Friday, April 28, 2017

April Updates

It's been a while since I posted one of my update posts, so I thought I would share a bit of what I've been up to...including an announcement about a new story that almost no one knows about. :-D


Reading


As usual, I keep a regular log of what I'm currently reading on Goodreads. Probably the book I'm most excited about at the moment is something I'm reading as part of this stage of work on OUTREMER: Healer of the Nations by Gary North. It's a brilliantly insightful book on international relations from a Christian perspective, and as I take a step back to look at the history I've been learning and try to evaluate the ins and outs, the rights and wrongs of it all, this specific book has been incredibly helpful. How ought Christian nations to relate to each other and to nations of other persuasions? Is there any truth in nationalism or internationalism, and what do Christians have to say about such things? These are questions that most Christians don't even think of asking, and this book, despite bearing the stamp of the times when it was written (before the collapse of the Soviet Union), has been extremely helpful to me in thinking through the issues involved in the history I've been learning.

It's available from the publisher as a free PDF here.


Watching


As part of the preparation for the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns (more on that in a minute), I went back and watched on of my favourite wuxia films. Reign of Assassins isn't one of those serious arthouse wuxia films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. Instead, it's much closer to the wuxia books I read a while back: a preposterous, swashbuckling tale of ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. The always queenly Michelle Yeoh plays Drizzle, a deadly assassin who after accidentally killing the man she loves, seeks redemption in a quiet life as a street vendor in Nanjing. The Polearm Guy from Musa (Woo-sung Jeong) plays the goofy errand-runner who's sweet on her. Drizzle's former colleagues, in search for a powerful Buddhist relic that disappeared when she did, are determined to get their revenge for her defection. Will Drizzle ever be able to leave her life of violence behind her? Or is her newfound happiness about to meet an ugly end?

Although I found the ending of the film a little unsatisfying (one character gives up his revenge for no discernible reason), overall this is a charming story. I would, however, highly recommend pairing it with (ex Zen monk) Ellis Potter's book 3 Theories of Everything, which will explain the Buddhist worldview behind the film, and its preoccupation with domesticity, nature, and the small, quiet arts.


Listening


Last time I posted these updates I was listening to My Soul Among Lions, and right now I'm listening to them again, some more. Volume 2 of their ambitious project to record all 150 Psalms in a country/folk style, covering Psalms 11-20, was released just a few weeks ago and I've been listening to it over and over. As with the first album, some of the renditions are more successful than others (Psalm 18 is perhaps a little too long to fit into one track?) but overall, I'm enjoying this second album even more - particularly their Psalms 14 and 20.


Writing


So, here's the part you've been waiting for. *rubs hands*

This month I have been working on the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns, my retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a homage to wuxia. It's coming together nicely, but looks like being the longest of my novellas so far. Because of the wordcount (potentially 35,000 words, give or take), I'm not sure how much longer I'll be finishing the second draft - but I'm looking forward to sending it to beta readers, hopefully early next month! No other story I've ever written has ever made me smile so hard, so it's been a real pleasure to work on.

The other project I'm working on this month is OUTREMER, you'll all be pleased to know. I've been fidgeting with it since the beginning of the year, and my task this month was to take a step back and do some evaluation of the ethical issues in the history. As an author, my job is, in part, to pass judgement on people's actions. Should I depict Balian of Ibelin and Maria Comnena's decision to force their daughter Isabella to divorce Hopeless Humphrey of Toron as a good or a bad thing, for instance? And what about the decision to march East on crusade at all? It's been a great time for me to challenge some of my existing assumptions, and to be a little more critical of some of what I've been reading in the history books--and a completely exciting time to think about the hand of Providence in these events. At this stage, my hope is to begin writing the second draft in the second half of this year.

And! Here's something you don't know: Last month I had a lot of fun writing the first draft of a whole new fairytale retelling. This one is titled The City Beyond the Glass, and it's a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Renaissance Venice, in...well, its own style, really, though it did grow out of my fascination with Rosamund Hodge. I don't think I've ever written such overtly unpleasant characters as the ones in this story, so it was a terrific challenge. 

I didn't tell you about it at the time because of the Death Be Not Proud paperback release (did you get your copy yet? Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile called it, and I quote, "to die for"). As always, if you've already read Death Be Not Proud and have not already done so, please do consider leaving a short review at Amazon.

