D’Shai by Joel Rosenberg (1991) 327 p.

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Joel Rosenberg wrote a series of very fun fantasy novels I enjoyed in high school called Guardians of the Flame, which is basically about a group of D&D players who get transported into their fantasy world and find it’s not quite as much fun when your real life is at stake, and who also end up staying there for 25+ years and using their own college degree knowledge to kickstart an industrial revolution. It was a silly premise but very earnest and enjoyable, and I need to get around to re-reading it one of these days. D’Shai, on the other hand, is a more traditional fantasy story – one which is also a mystery, as the narrator and his family of travelling acrobats get caught up a tit-for-tat revenge drama while performing for a week at the court of a local ruler. (The blurb, shamefully, gives away a fairly critical plot development which doesn’t happen until the last fifth of the book!)

The key fantasy gimmick at the heart of D’Shai is the concept of “kazuh,” a form of magic in which the performer of a task – someone already at the height of their profession – can phase into a supremely focused and powerful rendition of that task, whether they’re an acrobat or a warrior or a runner or a cook or whatever. This seems a logical line of thought for Rosenberg, who (as I was reminded early in this book) is a writer with a lot of other hobbies who often writes about the physicality of certain acts: juggling, karate, guns, and in this book acrobatics. The most obvious example of this kind of writing was Hemingway, but you see it with lots of others, people who you can tell are channeling their love of a particular pursuit into their fiction: classic rock and baseball with Stephen King, mountain climbing with Kim Stanley Robinson, animal husbandry with John Marsden. I wish I was that kind of writer, mostly because I think it would be nice to be one of those people who can just lose themselves in an activity, even a mundane one like cooking. Instead I’m the kind of writer who’s an easily distracted scatterbrain and dislikes working with my hands, not because I’m lazy but because I find it dull.

Anyway, D’Shai is a light and easy read for a fantasy fan, the kind of book which would probably sit well alongside Barry Hugart’s Bridge of Birds. I suspect Guardians of the Flame is probably his better work, though I’d need to re-read that, because for all I know it doesn’t hold up.

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Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds (2005) 460 p.

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In the year 2057 one of Saturn’s smaller moons, Janus, unexpectedly departs from its orbit and begins to accelerate out the solar system. Clearly no moon at all but rather an inexplicable alien artifact, the human race sends their only nearby ship scrambling after it: the comet miner Rockhopper, with a crew of about 150 under captain Bella Lind. They will have only five days to arrive at Janus and, if it doesn’t prove hostile, land on it and investigate it.

This is a great and simple set-up for a Big Dumb Object first contact mystery, clearly drawn from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Rendezvous with Rama, in which a gargantuan but silent alien spacecraft enters the solar system with a trajectory that will slingshot it around the sun and send it back out again, leaving a human research mission with a limited amount of time to investigate it. The difference is that Pushing Ice goes far beyond the limits of a story like that, with the crew of the Rockhopper ending the story very, very far away – in terms of both time, distance, and situation – from where they started out. It’s a great book to go into cold, and Reynolds surprised me with where he took the story at every step of the way.

Pushing Ice has the usual flaws of any science fiction story, most notably in the thinness of characters – and in particular, the pivotal feud that develops between Bella and her second-in-command Svietlana, which has its origins in an understandable enough dispute but is dragged out over a ludicrous length of time and includes a shockingly long period of solitary confinement that I very much doubt would leave the victim with a sane mind, or which the other members of the crew would stand for. This is one of the more egregious examples demonstrating that Reynolds doesn’t have a particularly good grasp on how human beings relate to one another in real life, or at least isn’t very good at writing about it. But that’s no worse a sin than most sci-fi authors, and Pushing Ice is a gripping pageturner full of intriguing mysteries which kept me engaged all the way through, and stands alongside House of Suns as one of Reynolds’ best books.

Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett (1993) 381 p.
Discworld #15 (City Watch #2)

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The City Watch books have always been the standout of the Discworld series, but Feet of Clay is where they really hit their stride. Following the mass conscription of rioters and the merging of the Day Watch and Night Watch at the end of Men at Arms, Commander Sam Vimes – newly married to Lady Sybil Ramkin and now one of the wealthiest men in the city – is overseeing something resembling an actual large, modern police force. (Thought he later says the Watch now has “nearly 30” officers, which seems low.) There are two central mysteries running through the book: a pair of murders which appear linked to the city’s small population of robot-like golems, mute creatures of clay who serve as obedient workers; and the mysterious ongoing arsenic poisoning of the Patrician.

