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Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (2013) 212 p.

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At the end of The Last Policeman, Detective Hank Palace is no longer a detective or even a policeman. An asteroid is scheduled to collide with the earth in a matter of months, and the US federal government has nationalised city police departments and shuttered the investigative units of Concord, New Hampshire. In Countdown City, Palace is approached by his childhood babysitter to help find her missing husband, who vanished one night and hasn’t come home. In this pre-apocalyptic world, people take off all the time, but she’s fervent that he never would have abandoned her. Palace knows that it’s a hopeless case and he’s unlikely to ever find the man, but as a sort of private investigator, he takes it up anyway. Why? Because everybody has something they cling to when faced with their imminent extinction, and that’s his: being a cop. Being a detective.

I can’t remember how The Last Policeman ended up on my to-be-read pile – it was one of those books that I add on Goodreads and then it sets there for five years before I get around to it – but I was surprised to find that its sequel, Countdown City, won the Philip K. Dick Award. It deserved to. There’s a messier central mystery than The Last Policeman, including an undeserved deus ex machina moment, and I maintain that it would fit more with the overall vibe of the series if Palace’s mysteries ultimately went frustratingly unresolved or turned out to be as unremarkably simple as they first appear (a suicide, a guy just leaving his wife to go have an affair). But the police procedural is really just a structure Winters uses to house the actual appeal of this series: a fascinating examination of a slow-motion apocalypse, of how people cope with knowledge of their impending destruction, and how the human infrastructure of the state responds to what Palace calls “the current environment.”

I started and finished this book on the same day; I can’t remember any time I’ve done that which didn’t involve an intercontinental flight. Granted, this day did involve spending two hours lying on a beach, but even later that evening I was more inclined to continue reading than do anything else. Countdown City holds your attention. That’s a testament to how well Winters captures the page-turning essence of a detective thriller (not his typical genre, I understand) but also a testament to what a good book it is and what a good concept it is. The countdown of the title feels very real: not in the specific rattling off of days or the flipping of a calendar, but rather in the gradual decay of the threads of civilisation; the sense that the world we know is slipping away bit by bit and the clock can never be turned back again. The Concord we see in The Last Policeman is one which is still in shock; still a recognisably functioning society, even if hyperinflation is kicking in and people are starting to “go Bucket List” and petrol’s running out. By the beginning of Countdown City, electricity is gone in New Hampshire, the newspapers have stopped printing, and the economy is down to bartering basics; there’s still law and order, but of a kind which is edging towards a police state, and by the end of the novel things have taken a considerable turn for the worse. Given that it’s the entire premise of the series, if Winters had botched this end-of-days atmosphere of anxiety, bleakness and barely constrained hysteria, it would have been a serious problem. But he carries it off perfectly. A great series, and I’m very much looking forward to finishing it off with the final book, World of Trouble.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman (2019) 687 p.

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Like its predecessor was and like its successor will be, The Secret Commonwealth is a difficult book to judge because of the weight of expectation it carries. Nobody is reading these books because they plucked them off the shelf at random; people are reading them because they read and loved His Dark Materials ten or twenty years ago and are eager to return to that world. It means these books have to stand up to a more robust assessment than they would otherwise, but I don’t think that’s unfair.

The Secret Commonwealth, unlike La Belle Sauvage, takes place not before the original trilogy but after it. Lyra is now twenty years old, studying at a college in her beloved Oxford – which is of course Pullman’s beloved Oxford, and I tell you what, he managed to make that love shine through in the original trilogy without sounding as though he was drafting a route for a walking tour. Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, as a result of the events in The Amber Spyglass, has the ability to travel where he pleases without being proximally tethered to his human. This may or may not also be the cause of the emotional rift between the two; one of the things I didn’t twig as a kid but which I enjoy as an adult reader is the fact that, since a daemon represents a person’s own soul, the conversations they have with them are really the equivalent of a person’s internal dialogue, and Lyra and Pan coming to hate each other is a symptom of her own depression. (Later, the actions of another character’s daemon are clearly an expression of her own tragically repressed homosexuality). While out wandering the rooftops and gardens of Oxford one night, Pan witnesses a murder, kicking off a chain of events which sends both of them away on long, separate journeys.

This book is better than La Belle Sauvage. That’s a start. What it has in common with La Belle Sauvage is that Pullman has either lost the ability to kill his darlings or is now old and successful enough that his editors no longer exercise a firm pen. (See also: J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc.) Northern Lights is an epic in miniature, each chapter moving the story dramatically forward, each introducing some interesting new concept or event or set of characters; by page 200 of Northern Lights, Lyra is standing in the snow in Norway, meeting Iorek Byrnison. By page 200 of The Secret Commonwealth, in comparison, everybody is still faffing about in Oxford doing the sort of amateur cloak and dagger stuff Pullman should have got out of his system with the Sally Lockhart books.