And actually, I have another review request. I recently put together my four existing fairytale novellas in a boxset of their own. If you have read all my fairytale novellas, would you consider leaving a short review of that as well? It would be a very substantial help. And as always, if you haven't read the existing novellas, shoot me an email and I will be very happy to shower you with free review copies!

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The Introduction to my Oxford World's Classics edition tells me that The Way We Live Now was composed in a fit of uncharacteristic spleen. Trollope had spent eighteen months travelling in Australia and New Zealand (his book of observations on Australia is a classic) and returned to England late in 1872 finding his literary star declining to the extent that he had to give up his country home and live in London. There, disgusted by the dishonesty he saw running rampant in fashionable society, he composed The Way We Live Now.

Plot

It's hard to summarise the sprawling, multi-stranded plot of this novel, but here are some of the primary plot lines:

Sir Felix Carbury, baronet, a ne'er-do-well gambler and coward who having frittered away his patrimony is now sponging off his devoted mother and long-suffering sister, elects to support his dissolute lifestyle by marrying an heiress. The heiress in his sights is Marie Melmotte, the only daughter of the fabulously wealthy but utterly mysterious Great Financier Augustus Melmotte - but as bullied and controlled as she's been all her life, Marie is beginning to develop a mind of her own.

All of London society understands that Augustus Melmotte is an adventurer and probably a swindler, but his unimaginable wealth makes him, not just respectable but positively sought-after. As he juggles more and more daring confidence schemes than he ever has before, Melmotte rises higher than ever before - and risks the fall of his life.

Upstanding squire Roger Carbury is devotedly in love with his cousin Hetta Carbury, but unfortunately Hetta has fallen in love with Paul Montague, a rather pliable young man trying to escape a former engagement to an unscrupulous American woman. Will Paul escape Mrs Hurtle's machinations? Which of her suitors will Hetta choose?

Satire and Pessimism

The Way We Live Now was not published to very positive reviews. It begins, after all, with a scorching critique of literary society, as penniless and desperate would-be bestseller Lady Carbury wheels, deals, cajoles, and flatters newspaper editors for favourable reviews (even today, I defy any writer not to read this and wince!). While the tone of the story mellows toward the second half, becoming more sympathetic to its characters, the tone has a good deal more bite in it than Trollope's usual fare, and few of the characters are as lovable as those in Trollope's other stories.

In addition, the plot and cast seem to have gotten away from Trollope somewhere. Lady Carbury, for instance, is introduced as the book's central character, but the character of the Great Financier, Augustus Melmotte himself, quickly wrests the plot away from her, as do a host of smaller supporting characters - the repulsive Georgiana Longestaffe with her increasingly desperate efforts to find a husband, romantic farmgirl Ruby Ruggles with her dangerous crush on Sir Felix Carbury, feckless Lord Nidderdale and the other upper-class twits at the Beargarden Club - some of which end with a bang, and some with a whimper. Paul Montague is another of those indecisive young Trollopean heroes whom you want to reach inside the book and hit over the head, but to whom we give a (reluctant) pass because we suppose he is rather truer to life than the average romantic lead.

So, I will admit that I found The Way We Lived Now a little difficult to love, and certainly not as delightful as The Last Chronicle of Barset. However, there were plenty of things to like.

Politics and Family

There was the Lady Carbury plot - a little sidelined by the great business of Melmotte's rise and fall, but by the end of the book I thought it was the most satisfying thing in the whole novel. I loved how her friendship with Mr Broune developed from coquetry to brutal honesty.

One of the things I've come to notice and deeply appreciate in Trollope's novels is his concern for women and their status. This comes out partially in Hetta Carbury's plot - of whom it's said that she "had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially for a daughter." Similarly, Marie Melmotte has always been bullied and controlled by her father, and gradually, over the course of the book, begins to assert her own judgement. Unusually for his young female characters, Trollope does not let Marie off without some pretty trenchant criticism, but I wound up with a gleeful appreciation for her. When the loathsome Felix Carbury first set about cold-heartedly convincing Marie to marry him for the sake of her fortune, I was worried for the put-upon and naive young girl. Well...I hate to spoil anything for you, so I'll just say that I needn't have worried. Or at least, not about Marie. 

