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.

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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)

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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 my 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 at one point 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

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (1978) 270 p.

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My friend Chris tree-changed out to the Victorian countryside a couple of years ago, his partner buying some acreage near Ballarat, and I visit them fairly often for a night or a weekend. I find it refreshing. Since I moved to Melbourne after university I’ve lived in a sequence of rathole sharehouses or my current rathole one-bedroom apartment, this of course being the first generation to have lower living standards than our parents: so, yes, it’s nice to go out to a roomy country house, a place where you can stretch out, drink red wine, sit by the fireplace. Chris was surprised when I mentioned how comfortable I felt out there; he only experiences that feeling when he and his partner go an hour up the road to stay at her parents’ farm. He proposed it was because the feeling stems from abrogating responsibility. When I’m at their place, they take care of everything; when he and his partner go to her parents’ place, her dad takes care of everything. You sink back into a semi-parental world; one which has some order and sense to it. I imagine this is also why, when my girlfriend drives home to Albury on some weekends, she still calls it “going home” despite having lived in Melbourne for seven years.

This is a close equivalent to how I feel, in literary terms, when working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin series. I can’t entirely explain why. Historical fiction has always been a comforting genre – certainly more so in the last few years, since climate change started spiralling out of control and the world started slouching back towards fascism – but the Aubrey-Maturin series most definitely has an ineffable sense of comfort. This seems entirely counter-intuitive for a series about bloody naval battles and the gruelling day-to-day life of the British Navy, yet here we are. I suppose it’s inherently romantic to read about a dashing sea captain who is best friends with a supremely intelligent naval surgeon/naturalist/spy. Possibly it’s because the lead characters are so immensely likeable, and a series of books is inherently a familiar and enjoyable thing to revisit; Philip Reeve compares the cabin of one of Jack Aubrey’s ships to Blandings Castle or 22B Baker Street.

But calling a series comfortable also suggests that it’s lightweight; an easy read. These books are anything but. The author O’Brian is most often compared to is Austen, and I’ve noted before that if I had to guess, I would have thought these books were actually written in the 19th century in which they’re set, rather than the 1970s and ’80s.

So, anyway: Desolation Island, book five of the series, and well slotted into a formula by now. Jack is home in England, spending his money on various idiotic investments, but Stephen’s espionage dealings have resulted in the necessity of transporting a captured female spy to the penal colony of New Holland (home sweet home). As Jack has also been ordered to head down to Sydney and sort out Bligh’s second unfortunate mutiny, the two missions are merged, and his new command the HMS Leopard finds itself with a consignment of convicts – and away we go!

There are two really tremendous setpieces in this book. The first is the Leopard’s flight through stormy Antarctic seas from a larger and more dangerous Dutch warship, the Waakzaamheid – a ship which, Jack is disturbed to realise, intends not to board and capture the Leopard but to sink her outright: effectively an act of mass murder, and unusual outside a fleet battle. But all is fair in love and war, and so the Leopard fires back in kind, and the two ships engage in a running chase, up and down enormous waves like a rollercoaster, the ships firing at each other from stern or bow respectively, since neither vessel can present its broadside to the waves; this necessitates the use of the captain’s cabin at the stern as a firing platform, and ends with half of it torn away and swamped with seawater, Jack injured and half-drowned and senseless, looking out the huge gap where his wall used to be at the point where he and his men have landed a lucky shot and brought down the Waakzaamheid’s foremast, sinking her:

The Leopard reached the crest. Green water blinded him. It cleared, and through the bloody haze running from his cloth he saw the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached to. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.
“My God, oh my God,” he said. “Six hundred men.”

This battle (the first, apparently, that O’Brien invented outright rather than lifting from history, which is possibly also the reason it’s the first in the series that thrilled me rather than putting me to sleep with dreary exposition of naval tactics) is subsequently followed by a sequence, in calmer seas, where the Leopard is struck by an iceberg and slowly begins to founder. O’Brian brilliantly brings home the utter, dreadful horror of such an event: a thousand miles from even the edge of civilisation, at a time when the oceans hadn’t even been fully charted, an exhausted crew endlessly pumping water out of the ship all through the night while others desperately try to repair the damage and jettison what wasn’t already thrown overboard during the flight from the Dutchman – and all the while a good part of the crew insisting that the ship is doomed, that they should take to the open boats and make for South Africa, more than a thousand miles away, a strain of panic beginning to run through a divided ship.