Aside from pacing, another issue it shares with La Belle Sauvage is that it feels rather hum-drum. The story of Northern Lights, while it happened to be focusing on Britain and the Arctic, always suggested that Lyra’s whole world was a fantastic map of magic and adventure; if somebody in the first chapter can passingly refer to “the bears” up north in a way which makes it clear they’re sentient, what else might be beyond the horizon, taken for granted by people who live in a world where even southern England is brimming with fantasy? The answer, in this new trilogy, is “not much.” There’s promise at the start, as Lyra reads second-hand in the murdered man’s journal about a mysterious desert in central Asia, a hidden palace containing some unknown treasure guarded by enigmatic sentries without daemons; encouraging stuff! But then she and Pan and Malcolm set off on separate journeys across a Europe which – aside from an encounter with a pair of cursed elemental beings on an atmospheric evening in Prague – does not feel very different from the real Europe. This is not helped by the fact that Pullman inexplicably felt the need to include a ripped-from-the-headlines Mediterranean refugee boat crisis.

Did I enjoy The Secret Commonwealth more than most fantasy? Yes, though I still found my attention wandering quite often. Will I read the final book in the trilogy? Of course. But neither it nor La Belle Sauvage come anywhere close to living up to the legacy of His Dark Materials. Possibly that was inevitable, but it’s a shame nonetheless.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (2012) 213 p.



The asteroid Maia is on a collision course with Earth, and there’s nothing we can do about it except sit and wait to die in about six months. Society is starting to come apart a little, but is still mostly civilised – lots of people are killing themselves, lots of people are walking away from their jobs and families to go do whatever it is they’ve always wanted to do, but most people are just carrying on as usual out of sheer inertia. Or possibly because they’re already doing what they’ve always wanted to do, like our protagonist Henry Palace: police patrolman in the New Hampshire capital Concord, recently made a detective because half their CID team has, as they put it, gone Bucket List. Palace is called to a suicide by hanging in a McDonald’s bathroom, and soon becomes convinced that it isn’t a suicide at all but a murder.

I would exactly call this a sci-fi book, but certainly the sci-fi aspect looms large over it and I wouldn’t have picked it up if it were just a detective novel. The Last Policeman is a mystery novel with literary aspirations (you know – it’s just a prose style thing) and the incoming asteroid creating a pre-apocalyptic society is basically a study in how people react and how society would change if we knew there wasn’t much time to go. We all know we’re going to die one day, of course, but it’s depressing to know exactly when, and even more depressing to know that nobody’s going to be carrying on after you. The question Palace is trying to answer is why somebody would commit a murder at a time like this – but the other question hanging over the book is why he should care, why anybody should care?

Winters answers that question well enough. Despite its introspective first person narration, The Last Policeman certainly works as a detective novel, zipping along quickly with plenty of twists and turns and cliffhangers. There come points where Palace figures something out which he doesn’t share with the reader, but that’s towards the climax and you aren’t kept hanging for too long anyway, so that’s fine. There was, though, an aspect which reminded me another detective-novel-as-literature I’ve read – the acclaimed writer Peter Temple’s novel The Broken Shore, in which I suspected the protagonist would never solve the case and would simply be left haunted by lingering suspicions and a sense of unresolved injustice, but in which Temple eventually went back on track with the traditional detective story confrontation and conclusion anyway. In the case of The Last Policeman, there came I point where I was fairly certain that Palace’s case was going to turn out to be a suicide after all, and that his dogged determination and persistent gut feeling that it was actually a murder was his own way of dealing with the impending doom: a way of pretending to be what he’d always wanted to be, a proper homicide detective on a proper case. This turned out to be wrong, which is a shame, because I think it would have made for a more thematically consistent and overall better novel.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a good book. Palace is a likeable enough protagonist, a well-meaning dweeb who grew up to be a cop, learning the criminal code off by heart and thinking that ecstasy is spelt with a capital E. There are some good character beats, and there’s one particularly good moment, when Palace finally tells the reader the fate of his absent parents – a bit within that story which is mentioned almost off-handedly but, in a really affecting way, immediately enhances the admiration we feel for a fellow detective who has mostly been a stock character up to that point. There’s an interesting story thread involving Palace’s sister which is left only half-resolved, and which would have annoyed me except that I know there’s two more books which take place closer to the asteroid impact. A quick, easy and decent read, and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015) 600 p.


It’s odd that Tchaikovsky picked the title Children of Time, since this refers to the less interesting of his novel’s two storylines: a relatively generic sci-fi yarn about a sleeper ship called the Gilgamesh which, through various trials and tribulations across the millenia, sees its crew going in and out of cryo-sleep as they try to find a new home for themselves, possibly the last remnants of the human race sent out thousands of years ago from a dying earth. The other story thread concerns what takes place on the first planet the Gilgamesh encounters: a terraformed world established by their own long-dead ancestors, in which a tailored virus was designed to uplift the local monkeys so that they’d evolve into something human-like in mere millenia, rather than millions of years. The problem is that something went wrong with the project, and the virus uplifted a different kind of animal entirely.

