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The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (1979) 340 p.

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The entire Aubrey-Maturin series is of course one long story, but up until now the books have been largely self-contained. Each had Jack Aubrey in command of a ship, or a squadron of ships, and ends with the characters either back home in England or safely en route. The fifth book, Desolation Island, broke with that by having the HMS Leopard still stranded in a remote rock in the Southern Ocean, with Stephen Maturin watching as the spy Diana Wogan and her lover Michael Herapath abscond in a passing American whaler – an escape Stephen has actually orchestrated, after planting false documents on Wogan. The Fortune of War is a direct sequel to that book not just because it picks up the same voyage months down the line, as the Leopard limps into Malaya by way of New South Wales, but because – and I’ll try to say this without spoiling anything – Wogan and Herapath return as characters, along with other characters from Jack and Stephen’s past.

It’s an interesting book in that it’s the first one in which Jack never has command of a ship: after Malaya, he and his officers are sent back to England as passengers, and of course from one side of the world to the other, things don’t run smoothly. There is a naval battle about a third of the way through (and another unnecessary one at the end) but The Fortune of War is, perhaps more than any other book so far in the series, very much focused on Stephen. This suits me just fine, since I prefer his flavour of adventure to Jack’s. Much of the second half of the book takes place in a port – I won’t name it, to avoid spoilers, though the funny thing is that it’s in a country which I’d mostly forgotten existed in the world of Aubrey-Maturin, because we tend not to think about it in that early 19th century milieu; it’s far more prominent in both its past and its future, in terms of pop culture at any rate. Anyway, the main characters are thus landbound for about half the book, and O’Brian is brilliant at playing on the strengths of Stephen and the weaknesses of Jack in such a situation. A running joke in the series is that while Jack is a hugely competent sea captain, he can be naive and hopeless on land – and indeed he does make a few critical blunders which endanger Stephen’s careful chess match of espionage. But it’s a bit unfair to Jack as well – he’s not a complete idiot, and after a Stephen-centric book (and a really great long set-piece in the third act) it’s Jack who ultimately has to hatch a plan to extract them both from mortal peril.

I enjoyed this one quite a lot – probably the most since HMS Surprise. Given the way it ends I suspect the next book, The Surgeon’s Mate, caps off a sort of internal trilogy; although it might just be that the story is beginning to run together at this point as O’Brian decided that he’s really writing one enormous meta-novel.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974) 380 p.

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My edition of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, is from a Scottish press and contains an introduction from the chief editor and historian, Hugh Andrew:

Between 1861 and 1865 America was riven by one of the greatest wars in history. The shadow of that war still hangs over the modern United States. The consequences of that war changed the world. Yet because it was a civil war it is little-known outside America. For American readers, the characters and events of The Killer Angels run in their blood. For the rest of us however some explanation is required.

It’s true that I have a relatively hazy idea of how the Civil War played out, in particular its geography; I never quite grasped when I was younger how, as they say, it was “brother versus brother” – were there villages right on the border, or something? The truth is that while we (by which I mean foreigners; maybe some Americans do too) conceptualise the war as North versus South, it was more properly the Union versus the Confederacy, i.e. an existing political entity versus a collection of rebels who were never diplomatically recognised by outside powers. Brother versus brother would not have been an issue for northerners; rather, it was a problem for southerners faced with the choice of joining up with the rebellion or remaining loyal to their “country.” (More on that in a moment.) An interesting case is John Buford, a US Army officer stationed in Utah at the outbreak of the war, and one of the early characters in The Killer Angels. Buford was from Kentucky (a slave-owning border state) with strong family ties to the South. Nevertheless (from Wikipedia):

One night after the arrival of the mail we were in his (Buford’s) room, when Buford said in his slow and deliberate way “I got a letter from the Governor of Kentucky. He sent me word to come to Kentucky at once and I shall have anything I want.” With a good deal of anxiety, I (Gibbon) asked “What did you answer, John?” And my relief was great when he replied “I sent him word I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intended to remain one!”

