! What a scary concept!

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for your great review, Anna. I don't know much about the economic war fought during WWII, although I got a glimpse of that in a movie I saw earlier this year, The Counterfeiters.

Alyce said...

This does sound like a unique WWII story. I haven't read any that focus on the economics of war, and that uniqueness is actually appealing to me.

Anna said...

~Nicole: It's not for everyone, but I suggest you give it a try. There's a lot going on, so it's not just about the economic aspect of the war.

~Blodeuedd: Me, too. There's a lot of action and romance, too, which helps.

~Serena: I read most of it on my Thanksgiving vacation, so I wasn't around to blab about it. If you want to borrow my copy at some point, just let me know.

~bermudaonion: I'm sure parts of it are true. Money and greed is part of every war.

~Literary Feline: I'll have to check out that movie!

~Alyce: I hope you give it a try. Many of the books I've read about the war are similar in some way, so it's always refreshing (maybe not the right word, but you know what I mean) to find something different.