Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

December 28, 2013 at 09:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )

Romanitas

7/10

7/10

The writer of this review site has commented several times on his repeated disappointment, regret, and guilty pleasure that follows almost any alternate history novels with gloomy inevitability. It is always with a heavy heart that a new one is begun, and always with a heavier heart that it is later set down. Romanitas provides–not so much an exception–as a chink of light that suggests all is not so dreary in this field as might be supposed.

“‘It isn’t justice,’ said Cleomenes, unhesitatingly. Varius snorted a little, scornfully. Cleomenes added, ‘And you will help us find Marcus Novius.'”

-Romanitas

It is not for her writing that Sophia McDougall stands out from the morass of alternate fiction writers. Her writing is competent and engaging, though overprone to slackness and a passive habit that suggests at times her creation is at risk of escaping her abilities. Neither is it for her concept. Her concept is certainly fresh and initially exciting, and while at times the grey old world of the real shows through, this allows her to build a world that is believable and visceral, as well as being a novelty.

One of her greatest successes, though, is her refusal to grandstand or monologue on behalf of her own cleverness. It is her staunch refusal to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing how the world of Romanitas is different and worth the read. There are occasional explanations of ancient history, and how her timeline diverged from what the reader will know as real life. Sensibly, some of this is even handled in a brief appendix. At no point is the reader given cause to wonder what happened to the story, and why he’s being lectured on political events utterly irrelevant to the current predicament of the main characters.

With these modest successes and impressively-avoided pitfalls, Romanitas progresses pleasantly but not thunderously. As with any fugitive plot, there are moments when the willing suspension of disbelief wears a little thin, or where the necessity of a limited viewpoint will annoy even a patient reader. There are chapters that seem nothing but a litany of rushed poetry on grey mountains and windswept highways. There are at least one or two deus ex machinae littered around, which make the plot seem more ragged than it really is. In spite of at least two sequels, Romanitas reads admirably on its own, without the phantom shadow of an unborn sibling hanging over the ending. The verdict can only be that this is an imperfect work, and a book that will require patience at times, but for anybody in earnest search of good alternate histories to read, this would be a fine place to start.

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War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

November 30, 2013 at 10:18 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mediocre Books, Romantic Fiction) (, , )

WarAndPeace

6/10

6/10

It seems foolish to complain that this book is so exceptionally long; like complaining the Bible has too much religion, or the Magna Carta has too much politics. The complaint that really ought to be laid at Tolstoy’s door is this: for a writer so obtusely uneconomical with his words, he does not do nearly as much with them as he might have. When an author spends thousands of pages describing a place, a person, an idea; there ought to be a strong emotional or impressionable impact on the reader. Tolstoy comes a certain distance towards this. Certainly it would be untrue to claim that he does not adequately describe his creations. It would not be fair to say that his is a problem of detail. Rather, it is a problem of beauty.

Compare him for an instance with Melville. Melville is thicker and sludgier and harder to read for pleasure than Tolstoy, but when he describes a smoke-rimed tavern or the vivifying enormity of a storm, it is impossible to fail to be moved and captured. Or let us look at Hemingway. If the problem is a problem of inadequate floridness, let us pit Tolstoy against an author renowned for his refusal to bow to poetry! But there is an impact and a seething, brusque emotion in Hemingway that is utterly devoid in War and Peace.

“The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.”

-War and Peace

This book feels like reading Pride and Prejudice seven times through, only with more death and without Jane Austen’s humour. The Peace is bland drawing-room scandal and folly. The War is interesting, but only on an intellectual level. This summary seems damning, and it is distinctly peculiar that the book is honestly not a bad read. In fact, in spite of its unnecessary length it is really worth the time; particularly in an age when the vapid lives of soap opera and sitcom characters fill vastly more hours than it takes to plough through this novel. The point is not that it is uninteresting. The characters are immaculately drawn (those that matter, anyway) and the historical narrative is truly fascinating. In fact, by the end of the (first) epilogue, this could almost be called a page-turner.