Anybody who hears about this book will probably also learn which animal, and it’s not like it isn’t revealed quite early, but I still won’t spoil it here. It’s an appealing elevator pitch for a science fiction doorstopper, and certainly the more compelling of the two storylines. Not that the story of the Gilgamesh is unentertaining – and in fact Tchaikovsky has a real skill for stringing out tension and ending chapters on cliffhangers – but the characters are rather flat, and towards the end it starts to become a bit of a colour-by-numbers generation starship story, with nothing we haven’t seen before and certain scenes and concepts Tchaikovsky seems to be including out of obligation. Like most sci-fi writers he also has an enthusiasm for expository dialogue and summary rather than scene – not an issue so much for the god’s-eye view storyline back on the planet, covering many thousands of generations of a developing intelligent society, but a bit of a drag when dealing with the same three or four characters arguing aboard the Gilgamesh.

Overall, though, this book is really good stuff. It’s 600 pages long and I burned through it in about four days. Good, readable, creative sci-fi that would make for a great airplane book.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (2006) 320 p.


In the year 1348, in the village of Oberhochwald in the Black Forest, a terrible thunder and fire tears through the nearby woods despite the cloudless sky. Venturing to investigate, parish priest Dietrich discovers a group of strange travellers have arrived; injured, frightened, and terrifyingly alien. In the modern day, historical researcher Tom uncovers evidence of a village that inexplicably vanished in the 14th century – not unusual in the era of the Black Death, but this region was never resettled, leaving behind only rumours of evil demons and cursed ground. That’s the elevator pitch for Eifelheim: a first contact story set in medieval Germany. It’s an immediately engaging concept, which would be worth checking out no matter who was writing it and no matter how it turned out. But Michael Flynn takes that idea beyond anything you’d expect for a potboiler sci-fi novel, creating a meticulously researched and wonderfully written combination of historical fiction and science fiction.

There are certain expectations and assumptions we bring to a story like this, which are heightened by the frame narrative of cliologist Tom (a science that sounds made up, but isn’t) and his physicist girlfriend Sharon. The present-day characters uncover certain clues about the fate of Oberhochwald (later renamed Eifelheim) which hint at what might occur in the main narrative; but because they’re looking down time’s telescope at fragments that are difficult to decipher, certain things we learn about end up playing out quite differently from our initial assumptions. The present-day frame narrative seems annoyingly pointless for most of the book, but it comes into its own towards the end – particularly the novel’s conclusion – and makes much more sense once you know Flynn originally published Eifelheim back in 1986 as a much shorter novella consisting only of the present-day chapters.

Both the 1986 novella version and the 2006 novel version of Eifelheim were Hugo nominees, and deservedly so. This is easily the best first contact novel I’ve ever read, one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read, and one of the best books I’ve read all year. One reason I was so impressed was how thoroughly Flynn subverted my expectations. We know that Oberhochwald will vanish; we know this story does not have a happy ending. The alien castaways – Krenken, as the Germans dub them – resemble enormous, monstrous grasshoppers, and an uneasy tension exists at the beginning of the novel, while Dietrich and the inner circle of villagers who know of their camp in the woods try to determine their nature. Some naturally assume they are demons; Dietrich argues they are travellers from a far land, creatures of God like anybody else, and that it is the villagers’ duty as Christians to help them. It also becomes apparent, however, that the Krenken have a rigid (say, insectile) social order maintained by domination and violence – and a mindset that does not necessarily limit that domination and violence to their own kind. The knowledge that Oberhochwald is in its final months is present from the beginning and hangs ominously over the initial proceedings. There is an eerie moment, concluding a chapter, when one of the lower-ranked Krenken – who controls the aliens’ MacGuffin translator device – tells Dietrich that he knows the nicknames the priest has given to some of the higher-ranked Krenken are insulting:

“Wait. How should I call you? What is your name?”
The great yellow eyes turned on him. “As you will. It will amuse me to learn your choice. The Heinzelmaannchen tells me what means ‘gschert’ and ‘kratzer,’ but I have not permitted it to overset these terms into our speech according to their proper meanings.”
Dietrich laughed. “So. You play your own game.”
“It is no game.” And with that, the creature was gone, bounding from the window noiselessly into the Lesser Wood below Church Hill.

