Adventures in Bookland: H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

H.M.S. Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

Spoiler: they all die.

Yes, this is not a book to read if you become attached to characters fighting, mostly successfully, to maintain their humanity in the most appalling circumstances. Yes, I knew the convoys to Murmansk during World War II were grim but this – all you 40k and Warhammer fans out there – this is grimdark before people started playing with it. This is grimdark as something people actually endured, for real. And all I can say, having read it, is that I have added a new theatre of war to the list of those that I thank God I have never had to endure.

Alistair MacLean himself sailed on some of those convoys – although he evidently survived – and the reality of the cold Arctic Ocean and its strangeness is one of the most vivid parts of the book. The story itself is a tribute to the endurance of the men who crewed these ships, although it does seem to conflate all the worst convoys to create a single convoy to perdition, but as I said, fans of grimdark should love it. For myself, knowing that much of it was true, in spirit if not detail, made me enjoy it both more and less – in some ways it came close to literary torture porn, in others a diatribe against the incompetence and coldness of the admirals who sent men out to die on the cold sea.

Final spoiler: actually, one man does survive.

Adventures in Bookland: Battle of Britain by Christer Bergstrom

Battle of Britain by Christer Bergstrom

This is perhaps the most detailed and in-depth single volume history of the Battle of Britain available. It takes the reader on what is virtually a day-by-day, engagement-by-engagement history of the battle, from the first skirmishes in the Channel to the long drawing down of the Blitz. So if you are looking to know exactly what happened on, say, the 28 August 1940, this is the book to go to before referring to individual squadron histories.

On a broader level, Bergstrom argues strongly, and convincingly, that the Me-110, far from being the flying target duck that it is usually depicted as, was in fact a very capable plane more than able to fulfill its combat ‘destroyer’ role when employed correctly. It is also clear that Goring, far from being the buffoon he is so often portrayed as being, knew how to deploy it, and the rest of his fleet, to overcome the substantial strategic advantages enjoyed by the RAF (in particular, fighting over home territory and the integrated defence system developed by Hugh Dowding). But Goring was let down by his chief lieutenants, who failed to carry out his instructions. Maybe the RAF would still have won, but what was an already close run thing might then have run ever closer to the wire.

The book’s subtitle makes much of its revisting a well-known story but Bergstrom has no axes to grind: he is just trying to get to the truth – and he gets as near to it as is humanly possible. A superb book.

Adventures in Bookland: Scramble by Norman Gelb

Scramble by Norman Gelb

The subtitle to Scramble is ‘a narrative history of the Battle of Britain’ and, I must admit, I completely misunderstood what that meant. I expected a history of the Battle of Britain from its beginning with the fall of France to its end in the Blitz: the bread and butter of historical writing. What I actually got was a selection of interviews, excerpts from memoirs and reminiscences by the men and women who actually fought the battle, with a little bit of linking commentary by Norman Gelb.

So rather than straight history it was more personal, rawer and less refined than the sort of stuff professional historians prefer to write, but as a result much more immediate and visceral. I suspect only someone who has been caught in a Hurricane, on fire, with the canopy stuck can have any idea of what that is like: in this book you will find a man who does know exactly what that was like. So if you like your history unfiltered, this is the history of the Battle of Britain for you.

Adventures in Bookland: Swordfighting by Guy Windsor

Swordfighting by Guy Windsor

This was a clear example of buying a book for its title: Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists. I’m a writer. A lot of my characters wield swords. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t committing any swordfighting faux pas in my stories and seeing that Guy Windsor is one of the leading lights of the contemporary resurgence in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) I thought he would have a lot to teach me.

He did, but not about writing sword fights. Fellow writers beware. Unless you are really, really useless, there’s nothing in Windsor’s treatment of how to write a sword fight that you won’t already know. However, if you want to peer into the mind and practice of one of the most brilliant pedagogues I have ever encountered, then go for it!

What’s clear from reading Swordfighting is that Windsor is a committed, thoughtful and imaginative teacher who has considered long, hard and deeply how to teach swordfighting while remaining committed to the historical principles that guide his vision of swordmanship. As such, the book offers a valuable insight into the sort of pedagogical thinking that should inform any physical teaching (my wife, who is a voice teacher, found it hugely valuable) as well as speaking much about Windsor’s own journey as a man extracting an ancient skill from manuscripts and fleshing them in his own practice. Far more fascinating than it has any right to be!

Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Andre Clot

Suleiman the Magnificent by Andre Clot

There must surely be a pun to be made on the author’s name – something like a clot upon Suleiman’s magnificent reputation – but given that the book is very good, it’s proved beyond my wit to make it. Suffice to say that the book spends its first half on Suleiman’s life and reign in an engaging manner, making a reasonable effort to understand the man behind the appellation – Clot’s point that Suleiman really did see himself as a ghazi, a warrior for Islam, is perhaps key to understanding much of his reign – and the second half in a wider description of the Ottoman world over which Suleiman reigned and which, during his reign, seemed poised to remake the world in his image and the image of his religion.