That brings us to the famous Robert E. Lee, a brilliant general in the US Army who hailed from Virginia. (As a foreigner I can never reconcile myself to the fact that Virginia is in the South, which I associate more with climate than history; but it was actually the most populous and important Southern state.) Lee was supposedly opposed to slavery (though that claim is hotly contested today, as discussed below) and was very much against the notion of secession. Nonetheless, his loyalty was first and foremost to Virginia, and he dutifully followed his native state into rebellion. This seems strange from a modern perspective, but it’s key to understanding the Civil War: it was the war itself that cemented the notion of the United States as a single country rather than a union of individual states. As Andrew Hugh puts it in the introduction, “the new [post-war] mood is best shown by the change from the plural to the singular when referring to the United States.” In other words, no longer is it “the United States are sending an ambassador to France;” it’s now “the United States is sending an ambassador to France.” (See also the first 20 seconds of this clip, with Stephen Dillane playing Thomas Jefferson – “Well, I’d rather be in my own country. Would not you?”)

So, anyway, the book itself. I’ve never been particularly interested in the Civil War, but the beauty of Shaara’s writing – like all good historical fiction – is that it makes history no longer seem a distant and settled matter, but something very much present and active. The story is told from only a handful of viewpoints, and aside from the opening chapter, none of them are ranked lower than colonel. Shaara stays very much within their minds, and we’re privy to every passing thought: their plans, their doubts, their worries, their motivations, their goals and desires and evaluations. It seems strange, while reading this, to scroll through Wikipedia articles and see historians criticising this or that general for their bad decisions. The Killer Angels makes the battle seem very much now, very much in play, a thousand possibilities stretching out into the future, influencing the entire war, and these few men tasked with deciding which road to go down. There’s also a subconscious bias in people, I think, to imagine figures from past ages as uneducated hicks because they never, say, witnessed the marvel of a computer. (William Gibson talks about that a bit here, and how he subverted it in The Peripheral.) But these are not stupid men. They know Shakespeare off by heart, they speak multiple languages, they have travelled around the world. One of them, James Longstreet, is a strategist well ahead of his time, advocating for the use of fortified trench warfare a full fifty years before the First World War.

And so the past does not seem past. Yet at the same time, as modern readers, we know a cataclysmic battle is coming and it hangs heavy over the opening of the book. The first shot is not fired against the enemy until page 73, and that first quarter of the book is pregnant with anticipation: not just because we know what’s coming but because Shaara skillfully imbues it with that sense of foreboding, of two great armies on the march, of the night and the rain and the scouts and the preparations, the lay of the land, the civilians fled, the oppressive summer heat. The moment when that first shot is fired, the end of the first act, is a brilliant piece of writing:

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the use of big blank pages and then PART II or whatever in big letters. It emphasises the sense of drama we desire as humans, of the ending of something and the beginning of something new; of the notion that there are certain moments in life more important than others.)

Why, then, is this beautifully written and deeply affecting novel of war not quite getting top marks from me? There are a couple of reasons. The cast of characters is quite wide, all of them simply referred to by their Anglo-Saxon surnames, sometimes popping up and then disappearing for another hundred pages or so. Many of them blur together. There’s a touch of Patrick O’Brien in the troop movements and tactics and descriptions; a sense that yes, Shaara is a master who knows this stuff back to front, but forgets that his readers may not be quite as interested in the minutiae as he is. Certainly The Killer Angels has more tactical maps than you’d see in the typical historical fiction novel. (It also, mind you, has the only example I’ve ever seen of a tactical map which invoked a sense of narrative frisson: when Buford, a character we have come to admire and respect, is early to arrive with his regiment in Gettysburg in the face of the invading army; a single black arc marked BUFORD, standing alone, with the repeated black marks of the rest of the Union Army on its way to reinforce him, but the positions of the Confederates much closer, and closing. Just a little black mark, a defiant stand, Buford praying the cavalry will arrive in time.)

But these are minor flaws. What I felt was really lacking, as you may have already guessed, is the political aspect. It’s impossible to read The Killer Angels in 2018 and not think of the ugly modern white supremacist movement which again, more than ever, idolises Robert E. Lee and valourises the cause of the South. It is amazing to consider that the United States had a black president sitting in the White House while the country was (and is) still adorned with statues of Southern generals (and scant few memorials to slavery), and it only makes sense if you view it through the lens of one’s state being more important than one’s country, which was supposed to have ended in the 19th century. (Certainly I doubt many proud Southerners with a Confederate bumper sticker wouldn’t also consider themselves proud Americans.) What, in other words, were they really fighting for? And of course Shaara does grapple with this to an extent. An early passage:

“Well, Jim Kemper kept needling our English friend about why they didn’t come and join in with us, it being in their interest and all, and the Englishman said that it was a very touchy subject, since most Englishmen figured the war was all about, ah, slavery, and then old Kemper got a bit outraged and had to explain to him how wrong he was, and Sorrel had some others joined in, but no harm done.”