One of the reasons Eifelheim works so well as a first contact novel is because it’s set in the Middle Ages, greatly distancing the human side of affairs from the reader’s perspective. The villagers have a fundamentally different way of viewing the world, one in which everything is first filtered through the lens of their religion. The Krenken, on the other hand, are interdimensional aliens who know about electricity and space travel and bacteria. There are thus many sequences in which the reader understands what both sides mean perfectly well, while the stranded spacefarers and the German peasants misunderstand each other’s meaning. Flynn is a smart enough writer to know that a translator MacGuffin is not a cure-all; language is a more complicated thing than that, and both sides often discuss the difficulty of the meaning – of metaphor, of simile, of truly understanding what it is the other species means when they come from such different societies. They often arrive at different interpretations based on simple description; this minor example stems from the Krenken describing to Dietrich that many of those stranded were passengers, not crew:

“I will say now a thing, though it shows us weak. We are a mixed folk. Some belong to the ship, and its captain was their Herr. The captain died in the shipwreck and Gschert now rules. Others form a school of philosophers whose task is to study new lands. It was they who hired the ship. The Kratzer is not their Herr, but the other philosophers allow him to speak for them.”
“Primus inter pares,” Dietrich suggested. “First among equals.”
“So. A useful phrase. I will tell him. In the third band are those who travel to see strange and distant sights, places where the well-known have lived or where great events have happened…. What call you such folk?”


Where of course we would call them tourists. This is a throwaway example; a more important misunderstanding occurs when they discuss the possibility of the villagers helping the Krenken to go home:

“No, no, no. It cannot be walked, and your carts cannot endure the journey.”
“Well, William of Rubruck walked to Cathay and back, and Marco Polo and his uncles did the same more lately, and there is on this earth no farther place than Cathay.”
The Krenk faced him once more and it seemed to Dietrich that those yellow eyes glowed with a peculiar intensity. But that was a trick of the shadows and the candlelight. “No farther place on this earth,” the creature said, “but there are other earths.”
“Indeed there may be, but the journey there is no natural journey.”
The Krenk, always wooden in expression, seemed to stiffen the more. “You … know of such journeys—question.”
The Heinzelmaannchen had yet to master expression. The Kratzer had told Dietrich that Krenkish languages employed rhythm rather than tone to indicate humor or query or irony. Thus, Dietrich could not be certain that he had heard hope in the machine’s translation.
“The journey to Heaven…” Dietrich suggested, to be sure he understood.
The Krenk pointed skyward. “‘Heaven’ is up there—question.”
“Ja. Beyond the firmament of the fixed stars, beyond even the crystalline orb or the prime mobile, the unmoving empyrean Heaven. But, the journey is made by our inner selves.”
“How strange that you would know this. How say you ‘all-that-is’: earth, stars, all—question.”
“‘The world.’ ‘Kosmos’.”
“Then, hear. The kosmos is indeed curved and the stars and … I must say, ‘families of stars,’ are embedded within it, as in a fluid. But in—another—direction, neither width nor breadth nor height, lies the other side of the firmament, which we liken to a membrane, or skin.”
“A tent,” Dietrich suggested; but he had to explain “tent,” as the Heinzelmaannchen had never seen one named.
The Krenk said, “Natural philosophy progresses differently in different arts, and perhaps your people have mastered the ‘other world’ while remaining… simple in other ways.” It looked again out the window. “Could salvation be possible for us…”
The last comment, Dietrich suspected, had not been intended for him to hear. “It is possible for everyone,” he said cautiously.

What in most other books would be played as a humorous misunderstanding is, in Eifelheim, deadly earnest. (Another point I love is how the priest grows alarmed when he realises, from his point of view, the Krenken describing their journey away from their home dimension is not unlike the story of Satan being ejected from heaven.) As the novel goes on, and Dietrich speaks to them further of God, more misunderstandings accrue; “You must introduce me to this friend of yours, God,” one says, to which Dietrich replies, “I will.” The notion of kindness and brotherhood among men is alien to them; but when Dietrich tries to explain that Jesus came from heaven, and then went away, and will return one day, the Krenken naturally speculate that he was an interstellar traveller like themselves – and that if his return is imminent, he may be able to help them. Again: in any other book this would probably be played for laughs. But Flynn humanises the poor, stranded, dying Krenken so well that their disappointment when Jesus fails to materialise at a religious feast is genuinely sad, and the misunderstanding is overall a minor plot point that only serves to illustrate how well Flynn paints every fraught moment of this strange, ongoing first contact.

We have a habit of thinking about the Middle Ages – if we think about them at all – as a miserable, muddy life of toil and poverty, nothing more than hacking potatoes out of the ground before dying in a hovel. But Flynn paints a portrait of a rich and beautiful society of festivals and customs, friendships and love, education and philosophy. We also have a habit – which I’ve mentioned before by way of William Gibson – of assuming that our own civilisation is the peak of intelligence and all past ages were simple at best and stupid at worst; that even their well-educated men were well-meaning yet ill-informed hicks good for nothing more than our own amusement. But the people of Oberhochwold – even aside from the highly-educated scholar-priest Dietrich – have a deep and complex society, an awareness of the world around them, and are far from fools. They are witty. They have deep conversations. When first confronted with the Krenken, they evaluate, speculate, and cotton on to far more than we might expect them to. They are smart enough to keep some of what they have cottoned onto to themselves. The characters are not crude superstitious stereotypes, but richly drawn men and women who are as wise as you or I. Dietrich in particular, with his classical education on everything from theology to philosophy to medicine, is certainly more intelligent than me, a feeling I also have when reading about Stephen Maturin. Manfred, the village’s local lord, is not a cruel or spoilt scion of the gentry but a sensitive and thoughtful man who genuinely cares about the people he has a responsibility for. Max, his chief man-at-arms, is a well-travelled and shrewd Swiss mercenary who is one of the first to encounter the Krenken and immediately discerns that the innocuous sticks they carry at their belts are sophisticated weapons.