The problems then, if they are not the book’s monstrous size or quality of writing, are twofold. First is simply a case of expectation. Tolstoy’s style (or the styles of at least two of his translators) is vexingly drifty, without a very powerful narrative stamp. He seems to absorb by osmosis some of the aristocratic lassitude of Pierre and the Rostovs, and there is a displeasing lack of decisive direction. For an author to take his readers so deeply into any story, he really must have the humour or the choler or the wryness to truly captivate his reader: not merely to tell an interesting story and trust that the reader is following along. The second problem is the generally unremarkable aspect of so many of his characters. There is nobody to love and nobody to hate.

“Rostov became thoughtful.
‘I never go back on my word, he said. ‘Besides, Sonya is so charming that only a fool would renounce such happiness.'”

-War and Peace

Books are paintings, and come in as many sharply contrasting styles as works of visual art. There are the Caravaggios, with menacingly daubed streaks of deep contrast and dazzling light. There are impressionistic streams of consciousness or works of muzzy pointillism. But if Tolstoy painted, he would paint an enormous canvas with a Gainsborough landscape, covering the entire wall of a gallery and dotting in each painstaking figure and wisp of cloud. This is the lasting feeling of War and Peace: it leaves nothing out, and there is nothing to complain about; but it never draws itself to a point as if to say this!–is what the story is about!

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1356, by Bernard Cornwell

November 2, 2013 at 09:48 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )

1356

8/10

8/10

Bernard Cornwell is a tricky fellow to define, and his books are not the easiest to anticipate. He is certainly a very able writer; there is no argument to be made on that count. One of the biggest fluctuations in his writing quality tends to be his restraint, where he allows himself to become so carried away in depicting a ruthless and gritty realism that it turns into an unreadable slush of perverted sex and graphic violence. Another of his faults is linked even closer to his commitment to realism: there are a lot of people in real life who are cruel, selfish monsters that some of his books become populated exclusively with characters who are unappealing in every regard.

Now, obviously if he fell victim to these two failings in every one of his books, he could hardly be called an able writer. The truth is that when he makes his mark, he shines. It would not be a stretch to name him the best writer of historical fiction working today. It would even to be fair to name him as being among the best writers of historical fiction of all time. Picking up one of his books might rightly be a venture carried with great trepidation, but it will never be a worthless effort.

“…the Black Friar walked north. He was going home, home to the tower. He carried la Malice and the fate of Christendom. And he vanished into the darkness.”

-1356

This particular entry in the trilogy that became a loosely-bound series drifting through the Hundred Years War shows writing that is more mature than anything in his Richard Sharpe series, and even than some of the writing in his excellent Arthurian trilogy. This is not to say his writing is faultless. There are momentary lapses, overly-dramatic blunders, and storytelling cul-de-sacs; but the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, and he produces an epic and thoroughly gripping adventure story that no reader could justly describe as boring.

The central quest that runs through the story is a rather disappointing MacGuffin, and this is really an excuse to place characters Cornwell has established elsewhere onto the stage in the midst of a deeply intriguing historical battle, and allow them to thrive. This is not necessarily a bad choice, as a plot that might easily have felt like the barrel-scrapings of that infamous incompetent Dan Brown, is instead turned into a peripheral curiosity that does a fine job of pacing beside the book without ever overpowering the human dynamics of the plot.

This, then, is where Cornwell shines, and what turns 1356 from just another battle told from the perspective of a footsoldier into something of note. His ensemble cast of characters are cleverly crafted, and there is a sense of real human depth to them. Their motivations and their conflicting passions are threaded gently into the plot without any ham-fisted exposition, and an impressive amount of time is spent developing even extraneous characters. Thomas of Hookton is a fellow explored pretty thoroughly in others of Cornwell’s books, but as with Sharpe the books are written so as generally to be legible–and even enticing and fulfilling–even when read out of chronology. In 1356 there are strong echoes of Cornwell’s Arthur, though decidedly less tragic in flavour, which can be nothing if not a strength.