Perhaps most fascinating was the political satire in this story. Augustus Melmotte becomes such a titanic figure in London society as to run for Parliment. His political opinions are so unformed that he could equally easily run for the Liberal or the Conservative platforms, and he ultimately chooses the Conservatives purely because he thinks he will make more money that way. And London eagerly plays along: "Mr Melmotte was not like other men. It was a great thing to have Mr Melmotte in the party. Mr Melmotte's financial capabilities would in themselves be a tower of strength. Rules were not made to control the club in a matter of such importance as this." Not only are shots taken at the willingness of political causes to prostitute themselves to larger-than-life personalities (h'mm, where have we seen that before?) but also at Conservatism itself: "The Conservative party at this particular period was putting its shoulder to the wheel, - not to push the coach up any hill, but to prevent its being hurried along." The more things that change...

Dishonesty and Hypocrisy

If there's one overarching theme in this book, it is that of dishonesty. Melmotte is the great swindler who dominates the whole story, of course, but the book is full of lesser dishonesties. Felix Carbury, living on credit and loans extracted from his already impoverished mother; Lady Carbury herself, "false from head to foot" who must learn the value of honesty; Georgiana Longestaffe, incapacitated by her greed for any honesty either social or romantic; or on the other hand, the unexpectedly wonderful Mr Brehgert, whose honesty proves himself immediately one of the best characters in the book. Overall the book is mournful in tone: Trollope puts aside his customary optimism in order to bewail the dishonesty that he felt had come to characterise his time: "a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places...so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable." The Way We Live Now is a tale of hypocrisy on a grand scale; its aim ultimately to wake its readers' consciences. The fact that it was disliked in its day and is now regarded as Trollope's magnum opus is perhaps a sad sign that hypocrisy is as lively as ever it was: we are always more willing to put on sackcloth and ashes for the sins of our forbears than for the sins of our own day.

Find The Way We Live Now on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Poem: Pietá by James McAuley

It's Good Friday, and owing to 2017 being the centenary of the birth of James McAuley, one of my favourite poets, I thought I would find one of his poems to post. It's not quite an Easter poem, but it is written with Easter in mind - so here it is.

Pietá

A year ago you came
Early into the light.
You lived a day and night,
Then died; no-one to blame.

Once only, with one hand,
Your mother in farewell
Touched you. I cannot tell,
I cannot understand

A thing so dark and deep,
So physical a loss:
One touch, and that was all

She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible
Are those made with the Cross.

James McAuley



Friday, April 7, 2017

The Bell Mountain Series 1-4 by Lee Duigon

I don't quite know what I expected to find in Lee Duigon's Bell Mountain series. A series of Christian fantasy for children put out by an independent Christian publishing house that otherwise mostly just publishes heavy and bearded theological tomes? Don't get me wrong: I love me a heavy and bearded theological tome. They can be useful for dealing with spiders, hitting people over the head with in arguments, and impressing (or repelling) persons of the opposite sex. But, fiction is a totally different kettle of fish, and I was intrigued to find out whether this series was as good as I heard it was.

Yes. It was.

The Series So Far

Young Jack is just the unwanted stepson of the municipal carter of tiny, unimportant Ninneburky. But he's been having dreams--dreams of a bell hung high on mysterious Bell Mountain, a bell that can be heard around the world. Only Ellayne, the chief councillor's uppity daughter, agrees with Jack that the dream must be true and that God wants them to climb the mountain and ring the bell. But it's a long way to Bell Mountain. There are plenty of dangers in the outside world. A deadly assassin from the Temple in the great city of Obann is determined to hunt them down. And then there are all the prophecies that say the world will end when the bell rings...

That's where the story begins in Book 1, Bell Mountain. But it doesn't stay there. In Book 2, The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, the tale explodes into a continent-spanning epic: barbarian invasions, a long-lost boy king, and a hunt for lost scrolls. Book 3, The Thunder King, and Book 4, The Last Banquet, feature wars, giants, monsters, sieges, betrayals, and prophecies. The tale moves fast, following a host of colourful supporting characters: Helki, the Flail of the Lord; Obst, the unwilling missionary; Lord Reesh, the treacherous First Prester; Hlah son of Spider, a barbarian prince on an unlikely mission; an assassin who has renounced his past; a three-year-old girl who can prophesy the future; a girl blown off-course in a storm. And that's not all--there are nine books now available in the series, with more to come.