This ties into another accomplishment of Eifelheim as a first contact story: the cultural exchange is not one-sided. It is not a story about the Krenken introducing the humans to wondrous new technology, or a story about the humble, down-to-earth villagers introducing the Krenken to a more virtuous way of simple living. Ideas and philosophies are exchanged equally between both sides; friendships are formed in which each side respects the differences of the other. The Krenken themselves have factions and individual personalities. The co-operation that develops between human and Krenken – particularly during the brutally difficult circumstances in the novel’s third act – is genuinely touching. The conclusion of Dietrich’s story in Eifelheim is wonderfully bittersweet, capped off with a scene in the modern-day frame story which is equally lovely, and all of it very thoroughly earned.

There’s inevitably a strong thread of Christianity running through this novel. I’m not a religious man, but Eifelheim – and the character of Father Dietrich in particular – represents the very best virtues of what Christianity is supposed to be: charity, kindness, selflessness, brotherhood, succour to strangers, love for all men – or, in this case, love for any living creature. It’s the kind of science fiction novel I think a Christian reader would greatly enjoy, though you by no means need to be a believer to enjoy it, or to find it inspiring and affirming. It’s ultimately a deeply poignant, touching and moving novel which explores life, death, empathy and acceptance. It feels crazy to say that about a sci-fi novel about a bunch of alien grasshoppers crash-landing in medieval Germany, but there you go: that’s just how good Eifelheim is. I can’t recommend it unreservedly – it’s a heavy and often difficult read – but I found it exceptionally rewarding, and one of those books that will stick around in my memory for a long time.

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian (1984) 312 p.

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This is the halfway point of the series, and the book from which the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation takes most (but not nearly all) of its plot. HMS Surprise is dispatched from Gibraltar in pursuit of the USS Norfolk, which has been sent to harass British whalers in the South Pacific. (We are, at this point, well into what O’Brian calls his fictional 1812b, in which he spun out the year indefinitely to avail himself of its most interesting historical events). And so The Far Side of the World takes us all the way down past the coast of Brazil, around the Antarctic storms of Cape Horn, up past Chile and the Galapagos and out into the warm tropical waters of Polynesia.

It’s a great book, one of the best in the series, and possibly the only book that features no extended naval battles. Peter Weir’s film of course ends with a confrontation of gunpowder and steel, but what happens in the novel when Surprise finally tracks down her quarry is infinitely more interesting – I won’t give away precisely what it is, but suffice to say it’s a sort of character-driven pressure-cooker situation of steadily increasing tensions between two opposing groups, the kind of thing (among many other things) which makes me dearly wish HBO would commission a multi-million dollar TV series of these books.

There’s another tremendous setpiece which unfolds perfectly. Fishing from the rear window of Aubrey’s cabin one night, the typically clumsy Maturin topples into the water, and with a cry of “clap on to the cutter!” Jack dives in after him without a second thought. Maturin’s constant ability to find himself in the drink has been played for laughs so many times by now that it’s quite a shock as the scene progresses and the reader realises Jack and Stephen are in far more danger than first thought: the cutter is not being towed behind the ship after all, there is nothing to clap onto, and Jack’s cries for assistance are drowned out by the singing of the sailors on the deck.

He had set Stephen to float on his back, which he could do tolerably well when the sea was calm; but an unfortunate ripple, washing over his face just as he breathed in, sank him again; again he had to be brought up, and now Jack’s “Surprise ahoy,” coming at the full pitch of his powerful voice, had an edge of anxiety to it, for although the ship was not sailing fast, every minute she moved more than a hundred yards, and already her lights were dimming in the mist.

Hail after hail after hail, enough to startle the dead: but when she was no more than the blur of the planet earlier in the night he fell silent, and Stephen said, “I am extremely concerned, Jack, that my awkwardness should have brought you into such very grave danger.”

“Bless you,” said Jack, “it ain’t so very grave as all that. Killick is bound to come into the cabin in half an hour or so, and Mowett will put the ship about directly.”

But Killick turns in early, and as the weaker Stephen lapses into unconsciousness through the night while the two of them float alone in the terrifyingly enormous Pacific Ocean, Jack’s mathematical calculations of time and distance and drift and endurance lead him to a bleak conclusion. Aside from being engaging in itself, this scene is a wonderful demonstration of their friendship: Stephen’s awkwardness has in fact got them both killed, but this never crosses Jack’s consideration, never leads to any acrimony or recriminations, even privately. Instead, knowing that being adrift in the ocean is far more terrifying for his friend than for him, Jack never treats him with anything less than gentleness.