Jack was awake, grey but alive, with Killick’s good breakfast dispelling the cold, when Grant came to him, reported the water over the top of the well and gaining fast, and the parting of the new fothering-sail at the dews. “So there we are, sir. We have done all we can by the ship. We cannot pass a new sail before she settles. Shall I provision the boats? I presume you will go in the launch.”
“I do not intend leaving the ship, Mr Grant.”
“She is sinking under us, sir.”
“I am not sure of that. We may save her yet – fother the leak – fashion a rudder with a spare topmast.”
“Sir, the hands have wrought hard, very hard, ever since the moment we struck. We cannot in honesty give them any more hope. And if I may speak plain, I doubt they would come to their duty, with the water deep in the orlop. I doubt they would still obey orders.”
“Would you still obey orders, Mr Grant?” asked Jack with a smile.
“I will obey orders, sir,” said Grant, deadly earnest. “No man shall ever accuse me of mutiny. All lawful orders. But, sir, is it lawful to order men to their death with no enemy at hand, no battle? I respect your decision to stay with your ship, but I beg you to consider those of another way of thinking. I believe the ship must founder. I believe the boats can reach the Cape.”

This is apparently based on a real event, the tale of the HMS Guardian, which struck an iceberg on Christmas Eve in 1789. Spoiler alert: the boats did not reach the Cape. This is the power of O’Brian’s prose: I read that Wikipedia article, I read the phrase “a wall of ice higher than the ship’s masts slid by along the side,” with a real sense of horror, but of course that was purely because I’d already read the whole gripping sequence of the foundering ship in Desolation Island. It may have been 200 years ago, but these were real people – real human beings – who died cold and lonely and frightening deaths in dark seas a thousand miles away from home.

What was that I was saying about a comfortable read? But it is – because it’s not just the exquisitely realised horror, it’s the beauty, too. The smaller moments, like when a blue whale surfaces alongside the ship to Stephen’s delight:

As the wind was biting through his fourth waistcoat and comforter, he was rewarded by what appeared to be the sea-bed rising to the surface right by the ship, a vast dark area that grew clearer and clearer until it assumed the form of a whale. But a whale of unspeakable dimensions: still it rose, unhurried, and as he stared, holding his breath, the sea rounded in a smooth boil – the surface parted – the creature’s streaming back appeared, dark blue-grey just flecked with white, stretching from the fore to the mizen-chains. The head rose higher still and expired a rushing jet of air that instantly condensed in a plume as tall as the foretop and floated over the Leopard’s bowsprit: and at the same moment Stephen himself breathed out. He believed he heard the hissing inspiration just before the head sank and the enormous bulk slid over in an easy, leisurely motion; a dorsal fin appeared, far back; a hint of the flukes themselves, and the sea closed softly over Leviathan; but his hurry of spirits was so great that he could not be sure.

We’ve all seen skeletons or life-size blue whale models on primary school trips to maritime museums. Big deal. But the beauty of O’Brian’s prose is that he can put you right there, in Stephen’s shoes, and make you realise what a spine-tingling, thrilling moment it would be, for a European, so far from home, so close to death, on a crippled ship in frigid foreign seas, to suddenly witness something like that emerge – as large as the ship – just there for a moment – and then, like a dream, gone. It takes you back to a time when there was still so much mystery and wonder in the world.

These, I think, are some of the reasons people adore these books. I wouldn’t say I adore them myself, just yet – I’m averaging one every eight months or so, and they can be heavy going sometimes – but I can understand why others do, and see how I would come to. There is something immensely pleasing about regularly visiting this world and these characters that O’Brian so meticulously crafted.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017) 545 p.

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We waited twenty years for this?