This is not the best of Cornwell’s work, but the excellence with which it is written ought to stand then as a proof in its own right of this author’s abilities and attention to detail. There are many writers who rest easily on the laurels of past successes, and it is a genuine relief to find that Bernard Cornwell has not fallen prey to laziness in his later books. This is a book easy to recommend, and if it serves as a gateway to the author’s stronger work, so much the better. But it is a fine piece of work on its own merits.

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Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, by Philip K. Dick

October 5, 2013 at 09:13 (Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )

HumptyDumptyOakland

7/10

7/10

Another of Dick’s non-science fiction novels, Humpty Dumpty is more notable for its carefully constructed style than for its story. It might not have mattered what Dick wrote about here; as much as how he wrote it. Indeed, there is the distinct feeling that the book might have been a hundred and fifty pages shorter, or six hundred pages longer, and with much the same set of results and level of enjoyment as in its actual form.

“What a waste it had all been. All the work. Devotion to fixing people’s cars…All those years, he thought. And before, trying different things. Had he learned anything?”

-Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

At times Dick appears to be emulating the voice of a latter-day Steinbeck, peeling back the shiny bakelite exterior of the postwar boom to point his spotlight at ordinary and irrational people making bad decisions and doing foolish things. Less sympathetic than the Joads, certainly; but easier to identify with, even if the reader recoils in awkward realisation at the identification.

Written before the majority of his science fiction work, it is truly interesting to see the similarities between Humpty Dumpty‘s Jim Fergesson and Al Miller, and later characters like Joe Chip or Rick Deckard, and even to speculate towards some of the stylistic choices that buoyed up Dick’s fantastic imagination and contributed so much to his success. Decades before a greasy and industrial aesthetic became a defining trait in the science fiction genre, Dick was already fascinated with the working class, the uneducated, the addicted and the vast multicoloured array of virtues and vices that they shared.

It is difficult to decide whether this book ought to be recommended to regular readers of Philip K. Dick and other speculative fiction, or for readers of Arthur Miller and shabby grey realism. It is remarkably far from the beaten track for the former, and doesn’t really compare all that favourably for the latter. Difficult, then, to decide for whom it ought to be recommended; but not difficult to recommend.

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The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

April 20, 2013 at 22:47 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )

DifferenceEngine

3/10

3/10

This is not a good book. The authors might have encyclopaedic knowledge of all there is to know about early Victorian England, but that evidently does not qualify them to write about it. In fact, the overwhelming impression a reader will be smothered with is that the pages are crammed with lists, compendia, tallies—endless nattering and gibbering—put down anything on the page, anything! So long as it looks period-authentic, and so long as it sounds old-timey, and so long as it’s got something to do with steam or antiques.

This book is packed to the gills with the sort of rubbish one might expect from people who think everything in the Middle Ages was “Olde”, and who imagine peasants to have spent their days doest-thou-ing and verilying. A lot of style over substance, but a mongrel, desperate sort of style. One only has to read Dickens or Melville or Stevenson or even Austen to realise that even in the olden days, people did not speak how Gibson and Sterling’s horrid pantomime mockneys and lords speak.

“Still, she did have some things she was ‘specially fond of, and these went, along with the undergarments, into her brocade portmanteau with the split seam she’d meant to mend. There was a lovely bottle of rose-scented Portland water, half-full, a green paste brooch from Mr. Kingsley, a set of hairbrushes with imitation ebony backs, a miniature flower-press with a souvenir view of Kensington Palace, and a patent German curling-iron she’d nicked from a hair-dresser’s. She added a bone-handled tooth-brush and a tin of camphorated dentrifice.”

-The Difference Engine

An unforgiveable sin in literature is an author’s laziness. In The Difference Engine another sin is laid bare: the sin of trying much too hard.

Quite besides the stylistic failings that make this book so painful and embarrassing to read, is the terrible state that the actual story itself tangles into. Absolutely nothing of any significance takes place within the first fifty or sixty pages. While a decent head of steam is built up shortly thereafter with a mystery to solve and protagonists and villains nicely lined up, the authors then make the inexplicable decision to bring everything to a screeching halt, and proceed with an entirely new tangentially-related plot. To crown the entire mess, the story finishes about a hundred pages before the book actually ends. The mystery is wound up, the villains despatched, the heroes safely accounted for…and the silly thing plods on, like a lumbering beast mortally wounded, yet too stupid to succumb.