The mystery of the poisoning storyline – in which Vetinari is bedridden but doesn’t seem likely to actually die – is not just a whodunnit but rather a howdunnit, as the Watch is baffled by how the arsenic is being administered. Vimes has his officers lock down the palace, bring in food from outside, replace the bed linen and the rugs, and even has cutlery brought from his own home. (At one point he has the brainwave that since arsenic is a metal, maybe the cutlery itself is entirely made of arsenic – until his newly hired forensics officer Cheery points out that Vetinari would notice the spoon dissolving as soon as it entered the soup.) When I first read Feet of Clay as a teenager I thought the eventual answer was brilliantly clever; I don’t know whether a more perceptive adult reader would spot it earlier. Either way it’s an engaging read, and has one of those classic Watch climaxes in which Pratchett takes a turn towards genuinely gripping set-pieces, though not quite as good as the chase through the sewers and high noon “I won’t be a policeman anymore” confrontation at the end of Men at Arms. It does, however, feature a climactic action scene which I never realised parallels the ending of Terminator 2.

The other storyline features the golems, mythical automatons of baked clay, tireless workers who cannot speak and expect no pay – rare, uncanny and not entirely trusted by the human populace, but extremely valuable to those captains of industry wealthy enough to own them. The golems are perhaps not as mindless as their human owners think, and it becomes clear fairly early in the book that they have created a new golem – a perfect one, a chiselled statue of an Adonis instead of the doughy lumps of clay the rest of them resemble – but to what ends, the Watch is unsure. These two storylines are woven together with the smooth and subtle skill we’ve come to expect from Pratchett here in the prime of his writing career.

I’m now entering the sequence of Discworld books I remember most vividly, but there are still a lot of things that went over my head as a kid. It’s ironic that the golems are lifted very specifically out of Jewish mythology, because for the first time I noticed how Ankh-Morpork’s dwarves – often employed as jewelers, watchmakers, artisans etc, and slandered by the human populace as “greedy buggers” – could parallel Jews, or at least gentiles’ perceptions of Jews. (Though they also, notably in Thud, stand in for Muslims). And the trolls, perceived by Morporkians (wrongly of course) as brutish and unintelligent savages suitable only for hard labour, are reflective of the historical plight of the African-American populace, tying into Detritus’ crusade against the crack-like drug “slab” which is ravaging troll communities. Most interesting of all is the introduction of Cheery, a new dwarf officer who – although all dwarfs outwardly present as men (a trope of the fantasy genre dating back to Tolkien) – is in fact a woman, and now that she’s in the big cosmopolitan city feels she’s entitled to act like one. When Pratchett wrote Feet of Clay in the mid ’90s this was doubtless intended and interpreted as a metaphor for closeted gay people; in 2018, it much more obviously lends itself to the analogy of trans people. I can’t quite recall whether I picked up on the satire at all as a young teenager, but of course I would have understood that the broader point, and the reason it can be applied to both the gay and trans rights movements, is universal: the desire of people to express their disapproved-of-but-harmless true selves in defiance of their own conservative culture, and the liberating atmosphere of a big city in which they’re finally afforded the freedom to do that. It’s Angua who shows Cheery the way, demonstrating how a woman can come to be accepted and respected in the traditional male world of the Watch; though what Cheery doesn’t at first realise is that Angua is also a werewolf, a race Cheery despises, which serves as both an ongoing comedy of manners and also an example that, as Vimes himself says, “Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn’t mean they’re not a nasty small-minded little jerk.” But it also, as Vimes himself shows in later books with his waning prejudice against the undead, doesn’t also mean that nasty small-minded little jerks can’t change.

Next up is the appropriately Christmas-themed Hogfather.

Re-reading Discworld Index

Irontown Blues by John Varley (2018) 289 p.

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Back in the 1970s John Varley – not exactly one of America’s most prolific writers – wrote a novel and a bunch of short stories set in what he called his Eight Worlds, a series in which humanity has been evicted from Earth by the mysterious, all-powerful alien Invaders and left to scrape out a living in the remaining worlds of the solar system. He revisited the series in the 1990s with Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, the latter of which is probably my favourite science fiction novel: a delightfully witty romp around this imagined future society narrated by an actor/conman who’s attempting to get to Luna in time to portray King Lear while being pursued by a nearly unkillable mafia hitman. They’re mostly light-hearted books but they’re creative, engaging and a great amount of fun. Varley spoke for years about wanting to eventually write a third book to finish off what he considered his “metals” trilogy, which would be called Irontown Blues and focus on a cop. Twenty years down the track and he’s finally written it, though protagonist Christopher Bach is actually an ex-cop turned private investigator.