And later, when Union officer Chamberlain comes across an escaped slave:

He felt a slow deep flow of sympathy. To be alien and alone, among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and states’ rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What did he know of the war? And yet he was truly what it was all about. It simplified to that. Seen in the flesh, the cause of the war was brutally clear.

Shaara goes on to write how Chamberlain, who comes from Maine and has barely seen a black man before, is physically revulsed by his black skin – ashamed of himself for being so, but revulsed nonetheless. And it’s good and fine to examine the racism of the Northerners. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but did not believe black and white society could be integrated; few people today realise that the West African nation of Liberia (Latin for “land of liberty”) was originally founded by Americans encouraging freed blacks to literally go back to Africa. So, yes: that’s a valid thing to examine.

But we hear nothing of blacks in the South. We hear nothing of the freed blacks who were re-enslaved by the Confederate army as it marched into Pennsylvania. We hear that Lee died “perhaps the most beloved general in the history of American war” – George Washington might have something to say about that – and, in Hugh’s epilogue, that after the war he knelt beside a black man at the communion rail of a church in Richmond to pray for reconciliation. We hear that Lee never criticised the Union officers who had defeated him, and that when he died, Jefferson Davis – i.e. the Jefferson Davis who was Confederate president and segregated his states from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery – said “his moral qualities rose to the height of genius.” We don’t hear about how Lee himself owned slaves. We don’t hear about how he fought in the courts to overturn his father-in-law’s will which specified his slaves should be freed, instead keeping them on to help with his plantation’s debts. We don’t hear about even the rumours that Lee personally whipped runaway slaves.

One of the regular left-wing arguments against the celebration of Lee in the South is that he was a “traitor to his country.” I think that’s wrong, not just because it considers unblinking patriotism to be a virtue but because it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the notion of “country” prior to the Civil War, as discussed above. But the other point is that Lee fought to defend slavery. There is no getting around this. You can say that he was fighting for Virginia, but that means indirectly fighting to defend slavery, because that is what the war was about. It is not enough to call Lee a man of his time – slavery was already banned in the North, it had been banned in Europe for more than a generation. Lee was not stupid. He was not blind to the causes of the day. He saw which way the wind was blowing and decided, yes, he was going to kill other men to defend the rights of Southern citizens to keep human beings as property. When the right-wingers of 2018 and the soldiers of 1863 talk about states’ rights, that’s basically the right they’re talking about: the right to keep slaves. The right to deny other people their basic human rights, absolutely and unconditionally, to tear their families apart and trade them like cattle and abuse them and subjugate them.

I’m not saying this makes a novel written from Southern points of view completely unworthy. I’m not saying that Lee himself is not deserving of a sympathetic portrayal, of a writer who really tries to get inside his head; all human beings are deserving of that. I’m saying that by sidelining the fundamental cause of the war – by having only one encounter with a slave, from the Northern side, and by portraying Lee’s greatest failing as an erroneous tactical decision on the final day of the battle – Shaara finds himself on shaky political ground. The fact that I still consider this to be a worthy Pulitzer winner which is one of the best books this year and which I highly recommend to anybody is a measure of how talented a writer Shaara is in the first place.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Shaara felt fine with handwaving away the fundamental cause of the war – he was no Southerner, but a New Jerseyan born to Italian immigrants (“Shaara” being a mistranslation of “Sciara.”) One clue as to his interest in Lee is his descriptions of the general’s heart disease, which clearly struck a chord with Shaara, who suffered a premature heart attack at 36 and died of another before his 60th birthday. Certainly his service in the Korean War goes some way towards explaining his focus on the bonds between men, and the eye-rolling that goes on on both sides about “the Cause;” it’s a theme I’ve read often in war fiction, that once the bullets start flying it’s about the men alongside you, and nothing else matters. But the most fundamental reason, I suppose, is that it was the 1970s: only a decade after desegregation, a fundamentally different time and place, when the black story was acknowledged but still marginalised; present, but never the focus, at least not from a white point of view, even if that white point of view in question was a generally sympathetic novelist. America clearly hasn’t come to terms with slavery even today, so what can one really expect from a novel almost fifty years old?