Needless to say, the series is thoroughly entertaining. I was also impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship. I'm very familiar with many of the most common mistakes made by half-baked or rookie authors (including myself), and the more I learn about writing craft the more these things niggle at me. Lee Duigon's storytelling is not airtight: look very carefully at Books 3 and 4 and you'll notice that two of the most important characters, Jack and Ellayne, are given relatively little to do. But there's plenty he does get right. Three-dimensional, flawed, yet lovable characters. Detailed, convincing worldbuilding. Rich thematic goodness, with an optimistic postmillennial slant. It's all here.

A Few Things I Liked

It's hard to review four full-length books in one post, so I'm just going to pick out a couple of the things I particularly liked. I will try to avoid any but the mildest spoilers, but there might be a few for early books in the series...

First, while the books are apparently aimed at children, they manage to remain realistic, with a helping of darkness and grit. This comes through in a number of ways. It's a common trope in children's fantasy for the children to head off into the world all by themselves, competent to deal with whatever comes their way. I really appreciated that when Jack and Ellayne do this in Bell Mountain, it's made very very clear that they are completely at the mercy of whatever unscrupulous adults might find them. The book is not paranoid about this, but it is rather more honest than a lot of children's adventure/fantasy fiction. 

From Book 2 forward, a large part of the plot focuses on the war that results from an invasion of Heathens from beyond the mountains. Some Heathens convert to belief in God and it is totally not done in modern evangeli-speak; it's got rather more in common with, say, the conversion of Iceland as depicted in The Saga of Burnt Njal. I thought this was great world-building, but just as good is the fun Duigon has throughout by not having these tattooed, polygamous, scalping barbarians suddenly turn into well-behaved modern Americans overnight.
"It's a kind of hymn," she said. "They are asking God to let you drink fermented mare's milk from the Thunder King's skull."
Because of the realistic grounding of the series, it's the kind of story that adults as well as children ought to enjoy. In fact, I'd almost recommend that parents give the series a bit of a read-through first in case their children may not be ready for some of the gritty details.

A Headscratcher or Two

One of the things I'm often interested to note is how other Christian fantasy authors include a Christian worldview in their secondary worlds. From the synopses of the books I could tell that this particular series isn't all that subtle about it: there are overt references to God, his Scripture, his Spirit, and so on. This is not the Tolkien approach, with an unspoken Christian worldview lurking in the background, nor the Lewis approach, with symbolic/representative versions of the Godhead. With such overt references to Christianity, I wasn't sure whether the story would bear up under the weight of realism. In the final analysis, I think Duigon did rather well on this front, but I'm a little ambivalent about his preferred approach.

Basically, Duigon has not included Christianity as the religion in his invented fantasy world; instead, he's made up a fantasy analogue to Christianity. Instead of the Children of Israel passing through the Red Sea, we have the Children of Geb walking across the sea to Obann. Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem we have the Temple in Old Obann. Instead of King David we have King Ozias. When the fantasy scriptures are quoted they are either paraphrases or pastiches of Holy Scripture. 

This is a good approach from a storytelling point of view since it melds the religious themes organically into the setting and prevents them from overpowering the storytelling. However, the analogue religion is so close to Christianity that I'd be a little nervous that very young children, or people not fully familiar with actual Scripture,  might come away confused. Rather amusingly, characters throughout the books declare "Magic doesn't exist" and whenever werewolves or ghosts or witches are mentioned someone usually sniffs at the superstition. I, of course, have no problem with such elements being used in fiction, if done wisely. After all, these are obviously superstitious/fantastical elements. Reading, for instance, the Narnia books as a child, it was always very easy to distinguish between the fantastical dryads and dwarfs and Talking Beasts of Narnia, and the realities of our world. But I'd be a little worried that reading something like the Bell Mountain books as a child, I would have had real trouble distinguishing between the fantasy religion and the real thing.

Conclusion

With that slight caveat, I have to tell you that I have been thoroughly enjoying these books, and I am looking forward to reading more of them. They are perfect for fans of Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga (in fact, I like the Bell Mountain series better overall) and also ought to appeal to fans of N. D. Wilson and Anne Elisabeth Stengl. This is definitely a series that deserves to be more popular, and I'm looking forward to reading the next eight books!