Philip Pullman describes La Belle Sauvage, the first in a trilogy comprising what he calls The Book of Dust, as neither a “prequel” or a “sequel” to his Dark Materials trilogy – apparently the books will run before, during, and after that trilogy, chronologically speaking – and instead describes it as an “equal,” which is a clever turn of phrase and also a whopping fib. La Belle Sauvage is an unnecessary prequel if there ever was one.

The book takes place ten years before the events of Northern Lights, on the outskirts of Oxford, where innkeeper’s son Malcolm often does chores for the nuns of the priory across the river. One evening a group of important noblemen congregate at the inn and inquire as to whether the nuns have ever been known to take care of an infant – so soon the priory finds itself raising the baby Lyra, the protagonist of Northern Lights. The agents of the authoritarian Church (the least interesting part of the Dark Materials trilogy) are sniffing around for the baby, as is a mysterious man with a hyena for a daemon, and a great storm is building. In due course of events, Malcolm finds himself trying to bear Lyra to safety during a cataclysmic flood.

I’m one of the readers – who I suspect may be a majority – who adored Northern Lights, liked The Subtle Knife less so, and found by the The Amber Spyglass that the spark had sputtered out. While reading La Belle Sauvage it struck me that perhaps Pullman never fully grasped what made Northern Lights so compelling for so many young readers. It wasn’t the religious overtones (almost entirely absent from that book anyway); it certainly wasn’t Dust and fate and destiny and all that other philosophising that crumbles when you look too hard at it in daylight. It was the vibrant, creative and fascinating world that he introduced us to – a world a lot of readers have wanted to return to, but not if he merely treads the same ground. Consider how wildly inventive everything in Northern Lights was – the daemons, the bears, the Scandinavian witches, the clockwork beetles, the alethiometer. Every chapter seemed to have something new. But La Belle Sauvage contains nothing fantastic that isn’t a re-tread of the original trilogy or lazily lifted from English folklore.

La Belle Sauvage, most of all, is badly paced and understuffed. To compare: my hardback edition of Northern Lights is 403 pages long and contains Lyra’s world of Jordan College, her life and subsequent escape from Mrs Coulter in London, the world of the river-dwelling gyptians in the Fens, an Arctic expedition, the eerie polar research institute, the Scandinavian witch clans, the island of the armoured bears and Lord Asriel rupturing a gateway through the aurora into another world. My hardback edition of La Belle Sauvage is 545 pages long and contains… a priory on the riverbank, some amateur sleuthing, a big flood and a ridiculously persistent pursuer. (On a page-to-page level, the book is increasingly bogged down by Pullman’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff when droning on about Malcolm’s physical actions while preparing his canoe, shifting his gear, packing his food, etc.) There are a handful of chapters towards the end dealing with the magically disruptive events of the flood, as Malcolm and his companions stumble across a few elements of English fairy mythology; but it’s too little, too late. Northern Lights was an epic in a single book, a grand story about a child’s first adventure out into the wider world; La Belle Sauvage, on the other hand, takes an awful lot of pages to tell us not very much.

I didn’t completely hate it, but I did find myself bored by it, much as I was bored by large parts of The Amber Spyglass. I’ll continue to read the rest of the trilogy as Pullman releases it, particularly because La Belle Sauvage strikes me as an egregious example of groundwork-laying, and perhaps the later books will improve. But by and large, I imagine a lot of fans are going to be very disappointed by this – and it certainly isn’t an “equal” to Northern Lights.

The Physician by Noah Gordon (1986) 686 p.

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I have a very firm idea of what makes a good airplane book. It needs to be long. It can’t be too literary – there’s a time and a place for reading some beautifully written Midwestern family tragedy that won the Nobel Prize or whatever, but that time and place is not the middle of the night somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when your eyeballs feel like glue. So obviously it also needs to be good: compelling and readable, but not too fancy. The phrase “airport fiction” is usually tossed around as an insult, but I don’t see it that way. In the same way that people think writing children’s books is easy when it isn’t, authoring an undemanding yet engaging story which carefully treads the line between artful writing and accessibility is a very specific skill.

