Authors worth reading: Alan Furst

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Authors worth reading
Part of my Alan Furst collection on Kindle.

As I watch the images of recent weeks — war, devastation, trains and platforms packed with fleeing civilians — I find myself reminded of the works of Alan Furst. I’ve been meaning to write more about my favourite authors, so this is a good place to start.

Furst’s novels are set in the 1930s and the 1940s, amidst the shadows of Europe: they deal with espionage, occupation, and resistance. The books are episodic; short on plot; and long on atmosphere. At their best, their writing is beautiful and evocative; consider the opening scene of Dark Voyage, in which a radio operator hears the final call of a distressed merchant ship, or Warsaw’s defenders in the opening scene of The Polish Officer. Eventually, Furst went downhill; his later books crept towards self-parody, to the point where I never picked up his latest.

His earlier books have lost none of their power:

  • The first in the series, Night Soldiers, is probably my favourite — certainly the most sweeping (and sprawling). It follows one man’s story across the years, from the terror and paranoia of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, through the Spanish Civil War, and eventually, World War 2 itself.
  • I also really like the more focused Dark Voyage, about a single merchant crew recruited into the Allied cause.

And there are gems throughout the series: an Italian journalist ghost-writing the memoirs of an anti-Mussolini colonel; a one-time film producer helping a RAF pilot unload arms for the French Resistance; the titular Polish officer leading a trainload of people to safety.

The books are almost all standalone, so my recommendation would be to start with Night Soldiers and see where you go from there. If you like it, you probably can’t go wrong with books from the first half of the series.

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What I’ve been reading


Tyrant: Storm of Arrows

Tyrant: Funeral Games

by Christian Cameron (historical fiction)

Entertaining and immersive – this is sword-and-sandals fiction the way it should be. The first two books in this six-book series, Tyrant and Storm of Arrows, follow an Athenian cavalry officer who journeys across the Eurasian steppe. The third book, Funeral Games, passes the torch to a new generation: exiled twins flung into the wars of the Diadochi.

In terms of quality, Funeral Games is decent to good, a solidly executed adventure story in an original setting, with elements we’ve seen before. But the first two are something special, a vivid epic that blends prophecy, military campaigns, and the cultural intersection between Greeks and Scythians, beneath the looming shadow of Alexander the Great. Highly recommended for period/genre fans, and players of Total War: Rome 2.


Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II, by Steven Zaloga (non-fiction)

A highly readable book, covering tanks from inter-war designs to the Pershings and Comets of 1945. For me, it stands out due to: (1) its plethora of period photos; and (2) its emphasis on practicalities. Until reading this book, I never appreciated the importance of vehicle reliability; consider this comment from a British officer:

“It is evident that the commander of a unit equipped with Shermans can be confident of taking 99% of his tanks into battle, at any rate during the first 2,000 miles of their life. On the other hand, if he were equipped with Cromwells or Centaurs he would be in a continuous state of anxiety as to whether enough of his tanks would reach the battlefield to carry out the normal tasks expected of the unit.”

This is reinforced by the author’s “ranking” system. Each chapter includes a “Tanker’s Choice” for that year — the best vehicle on the battlefield, such as the Tiger in 1943. Each chapter also includes a “Commander’s Choice” — a cheap, reliable, “good enough” vehicle, such as the StuG III in 1943, the T-34/85 in 1944, or the M4A3E8 Sherman with HVAP ammo in 1945. I don’t think the popular imagination makes this distinction enough.

Recommended for subject matter fans.

Book review: The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Lantern Bearers, a 1959 historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, is officially a children’s book. It is also one of the best, most mature stories I have read in a long time, with a simple but powerful appeal. When it comes down to it, most stories – books, films, games – show us the world as we would like it to be. Some show us the world as their creators think it is. Some show us the worlds we fear. But every so often, one will show us* the world as it really is. And in TLB, I feel lucky to have read one of those rare gems.


Set in fifth-century Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions that followed the Roman withdrawal from that island, TLB tells the story of one Roman who stays behind to make a stand. Instantly, that tells us something. Regardless (no spoilers!) of what will happen to the characters, we know how this war will eventually end. We know the Roman Empire, both as a whole and in Britain, will collapse. We know the Dark Ages are about to descend. And that sense of changing times is imprinted on every page of TLB. It propels the world. It propels the plot. It, notably, propels the characters – the subtitle of this book could be, “Times change, and people change with them.” The realism with which they do is one of the book’s greatest strengths. This, I felt as I read it, is how people would really behave.

Continue reading “Book review: The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff”

Aubrey & Maturin sail onto Kindle!



Calling all lovers of good books! Patrick O’Brian’s entire Aubrey & Maturin series (which you might remember from the Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany movie a number of years ago) is now available on Kindle. Now you can carry around an entire Age of Sail magnum opus in the palm of your hand! No more waiting for the next book (and there will be a lot of them; O’Brian completed 20 entries before his death) to arrive!