Find Book 1, Bell Mountain, on Amazon. The first plot arc of the series takes up the first four books, so you may like to get The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, The Thunder King, and The Last Banquet while you're at it.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I first read Douglas Adams's classic sci-fi comedy years ago when I found it at the library. The book left me sore from laughing, and I subsequently loaned it around all my brothers, who equally enjoyed it. Recently, as I've been enjoying reading aloud with my sisters, I decided it was high time to share The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with them.
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
Arthur Dent is having a truly terrible morning, lying in the mud in front of a bulldozer to protest its imminent demolition of his house - but not half as terrible as it's about to become in twelve minutes' time, when Earth itself is demolished to make room for a hyperspatial express route. Luckily, Arthur's best friend Ford Prefect is not actually human, nor a vehicle, but a seasoned galactic hitch-hiker from "somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse", and a travelling researcher for the most remarkable book in the galaxy: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Ford and Arthur survive the destruction of Planet Earth, but how will they cope with the third worst poetry in the universe, or being flushed out an airlock into space? The odds are a million to one against their survival--but fortunately for them, the President of the Galaxy has just pulled off the heist of a lifetime...

And no matter how bad things get, at least they'll always have the comforting and informative Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with them, complete with large, friendly letters on the cover: Don't Panic.
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.
In the great tradition of PG Wodehouse, the Goon Show, and Monty Python, this book is dry, chatty, and completely bonkers. It actually started life as a radio show before turning up in book form. And then there was a trilogy. And then it went on and became five books ('the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Trilogy') and a TV series, and a film, and a computer game, and who knows what else, none of the versions bearing much relation to the others.
The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.
As usual with science-fiction published several decades ago (the book was originally published in 1979) it's interesting to see what parts of the sci-fi speculation look like coming true, or not. There's nothing in this book that would prefigure the internet, for instance. But it's hard not to see the parallels between the (in-universe) Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book so immense it has to be carried on a portable hand-held electronic device and kept updated by roving researchers, and threatens to render the Encyclopedia Galactica obsolete, with Wikipedia.

As for the Infinite Improbability Drive, I'm sure that's not meant to be much more than a hilarious joke.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
The last book I read aloud with my sisters was (of course) the joyously medieval sci-fi tale The High Crusade. It's hard not to compare these two classics of sci-fi comedy with each other. It would be hard to find two more dissimilar books, even given the genre similarities. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is cynical, dry, and British. The High Crusade is idealistic, brash, and American, and this helps it to emulate the medieval character in ways that bring tears to this history-lover's eye.

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, is thoroughly up-to-date and agnostic. Its absurdist view of the world, which provides such a barrel of laughs, only masks a profoundly empty and depressing philosophy. This is made clear in the first two pages of the book:
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a chance, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realised what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
And it's made clearer yet later, when the whole story becomes about the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything--which, when finally revealed, turns out to be the completely meaningless "Forty-Two", and all the work must be done again in order to discover what the Ultimate Question is, in the hopes that this will reveal the meaning of the answer. But of course, even that quest turns out to be hopeless.

What's left is a rather unsatisfying and anticlimactic plot. Adams, while hilarious, was a heathen consistent enough to encode his absurdist worldview deep into his plot structure. The result is a denatured, anticlimactic plot that resolves nothing and answers nothing. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is brilliantly funny and well worth reading. But it's also a consistent expression of its deeply unsatisfying philosophy.

Find The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the novel) on Amazon or the Book Depository. If you are looking for the most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor so that you can make and experience a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, try this.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DEATH BE NOT PROUD release!

And...it's finally here! The Death Be Not Proud novella, originally released as part of the Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales collection, is now available in illustrated paperback and standalone e-book!

Moonshine liquor, jazz-fuelled dancing, and the risk of a police raid - these are all in a night's work for cabaret singer Ruby Black. But when a rugby star mistakes her for a dead girl, Ruby's life threatens to become briefer and more exciting than she bargained for. 
Two years ago, schoolgirl Wu Xue Bai was brutally murdered. Now, Ruby herself is in danger. Who killed Xue Bai? What lies behind Max Moran's obsession with the dead girl? And will Ruby learn the truth before secrets from her own past catch up with her? 
A fairytale retelling set in Jazz Age New Zealand, inspired by the thrillers of Mary Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock. Novella, approximately 23,000 words. 
$2.99 ebook | $6.99 paperback | Add it on Goodreads

If you haven't read it yet, go and get it! Death Be Not Proud is a bit different to anything I've done so far, and I'm excited to find out if it works for you!