It is, unfortunately, a huge disappointment. I probably look at Varley’s previous novels with a touch of nostalgia, but there’s no denying that they’re objectively very good while Irontown Blues is, if one is being generous, objectively lacking in a lot of ways. Very little happens in this book. It starts off appropriately enough with a mysterious dame entering Bach’s pulpy noir-themed office – a key theme of the Eight Worlds series has always been how humanity, reduced to a stub of its former civilisation, clings onto the various cultures of the past. She claims to have been infected with an engineered disease and hires Bach to find out who did it. Bach watches some CCTV footage, visits his mother, follows one red herring to a Chinese restaurant, goes and inspects a mostly empty room, gets kidnapped, and… that’s basically it. That’s all that happens, aside from a central flashback covering events which already occurred in Steel Beach and then an uncompelling climax which more or less repeats what happened in that flashback. (The book is noticeably only about half the length of Steel Beach or The Golden Globe.) Along the way, the Lunar cities Bach moves through feel empty and under-sketched, in stark contrast to the brilliantly painted society Varley used to give us. Half the novel is narrated by Bach’s cybernetically enhanced canine companion, Sherlock – an interesting enough concept which eventually becomes grating and often leads to the same scene being told twice from two different perspectives in a book which already feels like it’s just playing out the clock.

Varley’s written some bad books before – the Gaea trilogy, for example – but this is really the first piece of his writing which has mostly just bored me. It feels like he’d had the concept of “cop story in the Eight Worlds” kicking around in the back of his head for decades and decided to just finally write it, ignoring the fact that the reason he hadn’t got around to doing so yet was because he hadn’t actually thought of anything interesting to flesh it out with. A very disappointing end to an otherwise great series – read Steel Beach and The Golden Globe and leave it at that.

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) 471 p.

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I finished this the same week the IPCC warned the world in very polite terms that we’ve ignored climate change for so long that we now need to shift to an all-hands-on-deck, Hitler-is-on-the-march campaign of intense carbon reduction and clean energy transition, which of course we won’t. The morning after the report was released I woke to the voice of Australia’s environment minister (and former mining industry employee) telling ABC Radio that it would be “irresponsible” to commit to moving away from coal by 2050. These people make me incredibly fucking angry, as do my fellow Australians who keep voting for them because they refuse to believe that something they can’t personally perceive – something which is occurring on a timescale of decades and centuries rather than weeks or months – is actually worth paying slightly higher prices on their power bills or only making 4% instead of 6% on their stock portfolio this year.

So The Overstorey is a timely novel, a Booker-nominated* environmental saga following half a dozen people whose stories become intrinsically linked after they spend time as radical activists in the early 1990s trying to prevent old growth redwood forests from being logged in California. I thought, at first, it was a collection of short stories, these various characters only connected in the sense that their lives had been influenced by trees in some way – but after the first third of the book, it shifts to a more traditional fashion as the characters all slowly come together, join the movement and face down the overwhelming power of state-backed commerce and natural exploitation.

Powers is, first off, a lyrical writer. There are passages in this book that genuinely shine:

She reads to him of how the English first swarmed a continent that rose from the ocean overnight, seeking masts for their leviathan frigates and ships of the line, masts that no place in all stripped Europe, not even the farthest boreal north, could any longer provide… It’s a story to match any fiction: the well-wooded land, succumbing to prosperity. The light, soft, strong, dimensioned boards, sold back across the ocean as far away as Africa. The triangular profit making the infant country’s fortune: lumber to the Guinea coast, black bodies to the Indies, sugar and rum back up to New England, with its stately mansions all built of eastern white pine. White pine framing out cities, making millions in sawmill fortunes, laying a bed of rails across the continent, building and pitching warships and whaling fleets that wander out from Brooklyn and New Bedford into the unmapped South Pacific, ships made of a thousand trees or more. The white pines of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota: split into a hundred billion roof shingles. A hundred million board feet a year, splintered into matchsticks.

