This is my first re-read of Master and Commander (I read it first about 15 years ago) and, if anything, it’s even better second time around. What sets O’Brian apart from the run of historical novelists, and that sub-set that write about the Napoleonic wars, is his use of the language of the era in a way that remains true to the early 19th century while being appropriate for modern readers. Couple this with, in Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin, two of the most vivid characters ever written and you have the start of what is the best series of historical fiction novels ever written. All that’s left to say is, time to start rereading Post Captain!
There aren’t many books that are still funny, as the saying goes, laugh-out-loud funny, in translation almost three hundred years after they were written. Candide is one of that extremely select group. The sheer fact that the Church somehow survived the, often deserved, ridicule heaped on her by Voltaire, and the the subsequent attentions of the revolutionaries, does tend to support her view of herself as a divinely instituted and protected institution – just as well, really, since if she was a wholly human institution the incompetence and cupidity of her ministers would have seen her consigned to history not long after the Enlightenment assault upon her. There is no better instrument in dealing with the particular weaknesses of the religious psychology than ridicule, and Voltaire’s application of that to the church is salutary and, probably, necessary.
As a fifty-something man of little standing in the world, I heartily applaud the central premise of this entertaining book: that a fifty-something man of little standing in the world can be the hero of an adventure that includes saving the world, outsmarting a billionaire bad guy and getting the, much younger, girl along the way (I should add, as a happily married man, that the latter simply applies to my middle-aged fantasy self and in no way comprises my real wishes!). So let’s hear it for Don Challenor, down-on-his-luck estate agent (he’s just been let go by his previous employer), who is employed by his ex-wife to value the Cornish hideaway of a mysterious and reclusive billionaire. (Add in to the mix the middle-aged male wish fulfilment fantasy of Don rescuing his ex-wife, she having to admit that he was a better man all along than her new husband, and him still getting the much younger new girl – in fact, there’s so much middle-aged male wish fulfilment in this book I begin to wonder if Robert Goddard might be having a little bit of a mid-life crisis!)
On the minus side, I had realised the twist of what was concealed in the panic room within the first hundred pages. This, though, did mean I could indulge myself in the greatest of all guilty pleasures for the reader: skipping ahead, skimming pages of text, for the simple pleasure of finding out if I was right. And I was! So wish fulfilment all round. What more could the middle-aged male reader ask? Well, a story that was not quite so obvious, perhaps, but there is a pleasure in knowing the outcome and then watching as skilled a writer as Robert Goddard orchestrate the moves towards that outcome.
Number 3 in the second Black Library Novella series and the standard hasn’t dropped at all – if anything, it’s improving. Brakus Andradus, the ex-Imperial Guard sniper with a mordant tongue and a death wish, makes for a suitably driven 40k hero, but Parrott skillfully blends him with a varied cast of Aeldar, Dark Aeldar and the other ne’er do wells that skulk around the Blackstone Fortress, hoping to make their fortunes or find their souls. It’s a great setting, and Parrott does it justice, with something of the deep weirdness of the Fortress itself coming across in the denouement. A fine novella and hopefully notice of a major new 40k writer. Get it here.
Nuns with guns in the 40th millennium! Really big guns. Plus a female Inquisitor, all on the trail of a Chaos witch (who is actually a man). With these bolter-toting women gunning for him, the Chaos witch doesn’t really have a chance, but Danie Ware does a brilliant job of keeping the suspense ratcheted to the max while riffing on the tension between the sisters and the inquisitor. A thrilling, enjoyable read. Indeed, so well do nuns go with guns that someone should really suggest the concept to Pope Francis. I think the Bridgettines would be an ideal order to begin weapons training with – as you can see below! Get Nuns at the Run – I mean Wreck and Ruin – here!
This is the first in the new Black Library novella series and Iron Resolve gets the set off to a storming start with its transplanting of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift from Natal, South Africa, to the jungle planet of Kallash in the 41st millennium. What’s more, it’s the field hospital in Kallash that suddenly finds itself under attack from an army of feral Orcs. They don’t seem to do Victoria Crosses for the servants of the Emperor, but a fair few of them would have deserved the honour by the end of the novella. A diverting and entertaining read. Get Iron Resolve here.
Excellent continuation of the naval adventures begun in The Colonial Post-Captain. While it doesn’t have the depth and colour of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, it does have the advantage of a writer who served in the Navy himself and who understands the sea and sailing in a way that no landlubber author can match. Captain Carlisle and Lieutenant Holbrooke are engaging characters, the setting (in this case the Caribbean) is vivid and the story, drawing on the real-life exploits of 18th-century frigate commanders, is as extraordinary as the exploits of those naval commanders. Thoroughly recommended to fans of naval adventures.
This is not something I, a writer, say lightly but, to be honest, I preferred the film. When I say film, I don’t mean the 2002 George Clooney vehicle, but the 1972 version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I was about 16 at the time when I saw it on TV. I switched channel – at that time you still had to press buttons to change channels – and I found myself transfixed. I didn’t have a clue what was going on – Tarkovsky’s style of long, close up shots on silent actors was something I had never seen before – but the film held me as few have before or since. Images from it remained with me for years. But most of all, the image of Solaris itself, the mysterious, sentient ocean, attempting to communicate – possibly – with the men orbiting it on the space station. The final image of the film, as the hero finds himself on an island on the living ocean, stuck in my imagination in a way that few other images and experiences from so long ago have. Having read Lem’s original story, I regret to say that nothing in the novel made anything like the impression that Tarkovsky’s film did. Thinking about it, I suppose it’s obvious. Lem was trying to capture a living sentient ocean in words, Tarkovsky was doing it with pictures. Since living sentient oceans don’t do words but, in this case at least, do make people simulations and ultimately even little islands, then the picture version had an inherent advantage. Add in somebody with Tarkovsky’s vision, and this is a good example of a film outstripping its source material.
I’m not going to hide behind literary snobbery here: I found The Leopard disappointingly disappointing. I would like to say that the clarity of the language, combining the harshness of the Sicilian summer with the luxuriousness of the Sicilian soul, and the accuracy of the portrait of a decaying but still ostensibly noble aristocratic culture, made for a novel of astonishing insight into the human condition. And it does. It really does.
It’s just… a little boring. Just a little. Nothing very much for a book that’s over a century old. Tastes change. Styles alter. I am afraid I have fallen victim to the sensibilities of a markedly non-literary age – something that could not be said for the world portrayed in The Leopard – and I fear this all may be true. But there have been few books I wanted to like more when beginning them, and few that have I spent so much concentration on to so little effect on my reading soul.
The fault, I am sure, is all mine. Sometimes you have to read a book at the right time, with the appropriate frame of mind, in the correct place and under particular circumstances for the book to strike home. I will reserve The Leopard for another try, when next I find myself languishing under a punishing sun, the plants and trees withered and life itself lying prostrate beneath the weight of the heat. Then, I think, The Leopard will prowl into my heart. But, until then, three stars.
I’ve often dreamed of having a foreign-language edition of one of my books published but I must admit I never thought that the very first foreign-language translations – into French and German no less – of one of my stories would be Warhammer 40k! But there they are: Herren des Sturms, Lords of the Storm and Seigneurs de la Tempête. All available from Black Library and all good retailers from tomorrow, 9 November.