Already read Death Be Not Proud? There are two things you can do that would be an enormous help to me!

First, please head over to the Amazon page and leave a short, honest review. Reviews are marketing gold to indie authors like me, and are absolutely essential in helping me connect with other readers who would enjoy my work.

Second, if you would like to see more of my fairytale novellas in print, do consider buying the paperback, for yourself and/or for a friend! The Rakshasa's Bride paperback, and this one, have been an exercise in paying a little extra for professional editing and illustrations, but unfortunately it means that unless they sell well, they will be the only two I am capable of producing. So, if you would like to see The Prince of Fishes and The Bells of Paradise, as well as future fairytale novellas, available in this format, you can help by investing in existing paperbacks!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Escape from France by Ronald Welch

Book 8 in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is Escape from France, a fast-paced adventure set during the French Revolution. I first stumbled across Ronald Welch's stirring adventure stories for boys at our local library, which still owned a few of the old Oxford University Press hardbacks, and Escape from France was one of the books I read. At the time, I considered it an exciting story, but also less substantial than many of the other Carey Family books I'd read, especially my favourite, Captain of Dragoons.

So I was interested to see what I would think of it lo these many years later, as an adult.

We meet Richard Carey at Cambridge, a capable but arrogant young man who easily deals with all the challenges that come his way--whether it's academic study, a crooked bookmaker with a pugilistic bodyguard, or a ne'er-do-well cousin who must be rescued from his gambling debts. Meanwhile, however, political conditions are deteriorating across the channel in pre-revolutionary France. When the Careys' distant cousin the Marquis of Vernaye is arrested, Richard's father (the 7th Earl of Aubigny) and uncle (international hellraiser Sir Rupert Carey) commission Richard to cross the Channel to France and rescue the Marquis's family.

Richard laughs at Sir Rupert's wild stories and wilder advice. But once landed in France, he finds that the once most civilised nation on earth has become a more dangerous place than he imagined. To make matters worse, cousin Armand is determined not to escape until the Marquis of Vernaye can be rescued from the feared Abbaye Prison itself. In a France beset with spies, informants, adventurers, card sharks, and duellists, Richard begins to realise that Sir Rupert may not be as crazy as he thought...

This story reminded me very strongly of two other books, GA Henty's In the Reign of Terror and (of course) Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. Indeed I'm sure there have to have been a lot of other books written about heroic Englishmen crossing the Channel to rescue French aristocrats from the Reign of Terror. Given that, it's tempting to ask what Escape from France adds to the conversation.

In some ways, I don't know that it tries to add much to the conversation about the French Revolution and as usual, Ronald Welch shies away from investigating too closely the ethical questions inherent in the period of history he's writing about. The Marquis of Vernaye is said to have been kind to his tenants, while other aristocrats and the ancien regime at large are shown to have been oppressive. One thing I liked was that there are sympathetic characters and villainous characters among both the aristocracy and among the republicans, and one main character is shown to be a moderate republican who remains loyal to his country despite the Terror--I felt there was a good representation of a few different perspectives.

Ronald Welch is worth reading for two main reasons. One is the depth and accuracy of his military history, and his best books (like Captain of Dragoons and Tank Commander) tend to focus on wars. I actually missed that focus in Escape from France, which seemed a little more romantic and less grounded in tone.

There's another main reason to read Ronald Welch, though, and that is his continual discussion of masculine maturity. Escape from France is about a young man who thinks himself competent, but has really lived a short and privileged life. It's only when he finds himself alone and on the run in France, without any of the advantages of being an Earl's son in England, that he begins to realise how much he has to be humble about.

Escape from France is an exciting, fast-paced adventure through revolutionary France. I enjoyed it, and I'd recommend it, together with the rest of the Carey Family series, for children and young teens. The series has been out of print for many years, and is currently being reprinted in limited clothbound editions for Slightly Foxed, so get a copy while you still can!

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