Challenger’s Hope – David Feintuch

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Just a heads up, the following may contain spoilers from the first book. See that review first HERE!

Nicholas Seafort is a man that never seems to catch a break. After the events of the first book, Seafort is given command of the UNS Challenger and assigned to a task force heading back to Hope Nation. Unfortunately for him, his new command is stolen from under him by Admiral Tremaine the leader of the task force. Seafort and his pregnant wife Amanda are reassigned to the far smaller UNS Portia for the duration of the trip.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the task force is then set upon by the newly discovered Fish and a deadly virus is let loose upon UNS Portia. Personal tragedy ensues for Seafort and he struggles to maintain a grip on himself and discover the whereabouts of the rest of the squadron. When Seafort finally catches up to the Admiral he is ordered to take command of the now crippled UNS Challenger whilst the Admiral escapes with UNS Portia, most of the supplies and a large proportion of Challenger’s weapons. In this situation, Seafort is forced to take actions that clash with his sense of morality in order to extend their chance of rescue as far as possible.

Challenger’s Hope is a far darker novel than the first. In the space between the two novels mankind has found out that they are not alone. The galaxy has become a far more threatening place and the enemy is so inhuman that any attempt to understand their thinking is impossible. However, the main threat in this book comes from within the Navy itself. Having only ever experienced peace the Navy has become dominated by officers that are unfit to lead. This ineffectiveness is encapsulated by Admiral Tremaine, a man obsessed with his own advancement and unwilling to risk his own safety.

In this novel we also get to see how the society of Earth in the future is highly divided. Seafort is forced to take on board his ship a group of transpop youths as part of a governmental trial to solve the transpop problem. Earth in the future is dominated by a few wealthy uppies whilst below untold billions have fallen away into a state of tribal anarchy. These people are so brutally savage that they might as well be extras in a Mad Max film. Seafort is forced to notice these people on a ship as small as Portia and this lets the reader get a real sense of the rigid social stratification at large on Earth. However, as the novel progresses this relationship becomes a lot more complicated as Seafort begins to realise that those “civilised” people in command may be far more savage than the transpops themselves. This is a really interesting theme that pervades the novel like a slow fuse burning away unnoticed in the background and I think that it is really well woven into the narrative.

Whilst Seafort really struggled to come to terms with choices he had to make to get Hibernia through the first novel he confronts a whole load more self loathing in this one. His short stint in the command chair has really changed Seafort from the upbeat, energised youth of his days as a midshipman. Choices now weigh heavily on his mind to the point that he begins to question his sanity and the point of living. Loneliness, depression and conflicted interests all dominate Seafort’s thoughts throughout the narrative as he is driven away from everything he loves and forced to do the opposite of everything he believes in. He has become a tragic hero, celebrated for the evil that men do and he struggles to atone for his mistakes.

Overall Rating: 7 out of 10

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Midshipman’s Hope – David Feintuch

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When things go wrong for Nicholas Seafort, they really go wrong. As one of the midshipman aboard UNS Hibernia, Seafort could never have expected to be thrust into the command chair by a series of tragedies. Once in the seat, the young officer will have to put up with a mutinous crew hired from the dregs of society, a passenger compliment that is often hostile to his intentions and dangers never before witnessed by mankind among the stars.

Midshipman’s Hope reads like a Napoleonic naval novel but with more lasers. UNS Hibernia makes up the setting for the majority of the novel as they complete the lonely journey from Earth to Hope Nation across the void. The ship, thanks in part to its civilian passengers, feels alive with a large amount of the novel given over to exploring the difference between the troubles of the common sailor and those of the wealthy passengers. Tensions often run high as Seafort fights to maintain control of his ship and uncover the cause of the terrible accident that cost the lives of the majority of the officers.

The twists come thick and fast in this novel and Seafort clearly struggles with his own demon’s throughout. In the hyper religious society that makes up humanity in the future, Seafort struggles to see himself as anything other than a sinner. He is a character that punishes himself for the smallest mistake even when the characters around him expunge him of any blame. As a character, Seafort is flawed. He is bound by his oath to the Navy and often acts in ways that he knows is morally wrong. Seafort isn’t afraid of making difficult choices and often reflects on the morality of his decisions. It is this reflection that makes Seafort a difficult character to hate. Whilst he appears stern, if not authoritarian, Seafort is a deeply troubled and emotionally strained man. We often feel sorry for the sacrifices he has to make in the name of duty to ensure that UNS Hibernia and her crew make it through the difficult journey.

