I Must Betray You
by Ruta Sepetys
young adult historical thriller
Philomel Books—February 2022
I wanted to slap myself across the face.
Looking back over all the wonderful works I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing for Book Pipeline, I’m proud to say I’ve read across a wide gamut of genres and subject matters. As any critic worth their salt will tell you—what you choose to read/watch and then write about says a lot about who you are as not only a consumer of the arts, but also as a human in general. And I think that my selection of novels and nonfiction so far have given you a pretty good glimpse into my personality.
All that said (and ego stroking aside), I recently noticed a glaring hole in my repertoire: I hadn’t reviewed a single Young Adult or Middle Grade novel.
*Insert theatrical gasp here*
I’m not one of those foolish folks who thinks because a novel is written for a younger audience that it is inherently less sophisticated than an adult read. People who say that are … assholes, to put it politely. To be honest, I would argue that the overall quality in the YA/MG markets are higher than their Adult counterparts at the moment. And when you add in the fact that I’m the son of a New York Times best-selling YA historical fiction novelist (L.M. Elliott; order her new book here!) it’s borderline criminal that I haven’t done a review of a piece in that age bracket.
So, that changes right this instant—I will be making a much more concentrated effort to review YA and MG books here. Because I don’t like bordering on criminality.
Or slapping myself.
First up on the docket? I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys.
Set in 1989 Communist Romania, this YA historical fiction thriller follows Cristian Florescu, a seventeen-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to be a writer but is stifled by his oppressive surroundings—a country governed by a dictatorship and run through paranoia and fear. And things only get worse for Cristian when he is blackmailed into becoming an informer on his friends and family for the secret police. As revolutions start to spread across Eastern Europe (and Communist regimes are systemically dismantled by its citizens), Cristian realizes that his predicament has presented him with the opportunity of a lifetime—to use his creative talent to undermine and expose the despotic government that’s been tormenting his country.
Sepetys is a heavyweight in the historical fiction world. Her work has been universally celebrated, decorating her with honors such as being a multi-time New York Times best-seller, receiving a Carnegie Literary Medal, and even garnering the Knight’s Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. So, I admittedly went into the novel with very high expectations.
And she didn’t disappoint. I Must Betray You is the spitting definition of a page-turner—I blew through the entire thing in just a few days. The writing style is fast-paced and minimalist to the point of almost being Hemingway-esque—most of the chapters are four pages or under. But, at no point does it feel underwritten or lacking depth. It’s a richly researched, full-bodied portrayal of a period of history that, to be honest, I barely knew anything about, previously. The character reveals are quick, yet packed with gravitas and heft, and the dialogue at no point ever feels false or inauthentic.
Besides all the wonderful traits I just mentioned, though, I think the most vital lesson I Must Betray You wields for authors of all stripes is this: your work does not need to contain a super intricate plot to achieve literary excellence. I say this time and time again to all the writers I work with, across both Book and Script Pipeline, that the classic storytelling axiom of “less is more” is not something to be ignored—it is to be wholeheartedly embraced. Because if you accept that and lean into it? It gives your story an astonishing amount of depth.
And I Must Betray You proves it.
From a holistic standpoint, the overarching plot structure of I Must Betray You is a very basic one: a teenager is blackmailed into informing on his loved ones, and he must figure out a way to fight back against his blackmailers. Picking a relatively simple premise like this to center her story on, though, is a brilliant decision by Sepetys on many different levels. Firstly, it is a concept that, inherently built into its DNA, has constantly shifting, sky-high stakes—a staple for any good thriller. Secondly, by not having to concentrate her time on ensuring that a supremely intricate plot all weaves together (and makes sense) across a myriad of divergent narrative threads? Sepetys could focus on what really matters: detailed (but not so much so that it’s distracting) world-building and lushly nuanced character work. These are the aspects of storytelling that are instrumental in facilitating the most important feeling a piece of fiction can provide a reader: a high level of emotional resonance. And, by God, does I Must Betray You provide that in spades—the highly satisfying, soaked-in-justice ending made me weep in its triumph, for instance.
When it’s all said and done? I Must Betray You is a show-stopping example of finding the complexity in simplicity. Writers—take note and pick up a copy today.
Or you’re going to want to slap yourself across the face, too.
Browse the books reviewed by Book Pipeline.