So: The Physician, a 600+ page whopper of a historical fiction novel which I’d never heard of until recently despite it being a bestseller – it turns out because, although it was written by an American and has an English protagonist, it was far more popular in continental Europe than in the Anglosphere. The Physician begins in London in the 11th century, when Rob J. Cole (a clanger of an Americanism, I know) is left orphaned after both his parents die. Gordon doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the time – Rob’s siblings are passed along by his father’s guild to various other families, separated from each other forever, and Rob himself, at less than ten years of age, is left as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon who roams around England selling snake oil to medieval rubes. Thus begins a picaresque coming-of-age story in which Rob is slowly inducted into the rudiments of medieval medicine, and – this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the blurb – one day carries out a bold scheme to travel across Europe and study at the great, forbidden universities of Persia by disguising himself as a Jew.

I’m no historian, but I suspect a lot of details in this book are fudged or fabricated for fiction’s sake – and that’s fine. I could compare it to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which takes place in more or less the same place and time period but does a far better job of making the 11th century seem like the grubby, barbaric and alien era it was; but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. (And The Wake, in any case, is exactly the kind of experimental piece of literature I don’t want to read while I’m incubating jet lag in an unknown timezone.) The Physician falls short of being great literature, which airport fiction can in fact be capable of; my perennial example here would be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. But that’s an above-and-beyond accomplishment, not a reasonable expectation. The Physician is entertaining and compelling and interesting and it never bored me. I enjoyed it a lot.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett (1994) 416 p.
Discworld #17 (Rincewind #5)

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Unlike a few of the novels surrounding it, Interesting Times is a book I have pretty strong memories of. It’s a compelling story, one of the few in the later series set in a genuinely foreign part of the Discworld, in which Rincewind is sent to the Agatean Empire – an amalgam of various Asian tropes and the home of his former friend and travelling companion Twoflower from the very first two books in the series – and finds himself thrust into a bubbling revolution while his old friend Cohen the Barbarian leads a band of geriatric warriors on One Last Job for a great heist in the capital city.

Why do I remember this book so well? Hard to say. Possibly because at this point in the series it feels like such a throwback to the early novels. It features characters we haven’t seen since Book 5, Sourcery, and takes place far from the now-familiar realm of Ankh-Morpork. But therein lies the rub.

Other re-readers have pointed out how culturally insensitive and borderline racist this book is – not in any sort of crude or deliberate way, for the most part, but in the manner Pratchett presents smart Westerners who roll in and solve the problems of naive Orientals, who are mostly just a series of cliches. Certainly if this book had been published twenty years later Pratchett would have been raked over the coals on Twitter.

I can’t disagree with these viewpoints, but for whatever reason, it didn’t strike me as quite so bad. Possibly it’s because Soul Music was such a lousy book that anything looks good in comparison. Possibly it’s because, throughout this whole re-read, I’m finding that Pratchett’s moral universe and common-sense sort of commentary is not as refreshing and wise as it seemed when I was a teenager, and therefore his clangers don’t stand out as much as they perhaps do for other fans. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy his writing; I do, very much so. But sometimes – not all the time, but certainly during parts of Interesting Times – it’s a bit more like listening to an old-timer at the pub or a grandfather talking about something at length. He’s entertaining, you love him, he’s a decent bloke and he makes good points – but “open minded” would not precisely be the first word to come to mind. He is an older man who has coalesced around a certain viewpoint of the world and isn’t going to change it, and he tends to return to the same points over and over again.

The general thrust of Pratchett’s political argument in Interesting Times, such as it is, is a fairly well-worn (and very middle-class English) attack on the champagne socialist kind of revolution, in which the masters are overthrown and the well-educated seditionists take their place and life for the surviving peasantry goes on more or less as before – if it doesn’t get worse. This is indisputably based on historical fact, especially in East Asia, and there is something to be said for barracking for the little guy. But it’s not a particularly fresh or compelling point, and this isn’t helped by transplanting it over a stew of Oriental cliches. Pratchett certainly tackles the issue far better on his home turf in the marvellous City Watch book Night Watch.