Entire subplots are woven into this book for no satisfactory reason, other than to showcase things. Elsewhere in this review site, it has been mentioned that authors of alternate histories fall so much in love with their own cleverness and adroit reconfiguration of history, that the tail begins to wag the dog, and any pretense of telling a good story utterly vanishes. The Difference Engine does not make it quite so far, but not for lack of trying. There are artefacts and truncated plot lines and characters littered like dross through the book. Pages at a time could be cut out without consequence, because they introduce ideas or characters with no bearing whatsoever on the story.

Any author might be excused for mentioning unrelated details offhand. Tension must be built, scenes must be set, characters must be developed. Shakespeare had his gravediggers, Hugo his Waterloo. But Gibson and Sterling suffer from a rather catastrophic collaboration of crises: their asides are frequently more interesting that the fifty pages of dead space that precede them; their insignificant intrusions come typically just as tension has finally reached some paltry critical mass, and stifle any chance of a revival of the story; their tangents introduce questions that are unanswered, clues that go unsolved, promises that are not kept. Frankly, they are an annoyance that this weak book cannot afford, and ought to have been edited out at the first draft.

There are occasional sparks of light, though they often serve to illuminate only the shoddy work surrounding them. For those interested in the bric-a-brac of a time gone by, Gibson and Sterling provide a rich table. The adjective “rich” could here describe a banquet, a bank account, or an overpowering odour, and its richness will be of limited interest to most readers. There are the buried germs of an interesting (though not brilliant) sort of Victorian thriller; perhaps a facsimile of one of the Penny Dreadfuls that they make sure to reference a few times, so that their readers know they’re really getting authenticity. The only remaining virtue of this book is its honest conjecture on an age of mechanical computing, and some geopolitical, scientific, and sometimes jocular ruminations on the world that Babbage and his ilk might have made. It seems that it was this core around which an unprofessional and unlovely story was wrapped. Unwrapping it might not be wise.

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The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

January 26, 2013 at 16:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Thriller) (, , , )

ThePragueCemetery

8/10

8/10

Throughout this novel, Eco writes with an impressively dualistic pen (which is not a reference to the dual nature of his protagonist), managing a gentle and likeable humour in the midst of a biting and sarcastic narrative. It often seems that Eco loves his grotesque Simonini as much as he despises him; and the result is a sympathy that the reader cannot but help being drawn into.

“And when I was old enough to understand, he reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust…”

-The Prague Cemetery

The Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the story, introduced almost at the outset, at first seems like a bad idea–especially when the narrator adds his voice to the tumult, resulting in the sort of “believe me, gentle reader” voice that has been about done to death. Although the narrator’s intrusions remain a little unwieldy throughout the book, Eco’s protagonist (or protagonists) share their duties well, and the style is neither heavyhanded nor aggravating. A vanity, perhaps, but a useful one. Eco’s debt to Dumas is flaunted openly, but he is also skilled enough as a writer to address Dumas as a peer, and uses his predacessor as a gilded frame and not as a crutch. One of the gravest pitfalls of consciously emphasising another writer (in homage or in plagiarism) is to remind the reader how much they’d prefer to be reading that book rather than yours, and Eco avoids this trammel and remains convincing and lively throughout.

The subject matter is of the very coarsest: quite besides the outrageously racist and misogynistic protagonist, when the setting is the darkest slums and salons of nineteenth-century Paris and the cast includes corrupt priests and satanists, one might rightly expect some decidedly objectionable material. It is surprising then how discretely Eco treats his foulest and dirtiest plot elements, in a way that other authors ought to take careful note of. The pages of murders, whores, and assassinations are not visceral things dripping with clinically-described gore, and the casual sidestepping of the most indelicate acts is written neither lecherously nor prudishly. With exception to a few needlessly graphic pages near the end, this book might be a study in writing maturely and sensitively about the very nastiest of actions. Again, this might be a conscious emulation of Eco’s influencers.