And his message is an important one, because even if we’ve heard a message a thousand times before, it’s always worth hearing it again in a beautifully written way. Deforestation, environmental degradation, climate change, the endless human lust for growth: all of these things are connected, and all of these things are leading us towards a world which will at worst be unable to support our own survival and at best be unlikely to contain the wonders of the natural world which we’ve enjoyed over the past few centuries: the redwood forests, the coral reefs, the enormous variety of wild animals.

He’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.

The Overstorey tends towards the mystical, possibly at the risk of harming its message to a large swathe of readers. I can believe that the human race is turbofucking the planet without believing that trees are sentient, that Manhattan is a less marvellous place now than it was 500 years ago, or that we should (as several characters do) rename ourselves after trees and go live in a forest. It’s still a good and important book, and I finished it with much more appreciation for Powers as a writer than I did for the first third or so. Besides, it’s possibly worth re-examining how much of our disdain for Earth Mother hippie types has been drilled into us by 60 years of capitalist messaging. Considering what the world’s climate scientists keep telling us in increasingly desperate reports, maybe the hippies were on to something.

 

*I continue to be irritated by the Booker’s decision to open itself to American writers, and was amused when this novel kicked off with a Pulitzeresque intergenerational immigrant family saga in the Midwest. There’s an argument to be made that the Booker only being open to the Commonwealth countries is, like the Commonwealth itself, an imperial anachronism, and that the English language is a more natural jurisdiction for the award. But in a world were most of the moneyed authorial classes who speak English as a first language are going to be found in the US anyway, I think it’s more important to have a major book award which is reserved for the rest of us. Or, as Peter Carey put it, the notion of the Americans opening up the Pulitzer to the rest of the world is inconceivable – so why on earth have we gone and done this?

The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States by Jeffrey Lewis (2018) 294 p.

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This one, as the British say, does what it says on the tin. Jeffrey Lewis – an American professor of geopolitics and nuclear arms – has written what he terms a “speculative novel” about a North Korean nuclear attack against the United States. The clearest manner in which it doesn’t live up to the title is that it reads more like a very interesting internet long-read or verbal history rather than a very dry commission report, but we’ll obviously forgive him for that.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and it was on my to-read list before it was even published. Not everybody feels the same way; I can’t find the tweet now but I remember somebody on Twitter ranting about how a book like this was just more fuel to the fire of anti-American sentiment against North Korea. People like that are usually tankies, but it’s fair to say the notion of North Korea attacking the United States seems so far from reality as to be lurid, since it would certainly result in the destruction of North Korea itself. This is based on Cold War thinking and is what’s called “rational actor” theory. It’s not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely right. In this review I won’t go into details about what unfolds in the book (since the details are what make it so compelling) but I will say that Lewis does a superb job of developing the slowly escalating action/reaction series of events in a way which feels entirely plausible to a layperson, up to and including strikes against the United States. My only gripe was the notion that North Korea has delivery systems (or could in 2020 have delivery systems) capable of reaching the United States. Well, I googled around a bit and it turns out that’s my bad for doubting a nuclear scholar – as of 2017, North Korea does indeed have crude ICBMs of some kind. We don’t know how many nuclear warheads they may have and we don’t know how reliable their ICBMs may or may not be, but they do have them. So here we are in the modern age and we have to accept an unprecedentedly totalitarian state with the ability to rain death down on countries across oceans, and even in my lefty peacenik brain, even as a former resident of Seoul, there’s a part of me that has to wonder if the US and South Korea shouldn’t have just invaded in the 2000s and accepted the casualties.

Anyway: this is a good book. The first half is entirely based around the sequence of events leading to this seemingly unthinkable scenario, and Lewis does a brilliant job of painting this, primarily by modelling every step around a real historical event: the shooting down of KAL 007, the sinking of the Sewol, the attack on the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle and his supporters because of Kim’s fear that China was grooming the man as a regent. Other incidents are based not just on Lewis’ speculation but (bear with me) on a reasonable speculation of what North Korean intelligence agents might speculate – like the little-known attack on Dora Farm, in which the US attempted to assassinate Saddam Hussein at the outbreak of the Iraq War. One which drew my particular attention was an examination of a nuclear firestorm which develops in Tokyo, partly caused by flammable cladding used in many modern apartment buildings, with Lewis citing not just the Grenfell Tower disaster but a fire in my own city of Melbourne and a subsequent report which found as many as half of Victoria’s modern structures might be at risk. It’s nice to know an American nuclear academic acknowledges that report, even if the Victorian government has mostly ignored it.

