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.
I wanted to go into a bit more detail on this week’s books – Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst (novel) and The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu (novel).
Night Soldiers is billed as a spy novel. I say ‘billed as’ because it’s really a collection of vignettes, loosely linked by the 1930s-1940s world of espionage. Here, a Bulgarian lad comes of age as a trainee spy in Moscow, amidst the terror of Stalin’s purges. There, a lethargic American joins the OSS, parachutes into occupied France, and discovers his talent for sabotage. It’s a vivid, immersive read – although as with the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the emphasis is on atmosphere rather than plot, so it may not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re interested in the era, give the sample chapter a look.
The Grace of Kings is a much-hyped epic fantasy inspired by Chinese history. It’s interesting, both for its setting and its style. It also tells a pretty good yarn!
Grace of Kings is the story of two men, Kuni the trickster and Mata the warrior, as they rise to power. Their adventures are, essentially, a fantasy retelling of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han. (Seriously, knowing a bit about the period was enough to let me guess where the plot would go. I even guessed how specific incidents would unfold.) The Chinese influence extends beyond the setting – the mythic tone, the occasionally detached prose, and the willingness to tell rather than show remind me of the pre-modern literary conventions of Three Kingdoms. My main complaint is that one or two character actions felt contrived, seemingly so as to stick to “history”. Overall, a recommended read for fans of epic fantasy novels and grand strategy games (and maybe even Konami’s Suikoden RPGs).
Finally, I read Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (novel) – his parody of The Phantom of the Opera. Decent, amusing, with some pointed comments on superficial beauty. Recommended for Discworld fans.