There are two disclaimers:


1) I’ve only read the hardcopy editions, so I can’t testify as to the quality of the Kindle editions. Anyone who’s read a lot of Kindle books will know there are plenty of shonky e-book conversions out there; hopefully this won’t be one.


2) While the books themselves are excellent, they are so unique that I hesitate to recommend them without a caveat. Despite appearances, they are not nautical adventure novels. Oh, there’s plenty of adventure, and much of it nautical, but at their core these are slice-of-life novels where those lives just happen to be largely spent aboard Royal Navy warships during the Napoleonic Wars. Their core appeal comes from the sensation of being utterly immersed in an unfamiliar world, and to this end O’Brian breaks many of the conventional rules of writing. The prose is dense with both nautical jargon and period language; O’Brian will often skip over explosions in favour of co-protagonist Dr Maturin’s  scientific expeditions; the weather is as much a danger as the French navy; the entire plot of the novel may end in a fizzle. It’s testament to O’Brian’s skill as a novelist that he succeeded despite this.


And he did succeed. O’Brian’s books bring the days of wooden ships and iron men alive for me — the only other historical fiction I’ve found equally effective  being Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. They’re filled with memorable characters, great worldbuilding, and, yes, exciting set-pieces. They even contain the most erudite double entendre I’ve ever seen! If you like history, and you like books, you have to at least check these out. I started with Book 1, Master and Commander; I’ve also seen it suggested that readers could start with Book 3, HMS Surprise. Wherever you jump in, I hope you have fun, and don’t get caught by a lee shore!



Jo Walton’s re-read of the series (laden with spoilers, so don’t read this before a given book!)

What are your favourite genres?

I have three questions for you guys reading this:


1.     What are your favourite genres in any medium (games, books, TV, movies, etc)?


2.     How have these changed over time?


3.     And why have these changed over time?


In my case, when it comes to games, I spend most of my time playing strategy and RPGs, but I’ll dabble in almost anything except sports – and many of my favourite games, such as Star Control 2, Okami, and God Hand, are neither strategy nor RPGs. My tastes were even broader when I was younger – I grew up playing Civilization and SimCity 2000, but also everything from Street Fighter 2 to Zelda: Link to the Past and Herzog Zwei. The subject matter of a game, more so than its genre, is what usually interests me, and it just happens to be the case that the narratives/historical periods/imaginary worlds that I find most appealing tend to be in strategy and RPGs.


When it comes to every other form of media, if you asked me one or two years ago I would have called myself a pure science fiction/fantasy buff, but since then I have identified less and less with that genre. Most of my recent book purchases have been history books, always a love of mine, and what fiction I have read has increasingly been historical fiction. I read these to satisfy my growing interest in trade, prosperity, the course of empire and the slow birth of the modern world, and these are issues for which I find speculative fiction increasingly irrelevant.

What I’ve just read: Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Tonight, I finished Robert Harris’ Lustrum (released in the US as Conspirata), the second novel in his Cicero trilogy (the first was Imperium). It was an enjoyable, fast-paced read, although I doubt I’ll reread it any time soon. There were two particular things that I liked about the book.


One, Caesar is a villain for a change. And as a villain, he makes a fine nemesis for Cicero: menacing, mercilessly hungry for power, capable of bouncing back Hydra-like from every defeat. Making Caesar the villain, I think, also adds a note of dramatic irony to the novels: the reader is perfectly aware that it will be Caesar who has the last laugh by becoming history’s best-known Roman, and that Caesar will be the one who eventually pulls down the Republic.


And two, while I still do not know that much Roman history, I am finally reaching the point where I was able to get the most out of the book. You know how sometimes, when you’re a fan of a given work, you might watch an adaptation and be thrilled when you spot a shout-out to the original, or when you know what’ll happen next because you read the book? That was pretty much how I felt. So I was happy to see Lucullus, the successful general turned to decadence in his retirement, showing off his fish ponds. I rubbed my hands together when I read that the rites of the Good Goddess would take place at Caesar’s house, because I had a feeling about what was coming up. I muttered, “Uh oh,” to myself when Fulvia made a cameo. In other words, the book came along at the right time for me, after I had learned a bit about Rome.


All in all, the book was well worth the price I paid, and I look forward to the final novel in Harris’ Cicero trilogy.

One of those funny little coincidences…

I started getting into Napoleonic-era naval fiction (Hornblower, Aubrey & Maturin) earlier this year.In the last few weeks, looking at Sydney’s colonial-era buildings — such as Cadman’s Cottage; or Fort Denison, the round little construction jutting out from the midst of Sydney Harbour — made me think that it would be cool to see a Napoleonic story where the heroes visit Australia.


Cut to today, when upon finishing The Mauritius Command, the fourth Aubrey & Maturin novel, I looked at the blurb for Desolation Island, the next book in the series:


Jack and Stephen are dispatched to restore order after popular unrest unseats New South Wales governor William Bligh, the ill-fated captain of the mutinous Bounty.


Coooool. I look forward to reading — assuming the blurb does not lie — about Aubrey & Maturin down under!