I say all of this because I’d be remiss not to. The Killer Angels isn’t slavery apologia or Lee hagiography, but it does omit plenty of uncomfortable details, to its discredit. Like the characters it deals with, it was a product of its time. That’s unfortunate. But it doesn’t hold it back from being an excellent war novel, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1995) 368 p.
Discworld #18 (Witches #5)


This one is ostensibly a parody of opera, though it’s really specifically modelled on Phantom of the Opera. Agnes Nitt, one of the more level-headed members of Diamanda’s young coven from Lords and Ladies, is being eyed off by Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to replace the departed Magrat as the indispensable third member of their own coven. Well aware of this, and not wanting to be the third fiddle that Magrat always was, Agnes departs Lancre for the bright lights of the big city to pursue her singing talent at the opera. Nanny, meanwhile, has (classic her) authored an erotic cookbook which has turned out to be a vanity publisher’s bestseller in Ankh-Morpork, oblivious to the fact that the publisher now owes her a lot of money. And so the two meddling old crones head down to the big smoke to recover her royalties and possibly, maybe, check in on young Agnes.

The crux of the novel centres around the Opera House, and the mysterious Ghost who has always been something of a superstitious good luck charm for the employees and performers. Unfortunately the Ghost has also recently started committing ghastly murders. Only a small number of characters at the Opera House are actually named, so as with any murder mystery it’s clear one of them will turn out be the culprit. The primary suspect is clear from very early on in the piece, and it’s a credit to Pratchett’s writing that this assumption is both right and wrong at the same time.

It is slightly strange to see a murder mystery in Ankh-Morpork as part of the Witches arc; had it been written even few books down the track it undoubtedly would have been a City Watch book. Instead we only see three Watchmen: the comic relief characters Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Detritus, plus an undercover officer we’ve never seen before and never see again. I suppose at this point Pratchett had only written two Watch books, and hadn’t yet written one set in the modern, legitimate, hundreds-strong Watch – that’ll be the next book, Feet of Clay. (In fact of the next six books, three are City Watch.) Anyway, it works, and it’s actually a bit refreshing to see an Ankh-Morpork centred book which doesn’t heavily involve Vimes and his thin blue line. I recall Pratchett saying somewhere that after a certain point, any book he tried to write in Ankh-Morpork had a tendency to turn itself into a City Watch book.

Is Maskerade a good Discworld novel? It’s fine. It works in and of itself, but there was little here I remembered from my teenage reading apart from the Morporkian opera star who pretends to be foreign so people take him more seriously, and the amusing after-effects of Greebo’s transformation into a human in Witches Abroad, which culminates here in an opera-balcony-climbing and chandelier-swinging pursuit of the Ghost by the were-cat Greebo. Maskerade is certainly a step down from Lords and Ladies, but I’d rank that as one of the best books in the series, so that’s no insult. Still, I would personally define this as the end of a sort of sophomore phase for the Discworld series as a whole (and in how many series can you say that about the 18th book!). Now, with Feet of Clay, begins what I’d define as the golden age: a run of about ten solid books in which Pratchett almost unfailingly hit its out of the park.

Rereading Discworld Index

Just before dawn the rain began: fine misty rain blowing cold and clean in soft mountain air. Buford’s pickets saw the dawn come high in the sky, a gray blush, a bleak rose. A boy from Illinois climbed a tree. There was mist across Marsh Creek, ever whiter in the growing light. The boy from Illinois stared and felt his heart beating and saw movement. A blur in the mist, an unfurled flag. Then the dark figures, row on row: skirmishers. Long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist. He had a long paralyzed moment, which he would remember until the end of his life. Then he raised the rifle and laid it across the limb of the tree and aimed generally toward the breast of a tall figure in the front of the line, waited, let the cold rain fall, misting his vision, cleared his eyes, waited, prayed, and pressed the trigger.

– From “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara

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May 2018