Nonetheless: I like Interesting Times. I found it fun. Certainly it’s better than the last few Rincewind novels were. Cohen’s horde of elderly barbarians have a great dynamic, especially with their adopted teacher Mr Saveloy, who is attempting to civilise them. There are some genuinely funny moments; I love the title of Twoflower’s book which reveals to Agateans the forbidden world outside their empire, and is thus banned as a seditionist tract: “What I Did On My Holidays;” I also love the concept of the five perpetually battling great families of the Empire, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Fangs, the Sungs, and the McSweeneys. (“Very old established family.”) The final setpiece, in which a terracotta army comes to life to battle the enemies of the empire, is a genuinely great visual scene.

So Interesting Times cops a lot of flak. But I don’t mind it. As I mentioned before, this is one of the last Discworld novels which takes place out in the broader, exotic Discworld – the only other, if I’m not mistaken, is The Last Continent, which takes place in pseudo-Australia and which I don’t recall anything about. Every other book retreats back into Ankh-Morpork or its surrounding English/European countryside; the Eastern European lands of Monstrous Regiment are about as far as Pratchett ever ventures again. Given the mixed results of Interesting Times, I’d say that’s a good thing. But it was nice for one last hurrah, even if it is a little ~*~Problematic~*~.

Next up we’re back in good old Ankh-Morpork, with Maskerade.

Re-reading Discworld index

I usually do a top ten books list, but you know what? I didn’t read many good books this year, and I’m not going to be goaded into writing stuff about books I’m lukewarm about by my own semi-OCD urge to make things nice and rounded. That’s why I quit reviewing every single book I read in the first place. Nope, five is fine. Here’s the best five books I read in 2017.

5. One More Year
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“I’m having a bad time in here…”

The Meg, Mogg and Owl collections came in at #1 on this list last year, and this volume brings more hilarious antics from a group of revolting, selfish, drug-addicted anthropomorphic animals. What sets it apart from the previous collections is the shocking ending. I won’t spoil it here, but anyone who’s read the other comics will be wondering exactly how much further Hanselmann could push the envelope. So to clarify: it’s not “shocking” in a gruesome or funny way, or even a dramatic non-comedy moment like the end of Megahex, in which Owl moves out of his toxic sharehouse and breathes a sigh of relief as he watches New Year’s fireworks through his taxi window. It’s more of a startlingly unexpected moment which suddenly casts the artist as an unreliable narrator and causes you to question everything you’ve seen of these characters over the previous books. And it’s perfect in its brevity. Hanselmann doesn’t linger, doesn’t make it a big thing. He just gives us a handful of quick panels and then the book is over and we’re left to digest what we just witnessed. Meg, Mogg and Owl is one of the funniest comics of all time, but it’s this sort of stuff which pushes it into being genuinely great art, and something everybody should check out.

4. Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon
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“Fly me to the earth.”

Two books in an as-yet-incomplete trilogy, but I’m rolling them together because I read them almost back to back and they blended together in my mind. Aside from being the best prose stylist writing science fiction today, Ian McDonald is a marvellous sci-fi writer of a futurist bent, who carefully considers all aspects of times to come – the evolution not just of technology but of society, capitalism, geopolitics and human behaviour – and then tosses the reader straight into that world with no spoonfeeding.

This is also one of those books, like Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, in which the author patiently constructs a fictional world and then gleefully rips it apart. The enveloping and confusing catastrophe/coup/war which spreads across the moon in the second half is one of the most exhilarating stretches of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I try to avoid describing fiction as “cinematic,” but I can’t deny these books had some unforgettably visual setpieces and climactic moments that made them an absolute ball to read, and I’m very much looking forward to the final chapter of the trilogy.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son
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“You’re a survivor who has nothing to live for.”

This is a contemporary Pulitzer Prize winning novel about North Korea, so naturally I went into it duly expecting a modern-day rehash of 1984 – which, sure, was an important book, but also a very drab and tedious one. I was pleased to find that The Orphan Master’s Son is nothing like that. Instead it’s a vibrant and exotic novel which almost reads like science fiction or fantasy, as it takes us by the hand and leads us into a wholly alien world. It helps that the protagonist’s life, as a North Korean intelligence agent, is an adventurous one – he travels to Japan, to international waters, to the United States – but Johnson’s skill is such that every moment of this book, even the stint in a concentration camp, feels alive with colour and movement. The beads of moisture on a bottle of Taedonggang beer on a summer day; the glint of moonlight on the black volcanic sands of a disputed island chain; the boat captain’s story about his days on a Soviet cannery ship and the gnashing beak and tentacles of a giant squid that once came down the chute. Every page of this book is a vision into another world. Every sentence is a pleasure to read.