Adventures in Bookland: Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander was a wonderful beginning to the Aubrey/Maturin novels but reading it in the light of this, the second book in the series, it becomes clear that Patrick O’Brian wasn’t necessarily thinking of writing a twenty book series of oceangoing adventures when he wrote it. Master and Commander would have worked perfectly well as a standalone novel, with O’Brian going off to mine different literary seams, but with Post Captain it’s clear that he as a writer, as well as we readers, realise that it’s right here that he’s found the rich seam or, to employ a more nautical metaphor, found clear water and a following wind. With Post Captain, the series really takes off, in particular revealing both the sly humour that peppers the rest of the series (Jack Aubrey’s escape from France disguised as Stephen Maturin’s dancing bear balances on the edge of ludicrous before falling into the fields of delight) and the author’s ability to employ the language of the period to telling effect, making of it almost a seagoing, masculine companion to Jane Austen’s novels. Yes, it is that good.

Adventures in Bookland: The Two Sieges of Rhodes, 1480-1522 by Eric Brockman

The Two Sieges of Rhodes, 1480-1522 by Eric Brockman

In the 16th century, the idea that European civilisation would come to dominate the world in the following centuries seemed extremely unlikely. Yes, it is true, mariners and adventurers had opened up the New World and sent Christian ships into the Indian Ocean, but Europe itself was fracturing, its medieval unity of religion breaking on the rocks of the Reformation, while from the east, the rising power of the Ottomans appeared to be flowing westward as inexorably as the tide.

With the gaze of Christian princes turned to the wider world beyond the Mediterranean, the main defence against Ottoman expansion was left to the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the monastic crusading orders, from their fortress island of Rhodes. In 1480, the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmed, tried to take the island but a heroic defence turned him back. 42 years later, his great-grandson, Suleiman, tried again and this time a similarly heroic defence could only delay him since no Christian prince was willing or able to send a relieving force, so conscious were they of their rivalry and enmity.

Brockman tells the story of the two epic sieges well, making good use of the contemporary sources, although I would cavil at some of his interpretations. But overall an excellent account of the start of the war for the Mediterranean.

Adventures in Bookland: The Lord of Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan

The Lord of Middle Air by Michael Scott Rohan

For this review, I really need to coin a couple of those wonderful German compound words that don’t exist in English but that we cheerfully appropriate, in the language’s magpie fashion, to express ideas that need a word to express them. So we’ve already got Weltanschauung and Schadenfreude and many other useful words, so what I need to coin for this review is a German compound word meaning ‘the sudden joy of discovering a new author whom you will enjoy for many years to come’ (Google translate suggests FreudeeinesneuenSchrifstellers) followed by a word conveying ‘the despair when you discover your newly discoverd author actually died two years ago’ (this seems a bit long even for German compound words, so we’ll just have to go with the long-winded English description of the feeling I experienced when I looked up Michael Scott Rohan only to discover that he had actually died in August 2018).

I loved this book. Set in the Scottish borders during the 13th century, Rohan displays a mastery of the use of Scotch dialects that is evidence of uncommon skill as a writer. The style is rich, dense, complex in style but relatively straightforward in plot: a young man encounters his returning relative, Michael Scot, a renowned scholar and possibly a mage, returning to his home in the borders after many years travelling the world. With Scot come wonders, but fear too: of sorcery, heresy and the unknown in general. But the hero of the book, young Walter Scot, follows the trails laid out by his relative to realms he had not dreamed of, only to return and reclaim his lands and his title. The story is straightforward, but the language and the telling makes the tale, of the borderlands between the human world and Faerie, thoroughly convincing. The story was a joy to me and, finishing it, I immediately looked up Michael Scott Rohan: it’s not every day that one encounters a writer who seems entirely in sympathy with your sensibilities. So imagine how upset I was when I discovered that he had died, after a long illness, and a life that should have been full of many, many books for me to read in future had been cruelly cut short by illness, so that there was only a handful of books for me to read by Rohan in future.

May he see his worlds.

Adventures in Bookland: The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

The Death of Halpin Frayser by Ambrose Bierce

Some stories are spare and lean: every excess word trimmed away in service of the narrative. But others are ornate, luxurious plays upon the sound and texture and harmonics of words: like a coral reef growing upon the wreck of a foundered ship. The Death of Halpin Frayser belongs in the latter category: a feast of word play, allusion and writing for word’s sake. As such, it requires somewhat closer attention from the reader than the first sort of story, but it’s an effort worth the making for a voyage into a literary jungle, fecund with life and texture.

Adventures in Bookland: Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

By the time Robert E. Howard wrote this tale of Conan the Barbarian, he had both thoroughly learned the craft of writing and fixed the world of the Hyborian Age in his own imagination and the imagination of the reader. The result, in Beyond the Black River, is a taut, surprisingly melancholy tale told through the point of view of a young man who aspires to be a warrior like Conan. The story is as sharp as one of Conan’s axes and as spare as a winter wolf. There are very few writers who create characters who transcend their own ability and time: with Conan, Howard emphatically did so.