Most surprisingly of all – as I read the descriptions of nuclear strike victims towards the end and felt they flowed together, sounded familiar and lacked a certain creative flair – I was surprised to see Lewis reveal in the afterword that every one of them was lifted verbatim from the account of a Hiroshima survivor. “I did this because it is easy, as Americans, to let the slightly stilted grammar of a translation create a false sense of distance between ourselves and the very real people who suffered and died,” Lewis writes. This is an interesting choice, but I’m nonetheless bound to point out that the second half of the book felt weaker and less gripping than the first; when reading about the nuclear strike on New York I couldn’t help but compare it to Whitley Strieber’s much more vivid, multi-chapter description in the 1984 novel Warday. I’ve criticised plenty of books I’ve read lately for being padded, but this is one which, if anything, could have stood to be three times as long.

There’s another issue here, and that’s Donald Trump. I imagine Lewis had probably been thinking about writing a book like this for quite a while, and the election of an unusually unfit president threw a spanner in the works; but at the same time he seems more than happy to explore exactly how a nuclear crisis scenario would unfold under this particular president. We get a largely accurate (in my view and the view of any sensible person) impression of a president who is part toddler and part angry stepfather, a man with little to no interest in his responsibilities, coaxed and goaded and nudged by various other actors within the executive branch. Perhaps owing to the high staff turnover in the administration and a timeline set in 2020, Lewis opts to use fictional stand-in Francis Kelly for the chief of staff – clearly modelled on John Flynn – and speculates Keith Kellogg will become national security adviser. Together with James Mattis, Nikki Halley and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, much of the US government’s reaction is shown from the perspective of these five figures, as they manage (or struggle to manage) the escalating conflict without Trump’s input. As with other aspects of the book, this picture is largely drawn from careful study of news reports, memoirs, and cabinet leaks; it’s when shit really kicks off and Lewis has to speculate about issues surrounding the use of the nuclear football or the evacuation of the president that it sometimes wavers. In his defence, I’ll say that Lewis is clearly an academic first and a creative writer second, and also that Donald Trump being president puts us all in an utterly insane parallel universe that’s stranger than fiction in the first place. Though I must add that Lewis does a merely average job of mimicking Trump’s tweeting, writing and speaking style; contrary to the belief of every cut-rate comedian in the world, it’s not actually very imitable. The book unwisely ends with a rebuttal by former president Trump attacking the commission as Fake News, Crooked Hillary, Very Unfair, et cetera – the low-hanging fruit we’ve all heard a thousand times at this point and which adds nothing to what came before it. But my criticism is largely from the extent to which Lewis pushes this angle, not that he pushes it in the first place. Trump’s reaction to what’s going on can sometimes seem farcical – but so has most of the last two years. That’s hardly Lewis’ fault.

There are other issues with the book. It does occasionally feel like something that was rushed a bit for timely publication. It gives excessive weight to the lead-up to the attack, and leaves various descriptions of devastated American cities as a sort of afterthought. The nuclear devastation maps and their wordy legends are lifted directly from the Nuke Map website (with appendix credit, but still.) The characterisation of Trump and his advisers often ventures into areas where, as a writer, Lewis’ reach exceeds his grasp.

But warts and all, I thought it was great. It’s not the kind of book for everyone, but if a fiction-as-fact account about North Korea launching nuclear weapons against the United States seems like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, I can guarantee you this is one which is done realistically, compellingly, and with a professional amount of research and  historical comparison underlining every inch of its speculation. It has its flaws, as I’ve pointed out above, but the fact is that this is a 294-page book which I read over the space of two days while I had full days at work plus university assignments due. It is – and I don’t usually use this word – unputdownable.

The Cabin At The End Of The World by Paul Tremblay (2018) 201 p.

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This is one of those thrillers where the blurb sets the scene pretty well. It’s a basic premise, opening from the point of view of seven-year-old Wen, a Chinese adoptee daughter of a gay couple who are vacationing in a remote cabin in New Hampshire. She’s catching grasshoppers out the front when a stranger approaches her – a big friendly man, all smiles, whose mere presence is threatening to an adult reader despite no overt signs of trying to lure her away. Soon his “friends” show up, bearing makeshift weapons, and Wen runs for the cabin, and even though all four of them are apologetic and polite, their message is horrifying: in the home invasion stand-off that ensues, the interlopers tell Wen’s family that one of them must be sacrificed to avert the apocalypse.