2. Northern Lights
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“But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
“Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.”

I hadn’t read this in fifteen years, but picked it up again because Philip Pullman has finally started publishing the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. There’s a reason I’m listing just Northern Lights and not the original trilogy as a whole: it goes significantly downhill, particularly in the didactic and tedious third volume, The Amber Spyglass.

Northern Lights, though, is deservedly considered one of the best YA books ever written. I can remember exactly where I was when I first started reading it: on a family holiday down to a caravan park down in rainy Albany, on Western Australia’s south coast, when I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. It’s a great book in general, but it particularly succeeds as a YA novel because it checks all those boxes in a young boy or girl’s brain: the daemons, the armoured bears, the alethiometer, the wonderful society of the canal-boat “gyptians,” the witches of the frozen north, the great bridge between worlds, and a hundred other little things. Northern Lights hums along at a terrific pace, each scene feeding perfectly into the next, a fantastic new figment of Pullman’s imagination on every chapter, every single part of it tapping perfectly into the sense of adventure I was craving as a fourteen-year-old on a rainy day. It’s a shame the rest of the trilogy stutters and comes apart, but Northern Lights is a truly wonderful book.

1. Lonesome Dove series
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He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again. That person was back down the weeks, on the other side of the canyon of time. There was no rejoining him, and there never would be.

I first read Lonesome Dove in 2014, when I was riding a motorbike across America, and it ranked #5 in my books of the year. I read Dead Man’s Walk – written later, but chronologically the first in the series – in 2015, and looking back it seems that volume didn’t even rate a mention in my top 10 that year.

Which simply goes to show that some things take a while to digest. Some books you keep thinking about, keep turning over in your head, keep coming back to. And some things work better interlinked, standing in symphony with each other, than they do alone. I’ve read all four books in the series now, and I re-read Lonesome Dove again this year, and I’ll now happily argue that they’re among the greatest American novels of all time.

On the surface, the Lonesome Dove series is a Western saga revolving around the friendship between Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, from their teenage years to their retirement. They’re perfect foils to each other: Call, the gruff stoic, who sees life as something to be endured for the sake of duty, and Gus, the chatterbox epicurean, who sees life as a jug of whiskey to be savoured and enjoyed. Around this axle spins an entire universe of Western characters: cowboys and Indians, priests and whores, governors and millionaires, paupers and peasants, Americans and Mexicans, good people and bad people and every stripe in between. This makes it sound like a popcorn film on paper (in fact it was adapted into a cult TV series, and McMurtry was irritated that so many people embraced it as a “Gone with the Wind of the West”) and it’s true that these books are immensely fun, easily readable, and greatly enjoyable – a point of contention if you’re one of those types who believes proper literature is meant to be difficult and inaccessible.

But the reason they’re great literature is because, before our eyes, hidden behind this airport fiction adventure, McMurtry is dismantling the myth of the West. It was a harsh time and a harsh place, merciless to natives and settlers alike, a godforsaken country where death was a constant possibility and most people were just trying to scrape out a half-decent life. Little did those rough and tumble cow-pokes dragging livestock between Texas and Montana – just another paycheque – realise that one day their own country would comandeer their lives and their legacy, transforming them into a homegrown version of the chivalrous medieval knight of France or Britain, wandering the land, protecting the weak and the innocent. Larry McMurtry wants nothing to do with that; wants nothing to do with almost any narrative convention at all, in fact.

My interpretation of these books is that they’re deeply nihilistic. There’s no getting around that. Everybody is going to die, there is no cosmic justice, and happiness and success are largely a matter of luck. Bad things happen and they cannot be undone. Good people die and bad people live. Time rolls on, life is full of regret, you can’t turn back the clock and you’re still inching closer to your own inevitable death with your dreams unfulfilled and your regrets gnawing at you every day.