In the midst of his calculations he became aware that Stephen, lying there as stiff as a board, was becoming distressed. “Stephen,” he said, pushing him, for Stephen’s head was thrown back so far that he could not easily hear, “Stephen, turn over, put your arms round my neck, and we will swim for a little.” Then as he felt Stephen’s feet on the back of his legs, “You have not kicked off your shoes. Do not you know you must kick off your shoes? What a fellow you are, Stephen.”

And cleverly – as in The Fortune of War, when Stephen and Jack’s different strengths play off each other as they find themselves stranded alone in Boston – it’s Stephen’s skills as a naturalist and anthropologist which come in to play when the two men are rescued by a Polynesian vessel crewed entirely by women, and it slowly becomes clear to Stephen in particular that this is not a society in which men will be welcomed; indeed, it’s only his memory of a very specific Polynesian word which saves Jack from an unpleasant fate.

Overall, one of the very finest entries in the series. I usually only read a few of these per year, but just burned through The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World in a single month while travelling, so I’ll have to back off and pace myself again.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929) 355 p.


I’m more a fan of Hemingway’s short stories than his novels, and the only reason I read this was because I was travelling in Italy and like to match my holiday reading to my location. But I liked this far more than his other novels, because it actually has a plot. Following an American fighting for the Italian army during World War I, A Farewell to Arms takes us through wartime, devastating injury, a long convalescent period, blossoming love, a return to the front, a catastrophic retreat, desertion, a hurried escape to Switzerland and personal tragedy, all in a couple of hundred pages.

Hemingway still maintains an obsession with making sure we know precisely what the protagonist is having for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and precisely what he’s drinking at any given moment (grappa and vermouth, mostly) but who am I to deny a Pulitzer winner his schtick? There’s a particularly good sequence, with shades of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where the protagonist is detained along with dozens of other officers following the rout at Caporetto, and witnesses them being quickly questioned and then executed – a reminder that fascism was not many years away from seizing Italy.

“It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the lieutenant-colonel.
“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”
“Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked.
“Italy should never retreat.”
We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoner stood in front and a little to one side of us.
“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.”

This is also a book which I’m glad I read on an ereader. Obviously in a physical book you can tell very easily when you’re approaching the end of the story; in an ereader, your only clue is “page 300 of 355” at the bottom of the screen. This edition happened to have a lot of afterwords and appendices tacked on to the end, and so I thought I still had another hundred-odd pages left when the ending – one of Hemingway’s most emotionally brutal – arrived unexpectedly. I liked that.

Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian (1983) 330 p.

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Jack Aubrey’s Mediterranean cruises are typically the novels I’m least interested in, since they so heavily involve naval battles and all their associated strategising, which is easily the most difficult part of this series to comprehend. Treason’s Harbour, which uses Malta as its hub, is a nice surprise: it’s another book which deftly balances Jack’s maritime escapades with Stephen’s more shadowy land-based work in the intelligence service.

One of the things which appealed to me from the outset was the opening scene, in which Jack is at a garden party with a number of other officers, while Stephen is dining some way off with another friend. Both men are under observation from a tower by a pair of French spies, and O’Brian shifts the scene cinematically back and forth between Jack and Stephen by means of the spies’ discussion as a segue. And he maintains, as always, a wonderfully readable ability for his prose to skip along across so many different aspects: a walk along a country road, a glimpse of nature in motion, idle thoughts of literature, and encounters with foreign tradition:

It was an unfrequented road: one ox-cart, one ass, one peasant in the last half hour. Unfrequented by men, that is to say; but in the olive-trees on either hand the cicadas kept up a metallic strident din, sometimes rising to such a pitch that conversation would have been difficult had he not been alone; and once he left the small fields and the groves, walking over stony, goat-grazing country, the highway was very much used by reptiles. Small dun lizards flickered in the scorched grass at the edge and big green ones as long as his forearm scuttled away at his approach, while occasional serpents brought him up all standing: he had an ignorant, superstitious horror of snakes. On a walk of this kind in the Mediterranean islands he usually saw tortoises, which he did not dislike at all – far from it – but they seemed rare on Gozo, and it was not until he had been going for some time that he heard a curious tock-tock-tock and he saw a small one running, positively running across the road, perched high on its legs; it was being pursued by a larger tortoise, who, catching it up, butted it three times in quick succession: it was the clap of the shells that produced the tock-tock-tock. “Tyranny,” said Jack, meaning to intervene: but either the last blows had subdued the smaller tortoise – a female, or she felt that she had shown all the reluctance that was called for; in any case she stopped. The male covered her, and maintaining himself precariously on her domed back with his ancient folded leathery legs he raised his face to the sun, stretched up his neck, opened his mouth wide and uttered the strangest dying cry. “Bless me,” said Jack, “I had no notion… how I wish Stephen were here.” Unwilling to disturb them, he fetched a cast quite round the pair and walked on, trying to recall some lines of Shakespeare that had to do not exactly with tortoises but with wrens, until he reached a wayside shrine dedicated to St Sebastian, the martyr’s blood recently renewed with startling brilliance and profusion.

