Half a world and over a decade apart, two seemingly unrelated stories end up colliding. The focus of my review today is Marvel’s The Winter Soldier: Cold Front by Mackenzie Lee.
It’s 1954 and V is Russia’s best agent. He has only one directive: Comply. He follows that without question until he recognizes someone he shouldn’t. Suddenly he feels the weight of everything he doesn’t know about himself and he wants answers.
It’s 1941 and Bucky is a 16-year-old who can’t wait to enter the war. He has felt out of place ever since his father passed away a few years before. His guardian, Commander Crawford, is trying his best but Bucky just keeps getting into trouble. Two years away from enlisting, a unique opportunity to join the war effort suddenly drops in his lap and Bucky jumps at the chance.
[ Warning: My review of The Winter Soldier: Cold Front contains some spoilers!]
A ruthless assassin, The Winter Soldier
Lee opens her story in 1954 with Agent Vronsky, or V, the current code name for the Winter Soldier. Dr. Karpov has molded him into the perfect operative. He’s highly skilled, ruthless, and efficient. His only purpose is to “comply” and he does so flawlessly.
Until he sees a photo of his latest target. The picture jars something in V’s memory. He doesn’t know how, but he knows he’s seen this man before. Of course, his handler insists he is mistaken. But for the first time, V thinks about how he doesn’t remember anything other than the now, and it bothers him.
When V accidentally comes face to face with the mark he thought he recognized during his mission, things start to get interesting. Not only does he feel certain he’s seen him before, but the mark also recognizes him, and reacts very badly. V’s handler tells him to stay put, she’ll deal with the fleeing mark. Of course, V follows his training and doesn’t comply?! Instead, V feels compelled to track the mark down himself and try to discover what he knows about V.
When V finally corners the mark and almost gets answers, his handler shows up and shoots the mark before he can tell V anything. But V’s curiosity has been awoken and he has a growing need to know what came before the reality that he lives in.
The Winter Soldier: Cold Front shows Bucky Barnes as a cocky young kid
Alternating with V’s story every few chapters is the story of Bucky in 1941. James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes is sixteen and he can’t wait to join the army. He knows it’s just a matter of time before America enters the war raging in Europe and he wants to be front and center when they do.
He’s aware that other boys have lied about their age to enter the army early and he tries the same thing. Unfortunately for him, the commander at the base he lives is also his guardian. Commander Crawford was Bucky’s Dad’s best friend. After Bucky’s parents died he took him and his sister in. Crawford loves Bucky like a son. Combine that with his grief over his lost friend and Bucky isn’t going into the army anytime soon. Maybe not at all if Crawford can swing it.
But then Bucky gets lucky. A British intelligence officer is looking to recruit young American boys to pose as students in Europe and pass along information. Crawford is dead set against it but the British officer is very impressed with Bucky.
Bucky jumps at any chance to join the war and I mean, come on, what sixteen-year-old doesn’t want to be a spy? With visions of James Bond in his head, Bucky Barnes heads off to London for training.
Vastly different times and circumstances, same basic character
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I reveal that Bucky and the Winter Soldier are the same person separated by time and psychological torture. Between the MCU and Marvel comics that’s a pretty well-established fact. If I did ruin that for you, I’m sorry.
Beyond the fact that Buck and V are literally the same person, they don’t have much in common on the surface. Still, dig a little deeper and they are both people who feel lost and are looking for their place in the world. It really struck me as I was reading that despite all that the Russian Winter Soldier program had done to try and erase Bucky from V, his basic underlying drive was still the same.
This need and search connect the two characters across both storylines. Bucky is a young kid who was unmoored by losing his parents. He acts like he has it all figured out but under the surface, he feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere and he’s looking for who he truly is.
V doesn’t know who he is beyond the now that he lives in. He has no sense of his past and no connections to anyone. He doesn’t think about it much until that picture shocks him, and then the not knowing becomes a constant itch. As he searches for anyone who can shed some light on who he was before he was V, he becomes both more unbalanced and more focused with each new puzzle piece that comes to light.
Good pacing and structure in this Marvel novel
I liked how Lee swapped the storyline every few chapters in The Winter Soldier: Cold Front. The pacing of these changes was well-spaced. You spend just enough time with each story to see it move forward and become more invested in the characters.
But not so much time that you forgot about the other storyline or started thinking “when will we get back to the other guy?”. Often I start to feel like that when I read a book with a switching storyline structure. I find myself reading through one storyline just to get back to the other. Even checking ahead to see how long before it switches back to the storyline I’m actually interested in.
I never had that feeling with Lee’s story though. She created a very masterful balance between the two stories that I quite enjoyed.
Two spy stories for the price of one in The Winter Soldier: Cold Front
Both V and Bucky’s stories are worth reading. Bucky’s story of an inexperienced and, frankly, lucky young spy is funny and entertaining. V’s tale is more sophisticated and more dramatic but it hooks you just as much.
Together they offer a view of a spy at both the beginning and height of his journey. Anyone who likes spy or war books will enjoy The Winter Soldier: Cold Front. Of course, Marvel and winter soldier fans will love it as well. With all the excitement and humor I think this book is well worth the read!