Without giving too much away, this novel is definitely worth a read. It may just be another Hornblower in space but it offers some really refreshing narrative ideas and characters that seem to be aware of the implications of their own actions.

Overall Rating: 8 out of 10

Devil’s Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem 1944 – Geoffrey Powell

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I read this book on Kindle and the number of small formatting errors in the text makes me believe that it is a scanned in document. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this practice it’s essential that somebody proof reads the version before it goes on sale. That way the integrity and clarity of the product remains unchanged. It won’t take away from what I’m about to say about the book but it would be nice to see publisher’s taking more care about their products on the digital market.

When I was about twelve my family went to Holland on holiday, specifically in the Gelderland region. Amongst the usual family days out spent riding bicycles, falling out of trees and exploring small towns; my dad insisted that we visit Oosterbeek. At twelve years old I didn’t really realise that Oosterbeek had any more significance than any other town we visited in Holland. That is until we got there. My dad pulled into the Arnhem-Oosterbeek cemetery and proceeded to drag us around grave by grave for several hours. Coach tours dropped in and out, each bringing a sudden ten minute outburst of furious and noisy remembrance. After a while one of the people that tended the graves came over and said how happy he was to see that some people spent more than a few moments wandering around. We were so lucky that this man knew so much and was happy to take time out to show us around and tell us so many stories about the people silent before us. I don’t tell many people but it’s probably my favourite moment from any holiday ever.

What’s this got to do with the book? Oosterbeek is a key location in the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden to bypass the Siegfried Line and get across the Rhine. Oosterbeek was the location that the British 1st Airborne division made their stand whilst waiting for relief before being withdrawn. It is a location that a large portion of this book centres around. As Powell lived through the failure at Arnhem he is best placed to give the reader a real sense of what it was like to live through it.

His book is a really solid overview of Operation Market Garden starting from its inception as a massively modified Operation Comet to the eventual withdrawal of the remnants of the British 1st Airborne division. He is unflinching in his analysis of some of the failings of Market Garden, especially the lack of trust between the British and the Dutch resistance groups. Powell sets out the information clearly and the events are easy to follow. I was especially happy to see that he had not neglected to comment on the situation of the American forces at the other objectives of Market Garden. Whilst he tells the reader about everything going on in the Arnhem area he didn’t forget to comment on the events that slowed down the advance on “Hell’s Highway.”

If I had one criticism of this book it would be that the author seems to give Monty the benefit of the doubt. Most of the criticism for the failure of the operation is deflected away from Monty and onto his subordinates or the supply situation in Europe. However, the author is a solider that fought during the operation and he is likely to have felt, as many did at the time, that Monty had done all he could to achieve success.

Overall Rating: 9 out of 10

Eagle in the Snow – Wallace Breem

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If I was reviewing the last quarter of this book it would be flawless. The pace is right, the threat real and the ending in question. However, this is a novel about waiting for the inevitable. Waiting for the river to freeze, waiting for the barbarians to cross the frontier and waiting for help that might never come.

Characters are poorly fleshed out and I genuinely didn’t care when they died. Perhaps this is because the protagonist Maximus, leader of the 20th Legion, doesn’t seem to care very much about them. The novel is written from his perspective, after all, and so we see the characters through the eyes of a man that had to command rather than love his men.

The novel is written in first person and this struck me as unusual for a novel that tries to give the reader a sense of the scale of the threat to Rome’s frontiers. It leaves events within the novel feeling disjointed as we are shackled to Maximus. We are told that plenty of events unfold but we rarely get to witness these first hand. If the protagonist occupied the place of a legionnaire we would probably experience a more action packed, darker narrative of men dying for an emperor they’ve never seen. Instead Maximus’ leadership position let’s the reader witness the endemic corruption of the late Roman empire. He regularly battles with a crumbling civic administration to get the support he needs. The figures of power which Maximus confronts throughout the novel seem to have forgotten their allegiance to Rome whilst simultaneously demanding aid from her.

Whilst this book has it’s moments of excitement it is in all a rather slow read. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting this when I picked it up but this novel struggled to deliver a narrative that made me want to turn the page.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 10

The Pirates – Matthew West

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I bought “The Pirates” thinking that I’d finally get past the movies and come face to face with who Pirates were and what drove them to piracy. Whilst “The Pirates” did provide some information about this it never delivered anything I didn’t already know. That probably isn’t the books fault, piracy is something Hollywood borrows and romanticises. It has been well established in cinema since before I was born and will probably continue to be into the far future.