Similarly impressive, as I noted in the sad case of Lieutenant Nicolls way back in HMS Surprise, is O’Brian’s ability to give the commonplace tragedy of historical fiction – the daily reality of injury and death – an emotional note which must be read in between the lines. Halfway through the novel, a foreign representative assigned to Jack’s ship meets a sudden and grisly end:

“What the devil is he about?” said Jack, as he saw the dragoman take off his shirt and stand on the rail. “Mr Hairabedian,” he called. But it was too late: although Hairabedian heard he was already in midair. He dived into the warm, opaque sea with scarcely a splash and swam aft along the side under the surface, reappearing by the mainchains, looking up at the quarterdeck and laughing. Abruptly his cheerful face jerked upwards – his chest and shoulders shot clear of the water. A long dark form could be seen below him and while his face still looked up, his wide-open mouth uttering an enormous cry, he was shaken from side to side with inconceivable ferocity and he vanished in a great boil of water. Once again his head rose up, still recognizable, and the stump of an arm: but now at least five sharks were striving furiously in the bloody sea and a few moments later there was nothing but the red cloud and the fishes questing eagerly in it for more, while others came racing in, their fins sharp on the surface.
The shocked silence went on and on until at last the quartermaster at the con gave a meaning cough: the sand in the half-hour glass was running out.
“Shall I carry on, sir?” asked the master in a low voice.
“Aye, do, Mr Gill,” said Jack. “Mr Calamy, my sextant, if you please.”

This appears to be the end of the matter; it’s only in small asides or glimpses of sullenness among the ship’s company, across the remainder of the chapter, that we understand how deeply shaken Jack and his seamen are by what befell Hairabedian. On a similar note, early on in the novel O’Brian reveals to the reader (but not to the other characters) that a high-ranking member of the Admiralty’s intelligence division is in fact a French spy; I expected Stephen to eventually expose him, but this doesn’t occur, and in fact our hero is none the wiser by the novel’s conclusion. Perhaps the man will meet his just desserts in the next book; perhaps they won’t come until several more books down the line; or perhaps he’ll never face justice at all, since O’Brian, like Larry McMurtry, knows the universe can be cruel and unfair and has no hesitation about applying those rules to his characters, as in the case of poor Hairabedian.

But, also like McMurtry, O’Brian has a marvellous sense of humour. It’s far too long to replicate the whole thing here (and the only reason I included the above passages at all is thanks to internet piracy allowing me to copy and paste) but there’s a great scene in which Jack and an excited Stephen row out to the supply ship Dromedary, which has delivered Stephen’s newly-ordered diving bell (as proudly mentions several times, “Dr. Halley’s model”) and Jack realises that Stephen, utterly oblivious to the needs and concerns of a Navy man-of-war, expects Jack to carry the enormous device aboard his own vessel.

Jack had meant to take his friend aside and tell him privately that it would not do; that the machine would be obliged to be set ashore or sent home; that Jack was tolerably fly, not having been born yesterday, and was not to be taken in by a fait accompli; but these very shocking figures so startled him that he cried “God help us! Five foot across – eight foot high – close on two ton! How can you ever have supposed that room could be attempted to be made for such a monstrous thing on the deck of a frigate?” All around him the smiling faces turned grave and closed and he was aware of a strong current of moral disapproval: the Dromedaries were obviously on Stephen’s side.

“What do you say to the convenient little space between the foremast and the front rail?”
“Two tons right over her forefoot, pressing on her narrow entry? It would make an angel gripe: it would cut two knots off her rate of sailing on a bowline. Besides, there is the mainstay, you know, and the downhauls; and how should I ever win my anchors? No, no, Doctor, I am sorry to say it will never do. I regret it; but had you spoken of it earlier, I should have advised against it directly; I should have told you at once that it would never do in a man-of-war, except perhaps in a first-rate, that might just find room for it on the skids.”
“It is Dr Halley’s model,” said Stephen in a low voice.
“But on the other hand,” said Jack with an unconvincing cheerfulness, “think what a boon it would be to a shore establishment! Lost cables, hawsers, anchors… and I am sure the port-admiral would lend you a broad-bottomed scow from time to time, to look at the bottom with.”
“For my part I shall always acknowledge a great debt to Dr Halley, whenever I take the altitude of a star,” said the master of the Dromedary.
“All mariners must be grateful to Dr Halley,” said his mate; and this seemed to be the general opinion aboard.
“Well, sir,” said the master, turning to Stephen with a most compassionate air, “What am I to do with your poor bell – with poor Dr Halley’s bell? Set it ashore as it stands, or take it to pieces and strike it down into the hold until you have considered in your mind? One or the other I must do to clear my hatchway, and double-quick, do you see, for the lighters will be putting off the moment the Clerk of the Chequer reaches Admiralty Creek. There he is, just by Edinburgh over there, nattering with her skipper.”
“Pray take it to pieces, Captain, if that should not be too laborious,” said Stephen. “I have some friends in Malta upon whose attachment I believe I can rely.”