That’s the elevator pitch. You’d assume that given the scenario, a lot of the novel’s impact would hinge on the are they/aren’t they question of whether the four horsemen of the apocalypse are telling the truth, or whether it’s all a mindfuck. Except we get point-of-view chapters from them fairly early on, and so we know that as far as they know, they are telling the truth. Which makes it tedious, but not as tedious as the page-in-page-out waffling, padding and bloat that results from Tremblay stretching out a concept for a short story – or maybe, with a talented cast and crew, a film – into a 200-page novel. The vast bulk of The Cabin At The End Of The World consists of astonishingly repetitive internal monologues, thought patterns, and back-and-forth arguments between the thinly drawn characters on both sides of the conflict. I started skim-reading it not long after Tremblay thought it was a good idea – in the middle of the intruders’ initial siege of the cabin – to digress from the action at hand and instead give us several pages of expository background about one of the main characters and his upbringing, including (I shit you not) the kinds of authors his parents enjoyed reading. That fact alone should tell you everything you need to know about this book and about Tremblay’s baffling inability to create or maintain narrative tension.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018) 407 p.

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A man awakens in a forest with no memories. He witnesses what he thinks is a murder. He makes his way to a crumbling country manor called Blackheath, where people tell him that his name is Dr Sebastian Bell. A ball is planned for that evening, to mark the return of Evelyn Hardcastle to her ancestral home. Dr Bell tries to remember what he see, tries to remember who he is. But he soon learns the rules of Blackheath, and that he in fact not Dr Bell but a visitor named Aiden Bishop. Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered tonight, and Bishop must find her killer. The day will repeat itself over and over again; he will wake up in the body of a new “host” each day; if he has failed to solve the murder after eight days and eight hosts, the cycle will start afresh – just as it already has hundreds if not thousands of times.

So it’s a mix of Groundhog Day, The First 15 Lives of Harry August and an Agatha Christie story. The idea is intriguing enough, but falls flat as a novel. It’s clogged with purple prose, bloating up each page to the point where the book easily could have been half the length. And this is a problem, because the story moves slowly enough as it is, particularly when – given the premise – we end up experiencing the same events over and over again from the points of view of different people. As you’d expect, Blackheath has a whole cast of characters, most of them thinly drawn and with names that blend together. (Three of Bishop’s eight hosts are named Dance, Davies and Derby – for God’s sake, man, cut your readers some slack!) The mystery of how and why Bishop ended up time-hopping through Blackheath is resolved, in a sense, but the story behind that would have been far more interesting to explore in depth than the elaborate Christiesque murder plot we get instead. I’ve only ever read one Agatha Christie novel, considered her best, and found the plot laughably stupid – so if that’s what he’s trying to ape I can’t really fault Turton for creating an equally byzantine Rube Goldberg mystery. The problem is that the whole thing is tedious; by the time the killer was monologuing their way through the climax, I was just glad I was nearly done with the book. An imaginative premise – shame about the execution.

The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian (1990) 408 p.

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This one shifts gears a bit; the entire Aubrey-Maturin series is something of a single story, but the last two installments in particular (Desolation Island and The Fortune of War) flowed together like episodes in a TV season. (And how I wish HBO, in this golden age of television, would sink a few million into an Aubrey-Maturin series.) Maybe it’s because everything these days is a trilogy, but I half expected The Surgeon’s Mate, which begins in Halifax after Aubrey, Maturin and Diana have escaped Boston, to find some way to conspire to delay them from returning home, leaving the three books as a sort of trilogy in a single voyage. Nope. They’re back in dear old Blighty in the first hundred pages, before setting off again for – well, I won’t say where.

This volume didn’t grab me quite as much as the last two – possibly because it’s more disjointed, covering a number of voyages and incidents – but by this point in the series O’Brian has very clearly hit his stride, and every book is a delight. The Surgeon’s Mate balances the Jack-at-sea stuff quite well with the Stephen’s-life-of-espionage stuff, and after two books in distant oceans we spend most of this one back in a European sea, but a relatively forgotten one, which feels pleasantly exotic. I understand this is also the point at which the series’ timeline diverges from real life and enters a sort of permanent 1812 for the next ten books or so – but no matter. Another charming volume in a wonderful series.