It would be far too generous to say that this book is faultless, but it is a compelling thriller written by an author who is both competent and comfortable with his subject, and whose depiction of his antihero is subtle and clever.

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The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

January 14, 2013 at 07:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, War and Politics) (, , , , )

4/10

Perhaps no genre has been sullied by the feet of so many slipshod hacks as the genre of alternate history. Of all the vast morass of “genre fiction” (that is, popular fiction written around a literary trope specifically for a saturated market), it is possible to find excellent science fiction, or skilfully-written romances. Historical fiction and fantasy from masterful pens stands proud amongst the tidal waves of bad imitations. But explicitly state that a book is an alternate history, and it will almost certainly be no good at all.

Perhaps it is the tired habit of trotting out dozens of cameo appearances by characters who happened to share a time period. Maybe the temptation proves too great to bore the reader with a litany of improbable events that make “this” history distinct from what really happened: and there are few things more horrifying than an historical lecture by an amateur who thinks he knows everything. Perhaps it is an undiscovered physical constant, that an author declaring, “I think I shall write an alternate history” automatically churns out something dreadful.

“Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate–just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love–and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.”

-The Plot Against America

Philip Roth is by no means a novice writer, nor is he a talentless hack. But tragically, this constant seems to apply to him as well. It really is too bad. Most of The Plot Against America is a tragic and dysfunctional narrative about a struggling working class family. There really is no reason why President Lindbergh has to put in an appearance at all. In fact for that reason alone, Roth actually succeeds in telling a very very good story. There is some excellent tension between the characters, and Roth even blindsides the reader to a degree in shuffling the cousin and the father and the elder brother in and out of the “villain” and “hero” boxes. Unreliable narrators are always fun to read, and unreliable characters even more so: the pettiness of heroes and the nobility of antiheroes is subtly depicted, and makes for excellent reading.

Here is an excellent piece of advice. Upon reading this book, when you reach page 300 (or thereabouts), stop. The final hundred pages contain a confused and incredibly bland denouement, written in much the same style as one might expect in a dull newspaper. Roth has been accused by some reviewers of pulling out a deus ex machina, but this is unfair to writers who use deus ex machinae. He pulls out at least three of them, and piles them up in a precarious and pointless mess. The whole ending reeks of a publisher’s deadline, or of a writer’s indecision. Incidentally, the whole ending is also the part where Roth plummets irretrievably into the alternate-history pitfall of dully explaining a convoluted and meaningless (in the context of the rest of his story) timeline.

Not a recommended read, and definitely not for finishing.

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Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

November 18, 2012 at 17:57 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Dystopia, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books, War and Politics) (, , , )

7/10

A deeply interesting and occasionally exciting piece of speculative fiction, with some surprising and rather drastic swings between poles of optimism and pessimism. The lure of this book is the story and the hypotheses, not the quality or skill of the writing, but Frank does a better job than might be expected of him under the circumstances, and comes away with something better than the common-or-garden airport novelist. As thriller writers go, he is a good sight better than Ludlum, and might be ranked between Puzo on a bad day or Clancy at his best.

“Edgar rocked in his chair, furious. It wasn’t a reason. It was a riddle. He repeated Randy’s words. They made no sense at all, unless Mark expected some big cataclysm, like all the banks closing, and of course that was ridiculous.”

-Alas, Babylon

Considering the bleak and horrific subject of the story, the book is extremely mild, and would make an excellent choice for teenage readers, perhaps as part of a curriculum. That is to say, it is neither provocative nor grotesque, and is at least as sociological as it is geopolitical. There are more questions of small-town politics and living off the land than there are of tactical decisions or ethical dilemmas.