Anyway, in reviewing, I find myself reduced once again to merely picking out pieces of prose I admire. Such is the lot of reviewing a Proustian meta-story split across twenty books. I once more heartily recommend this series.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873) 198 p.

80 days.png


I had a bunch of long plane and car trips recently, and got around to downloading Inkle’s acclaimed iOS interactive fiction game 80 Days. As you’d imagine, it’s loosely based off the famous novel, but is set in an alternate steampunk world and lets you take more or less any route you please; on various playthroughs I ended up at the North Pole, aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine, or stranded on Pitcairn Island. It’s a great little game that made me more interested in the original novel, and as it turned out I had the public domain copy sitting around on my ereader, so I figured I’d give it a read.

It’s not good! It starts out well enough, with the classic set-up of the excitable, emotional Frenchman Passepartout becoming valet to the ludicrously rigid Englishman Phileas Fogg, a gentleman of leisure with a mysterious fortune who does nothing with his days but read the newspaper and go play whist at the Reform Club. On literally the first day of his employment, Passepartout is dismayed to learn Fogg has taken on an expensive wager with his friends at the club, after an argument about a newspaper article which claims it’s now possible to travel around the world in eighty days. The point of contention is that the newspaper published it merely as a hypothetical, based on train timetables and steamer routes; Fogg’s friends claim that delays and mishaps would inevitably throw the schedule off track, while Fogg claims that no delay or mishap is insurmountable. Personally I found this far less interesting than if Fogg had merely been putting his faith in the transport marvels of the modern age and was striking out blind, but whatever: off they go, pursued by a Scotland Yard detective named Fix who’s convinced Fogg is responsible for a £20,000 Bank of England robbery and is taking a circuitous route to flee justice.

As the book goes on, it’s just really dry and dull. There are perfunctory adventures in there, but Verne sort of skips over them, telling rather than showing. One of the core offenders is a Sioux attack on a train in the Midwest, in which Passepartout is abducted and Fogg leads some American soldiers off to rescue him; Verne for some reason decides to convey this scene from the perspective of Fix, who’s sitting around at the train station waiting for them to return. Enthralling stuff. It’s also very much a product of its time, marvelling at the accomplishments of the British Empire and falling in lockstep with the White Man’s Burden. (The game 80 Days, penned mostly by black science fiction writer Meg Jaynath, takes a more even-handed view.) Fogg is not a particularly interesting character beyond being a stereotype of English reserve – it would have been far more interesting if Fix turned out to be right and he really was the bank robber – and the actual facts of his accomplishment are uninspiring. Of course delays and mishaps won’t put a spanner in the works when you’re rich enough to just buy a boat if you miss your departure. On the whole I don’t recommend it, though I very much do recommend 80 Days.

Jingo by Terry Pratchett (1997) 448 p.
Discworld #21 (City Watch #4)



Jingo is one of the Discworld novels I remember best, since I think I started aged around 12 with The Fifth Elephant and, for some reason, worked my backwards through the City Watch books. I remember most of them fairly well, but this must have seared itself into my brain – I remember almost every scene and quite a lot of dialogue. Which makes it difficult to assess. Frankly it’s less interesting than I remember, but perhaps that’s because I remember it so well that there was nothing to surprise me?

Concerning a confrontation between Ankh-Morpork and its neighbour across the Circle Sea, Klatch (a stand-in for vaguely Middle Eastern countries), you’d imagine the fundamental theme of the book to be war. Not really. It has much to say about statecraft and patriotism and of course jingoism, but not about the business of war itself – though Pratchett returns to the subject in Monstrous Regiment. And despite the fact that the war is kicked off (or at least hastened along) by an assassination attempt on a visiting Klatchian dignitary to Ankh-Morpork, it feels like an odd book for Sam Vimes to be the centre of. (Though this is far more egregious in Monstrous Regiment, where even as a teenager, I thought he had no business being in.)

There’s some good stuff in here as always. A particularly clever plot trick is the use of Vimes’ magical PDA, which begins giving him more useful appointments by telling him what is about to happen in the immediate future; and the twist which occurs (which only Pratchett could pull off) when, at a critical moment of decision, two Vimes in alternate universes accidentally grab each other’s PDAs. And so while Vimes is going after one of his abducted officers, dragging along whichever members of the Watch he could round up to get to Klatch where Captain Carrot starts playing Lawrence of Arabia, he begins receiving rather eerie and brutal butterfly-effect updates of what’s happening in a parallel universe where he stayed in Ankh-Morpork. Put like that it seems confusing and silly, but on the page, Pratchett makes it work beautifully.

Next up is Carpe Jugulum, a Witches book which many consider to be excellent but which I don’t recall very well. Hopefully that’s actually a good sign.

Rereading Discworld Index

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