The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (1942) 221 p.

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One of the things that’s struck me – looking back at history as an adult with fresh eyes, rather than with the received background wisdoms we get through early schooling or pop culture – is an appreciation of looking at past events through the eyes of people alive at the time, and how those events then compared to their own past. World War I, for example, seems to us like an inevitability, and a rather old-fashioned sort of war compared to the blitzkrieg of World War II; but for those living through it, it was the point at which the future started looking bleak instead of hopeful, the unhappy dark conclusion to the industrial revolution, the optimism of the Gilded Age and the green agrarian fields of Europe turned into the muddy, rusty, mechanical hell of a machine war. It must have felt like the end of the world.

Similarly, the Battle of Britain is such a proudly-remembered, immortalised landmark of history that we ironically don’t appreciate it as much as we should. It was the first great air battle in human history. For thousands and thousands of years human beings had killed each other across Europe, and for nearly a thousand years Britain’s geographic fortune meant it was largely protected from foreign invasion by sea. When the British Expeditionary Force packed off to France in 1939, they expected this war would turn out largely like the last one: a stalemate in the muddy trenches of the Low Countries. They certainly never expected that Britain’s sovereignty might be threatened, or that the skies above London – the ultimate home front – would play host to a battle between flying machines that simply hadn’t existed two generations ago. (One of the most striking images of the Battle of Britain, to me, is the contrails in the sky above St Paul’s Cathedral.) The flyleaf of my copy of The Last Enemy has the oldest inscription I think I’ve ever seen in a book I own: “To Les, March 1943.” The worst of the danger had passed by 1943 but it’s still strange to think Les received this book as a gift from somebody while the war was still ongoing, when the outcome was still in play. It certainly makes history feel less far away.

Richard Hillary was an Oxford student in the 1930s who signed up to the RAF when the war broke out. The Last Enemy is an interesting first-hand description of what it was like to be one of the men so rightly idolised these days, the fighter pilots who defended Britain against the Luftwaffe and a potential invasion. Hillary was by calling a writer, though it’s fair to say that this is one of those books (like Alive by Paul Piers Read) which is compelling not because it’s told with any particular flair but simply because the events it describes are so compelling.

It’s also very much a book of two halves. Hillary was shot down over the North Sea during the Battle of Britain and was badly burned on the face and hands, and the second half of The Last Enemy details his hospital treatment and recovery. In many ways this is the more interesting story: going straight from being a glamorous hot-shot fighter pilot to a pitiable and broken thing, blinded, awash on a tide of pain and morphine in a hospital bed, rendered a helpless bystander in a war he desperately wanted to go back to fighting. It also, at great length, details the kinds of things which put the lie to any notion of glamour. It’s one thing to die for your country. It’s quite another thing to get your eyelids burned off, have crude replacements cut from the skin of your forearm to replace them, spend months immersed in 1940s healthcare, undergo saline baths, listen to the screaming of the other patients, incubate a terrible infection in your burns, and eventually leave hospital disfigured for life to face a society that doesn’t quite want to look you in the eye anymore. Hillary would certainly never say it, and maybe it’s just my own medical squeamishness, but the feeling I got was that this kind of ordeal was a far worse experience than anything active combat could put you through.

One remark of [my mother’s] I shall never forget. She said: “You should be glad this has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were and you believed them. You were well on your way to becoming something of a cad. Now you’ll find out who your real friends are.” I did.

Hillary himself is quite an introspective fellow, though strangely for a memoir I couldn’t say I really got to know him. It very much feels like he’s building his own image up. More telling, I think, than any aspect of his personality he shows to the reader is the truth of his fate, which obviously isn’t included in the book. He eventually managed to pass the medical board and go back to flying – not in combat, but still flying for the RAF – even though, by the account of his fellow officers, he could barely hold his knife and fork in the mess hall, got splitting headaches and had trouble reading the altimeter. Clearly there was some burning drive within him to risk his own life (and that of others), to ignore his own medical condition, to go back if not to battle than at least to the skies. He inevitably crashed and died on a night training flight in Scotland in 1943. He was twenty-four years old, which, to me these days, seems terribly young.

An interesting memoir written by a hero. A hero who joined the RAF for self-admittedly selfish reasons and was probably a bit of a narcissist, but a hero nonetheless.

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