It ought to be asked: should a book be panned, simply because there is little sensational about it? Should a story remain unexplored, simply because the problems and crises faced by its inhabitants generally last no longer than one of the chapters? Alas, Babylon is heavier on the speculation than on the fiction, and Pat Frank is not the most imaginative of writers, but for all its mildness this is an interesting book, and one which succeeds in keeping a patient reader on his toes, and even sometimes surprised. Those left disappointed or wanting more must stop and wonder if Pat Frank has cheated out of a more meticulous story, or if he has neglected to tell the sort of story they were expecting. The choices he makes particularly in the omissions of certain details and subjects are blinders he chooses to wear out of respect for his blinkered and isolated protagonists, not necessarily because of his inability to tell a more holistic story, but because of his keen interest in his smaller scope.

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The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

September 29, 2012 at 14:31 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

6/10

An infuriating and disjointed recasting of the Arthur legend, yet one that has its own wisdom and its own profundity. The four books that make up The Once and Future King are strikingly different from each other, and narrative threads are picked up and dropped without any regard for the sanity of the reader. T.H. White has a habit of telling a character’s story avidly and with deep interest for a hundred pages, and then offhandedly remarking that so-and-so was killed in such-and-such an indistinguished manner. He jarringly veers between whimsical lyricism and darkly savage tragicomedy without warning, and he has a habit of inserting lengthy lists and parades of commas quite purposefully and utterly shamelessly into his prose, obfuscating honest attempts to snuggle into his story.

“It is generally the trusting and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack.

-The Once and Future King

This is one of those books whose excellence is found principally in single-line quotations in which White demonstrates his keen intellect and fascinating insight, and also in the grand scope of tragedy as a whole. It is not a book that is enjoyable to read as a story, nor is it easy. Irrelevant tangents abound, crucial characters slip in and out of view, and White seems much more interested in slipping in philosophic observations than in structuring a novel.

Readers of fantasy looking for a comfortable world of sugarspun hamlets and parochial squires had better look elsewhere. Likewise, fantasy readers searching for dragons and wizards and knightly quests will not find satisfaction here. This is a grown-up fantasy book, which is to say it is bleak and merciless, and contains jewels of cleverness (though not always wisdom) sprinkled sparingly throughout. There are passages which show off T.H. White as a master writer, and passages which show him off as needlessly convoluted, or stylistically hamstrung. Appreciate it for its merits, and by all means underline passages; but to devote oneself to this book–to absolutely fall in love with it–seems to be a difficult task indeed.

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The Odessa File, by Frederick Forsyth

August 25, 2012 at 09:08 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )

3/10

In the vast morass of Nazi fiction and Second World War fiction, Forsythe’s name stands out as one likely to produce a reasonably well written book; or at least one fitting the reputation of a renowned author. He was not the first writer to decide that Nazis made the best and most original villains in a thriller, and unfortunately he will not be the last. The story found in The Odessa File is not particularly innovative, nor does it offer many surprises in the telling. Forsyth goes to great pains to maintain the illusion that his book is at least as much fact as it is fiction, and it falls upon the enterprising reader either to swallow this claim whole, or untangle it later. Needless to say, authors who are — if not dishonest then a little cagey with the truth — can swiftly grow tiresome.

“‘You’re not Jewish, Miller. You’re Aryan. You’re one of us. What did we ever do to you, for God’s sake, what did we ever do to you?'”

-The Odessa File

There are enormous sections of this book where Frederick Forsyth seems to forget that he is no longer a journalist, and where he slips into a frighteningly dull passive voice, and narrates what might otherwise have been some rather exciting scenes with all the vividness and thrill of a speaking clock. Far too often the pendulum is prone to going the other way, with authors so excited about writing that they feel the need to floridly elaborate on every zephyr, every tilt of her head or bob of his Adam’s apple — but The Odessa File commits the peculiar and frankly rather rare sin of over-expositing and over-explaining to a bizarre degree.

It is surely due to this overwrought need to clarify and explain that the most thrilling part of the book, the denouement, reads with an uninspired sense of familiarity and inevitability. There is altogether too much driving and travelling, too straightforward a path walked by the faceless and forgettable protagonist, and a depressing dearth of any sort of tension whatsoever.

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