Why then do we root for Inish Scull during his terrible torture at the hands of Ahumado? Why do we want Gus to save Lorena from Blue Duck? Why do we think it matters if Call acknowledges Newt as his son? Because nihilism is not the same thing as pessimism. Because there is meaning in life: the meaning that we choose to attribute to it. I suspect most people, McMurtry included, side with Gus more than Call. The meaning of life is simply for it to be enjoyed.

Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry (1993) 589 p.

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(Critical spoiler warning for Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove)

Most books are about what happens. Larry McMurtry’s books are about what happens next.

Obviously that’s true of all books in a sense: the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. But Larry McMurtry shows us the course of people’s lives, and the consequences of life’s many sorrows, beyond the expected narrative constraint. This is doubly true of Streets of Laredo, the fourth and final installment of the Lonesome Dove series: not just because it’s a low-key sequel to the greatest Western novel of all time – an examination of Woodrow Call’s twilight years after the death of his life partner – but also because of what happens to Call himself at the end of the novel.

After Lonesome Dove I went and read Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, which are chronologically the first two books in the series. They take place when Call and Gus are younger men, when the Texas frontier was truly wild, when Comanche still ruled the western plains. They lead beautifully into Lonesome Dove: a novel which is, at its heart, about memory and old age and the passage of time. The west is still wild, but only just.

Streets of Laredo takes us into the 1890s. The US census has declared the frontier officially gone, steam trains criss-cross Texas, and Captain Call is living out his old age as a bounty hunter. His reputation precedes him, but Call himself knows his glory days are long gone, the frontier tamed, his old companions mostly dead and buried. He is a grumpy old man after a lifetime spent as a grumpy young man.

I remember going into a gift shop in the American West somewhere and finding a whole section of wall plaques emblazoned with quotes from Lonesome Dove – the miniseries is a cult classic, although I’m not sure that’s the right word for something that was broadly popular. Gus is an endlessly quotable rake for all seasons, but Call also has a deep appeal to the masculine spirit of the American West and a common kind of American man. He’s a matter-of-fact stoic, a cowboy who gets things done and has little tolerance for incompetent people. (It occurred to me that incompetence is portrayed as the primary moral failing imaginable in the Western genre, much as it is in that modern TV western, The Walking Dead.) Call is a hard-working John Wayne cowboy in the classic mould. The fact is, of course, Call is also a miserable bastard. He always has been and always will be: a difficult man whom you’d trust with your life but wouldn’t invite to your dinner table. Yet he’s not unsympathetic; he’s a victim of his own nature as much as anybody else is. It’s a mark of McMurtry’s talent as a writer that trying to describe a character like Call can feel like trying to describe a real human. He does run to a groove, but still contains multitudes, still does unexpected things sometimes. There’s a moment at the start of the book where Call’s employer has a panic attack so Call kindly and gently guides him across the street to the hotel – not because kindness and gentleness are his instinctive responses, but simply because he knows they’re the most efficient way to draw someone down from panic, and Call values efficiency and common sense above all else.

I half-expected I might dislike this book because it lacks Gus, the other end of the axle that spins throughout the series, the two characters balancing each other perfectly while a whole Western universe revolves around them. Gus’ absence is certainly felt, but in many ways that only highlights the novel’s greater themes: Call is left to live on, a full fifteen years after the catastrophic Montana expedition, without his partner, often wondering what he might have done or said. That’s life. That’s death.

Streets of Laredo is, judged by itself as a novel – by its ensemble characters, by the shapes and forms of its plot – probably the weakest of the series. But as a conclusion to the Lonesome Dove series, to the saga of Gus and Call’s lives, and those of the people around them, it’s brilliant. The four books together make up one of those rare things: a story which is greater than the sum of its parts. A 3,000+ page Western epic which is, at surface level, about a friendship and partnership between two men, but which touches on a deeper level about so many more things – most notably, and most skillfully, about the nihilistic injustice of the world, about the way life doesn’t always fit to the patterns of the stories we tell ourselves, about how people cope (or don’t cope) when faced with the fact that their own narrative has gone astray. About what happens next.

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