As a general summary this book is worth reading. It flits between famous pirate characters and discusses their lives at a glance. As an introduction to the story of the golden age of piracy it does well to loosely identify the pirates and their motives but little else. Besides a few interesting, if not humorous, anecdotes about life aboard pirate vessels this book was not very engaging.

If all the sections in this book, had been written like the section near the end about Black Bart I would be reviewing this book in a far more positive light. This section gives a biography of Black Bart highlighting the highs and lows of his career. The fact that Black Bart’s story features a meteoric rise in status followed by a tragic, if not deserved, end makes his section the most easy to engage with.

Rating: 3 out of 10

The Fall of Berlin 1945 – Antony Beevor

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The last months of the Second World War is a subject that rarely makes an appearance in the plethora of book that are available on the topic. This books features material on some of the most barbaric events in German history, the growing ineffectiveness of Nazi leadership, whilst simultaneously highlighting several heroic actions across Berlin by hard pressed German soldiers. I will warn you now, this isn’t an easy read. The rape of Berlin by the revenging Red Army features prominently throughout this book. There are many accounts from German women that show the horrors inflicted upon the civilian populations trapped by the Soviet advances. Whilst difficult to read these sections are necessary in humanising the German people. It is far too easy to dismiss the civilians as being “Nazis” when many ordinary Germans felt that the party had lost its grip on reality.

The madness that overtook the bunker of the Nazi leadership as the Soviets closed in is also something Beevor extensively explores. The difference between those on the outside of the bunker and those within is stark. Whilst on the streets people were forced to line up in the open for food as shells rained down, in the bunker parties raged and life carried on normally. Hitler, when confronted with Soviet advances, frequently showed how out of touch with the situation he was. He is often quoted in this book as having sent orders for armies to counter-attack with divisions that no longer existed. The decision by many field commanders to ignore Hitler’s directives may have been what saved the lives of many Wehrmacht soldiers.

I was especially caught up in the decision of General Wenck to use the 12th Army to hold open a corridor for civilians and remnants of the 9th Army. This decision allowed these people to retreat to the River Elbe, and in doing so, surrender to the Americans rather than the Soviets. Wenck’s decision to disregard Hitler’s call for an attack towards Berlin gives us a real sense of how disenfranchised the Wehrmacht had become. For Wenck it wasn’t “about Berlin any more,” it wasn’t “about the Reich any more.”

This book should definitely be read after Beevor’s book on the bitter fighting at Stalingrad. This book is almost a parallel of Stalingrad except that the roles are reversed and the outcome is certain. As this book stays heavily focused on the conflict between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, it is a perfect partner to the other work and helps to complete the story of the Eastern Front like few others. In Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht is at the height of its power fighting an unprepared and poorly equipped foe. In this book, the Soviet Union has survived the onslaught of 1941 and learned the hard lessons it needed to. The Wehrmacht on the other hand, is desperately short of equipment and manpower and is in no state to seriously oppose the threat posed by the Red Army. The outcome is already decided before the book has begun but the story is still worth reading in a world where cities are still under siege and fighting happens in the streets.

Rating: 8 out of 10

The Things Our Fathers Saw: Voices of the Pacific Theater – Matthew Rozell

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Westward we came across the smiling waves,
West to the outpost of our country’s might
‘Romantic land of brilliant tropic light’
Our land of broken memories and graves.  

Eastward we go and home,
so few Wrapped in their beds of clay our comrades sleep
The memories of this land are branded deep
And lost is the youth we knew.

Lieutenant Henry Lee

Rozell has got this book right. The pace, the tone, and the visceral nature of the accounts within all work together to show the horrors of war in the Pacific. Starting with the attack on Pearl harbour readers are given first hand accounts of what it was like to face an enemy that would rather die than surrender. The accounts from veterans are accompanied by chapter headers that give a greater sense of the historical background. It is this zooming in and out between the overarching campaign and those that experienced it on the ground that makes this book so approachable. You don’t need to already know reams of information about the war in the Pacific to be able to follow this book.

My only criticism of this book, if that is what it can be called, is that there is not enough of it. I feel that this book could have done with slightly more accounts from the people that were there. However, this is probably just because I am greedy and found the accounts contained in this book truly amazing. I will leave you with one section with a pertinent message for us today:

“I think that is one thing I learned with the atomic bomb, that there is no future in war, so as far as I am concerned…the worst thing that is happening is that young people are brought up to be in fear, and you should not be.” – Walter Hooke

Rating: 9 out of 10