Category Archives: Adventure

Stabbed through the heart: The Wounded Name by DK Broster (1922)

This is another of Broster’s adventure tales set during the French Revolution, similar to Mr Rowl, which I read 18 months ago. Like that book, it features two protagonists one of whom is a French royalist who displays a demeanour of noble suffering, which I have to say, is entirely self inflicted. It has a very slashy subtext, which I am beginning to realise is true of much of Broster’s work, although I’m sure this wasn’t intentional.

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The height of mystery: The Tower by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (2006)

I found The Tower rather an odd book. I have previously seen Manfredi’s books on the shelves but have never felt sufficiently inspired to pick one up and read it, but I gathered he usually writes straight historical novels about the ancient world. When I picked this book off the library shelf and looked at the cover I would have been forgiven for thinking that this was more of the same. But the cover bears no relation to the story whatsoever. After a brief prologue featuring a Roman expeditionary force getting done in by mysterious forces in the Sahara desert, it’s set in the late 1920s or thereabouts. The protagonist, Garret, is the son of a currently missing Indiana Jones type archaeologist. He starts following clues left by his father trying to find out what has happened to him. These clues seem to initially lead to the Vatican where nobody is talking. So far so Dan Brown. This part of the novel was actually quite enjoyable, and the depiction of the search for the ancient mystery very plausible. The old enemy of the protagonist’s father, Selsnick, makes a good villain, and the idea of an ancient villa buried beneath Pompeii leaving wind chimes hanging to warn of future earthquakes was nicely done.

But then it started to fall apart. Manfredi seems to have had some idea of a chariots of the gods scenario, but it was never adequately realised (or perhaps the translation was so awful it didn’t come over properly), and it detracted from much of the latter part of the novel. Was it a thriller or a horror story? Who can say? There were certainly Lovecraftian overtones towards the end, but the ideas seemed all over the place.

When I put the book down having finished it, I was left none the wiser – there were an awful lot of loose ends not tied up, and the dénouement wasn’t worthy of the name. Sadly I can’t even say it’s worth a look.

Keeping a stiff upper lip: Word of Honour by ‘Sapper’ (1926)

I think it must have been George Simmers’s January post about ‘Sapper’ that prompted me to pick up this book by that author when I was in a wonderful second hand book shop recently. I have never read any of his books before and I didn’t look at this one too closely in the shop, and assumed that a) it was a novel and b) it was about WW1.

I was wrong on both counts. It’s a collection of short stories, and only the first one even has anything to do with the army. It made interesting reading. Most of the stories are set in Africa and involve various colonial shenanigans. Structurally, many of the stories are similar; someone is relating an incident that happened to them or a friend some time in the past to a group either on board ship or wanting in some other way to pass the time. So they are mostly told in the first person. Some of them have what could be a supernatural element to them, for example, The Message, while they nearly all have some sort of twist in the tail. In other words, ideal magazine stories.

I think the collection gives a nice insight into a long vanished world, where long, boring sea voyages to remote colonial outposts were made more bearable for some by the telling of tall tales, and for others by illicit shipboard romances. Wonderful stuff, but not something I would necessarily rush back to.

Arrr, Jim Lad: Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

It’s been years since I read this; I think I must have been in my teens. I’ve read Kidnapped more recently, but I’ve never paid that much attention to Stevenson’s adventure tales. This is the archetypal pirate adventure, a real swashbuckling story of buried treasure, double-dealing and murder, and it sparkles as much today as it did when first published. It is equally popular, as evidenced by the huge number of sites devoted to it on the web, and by the number of catch phrases from it that have moved into popular consciousness and the language at large. Extraordinary for a Victorian novel. In fact, so successful has it been, that a genre which might have died with Queen Victoria is still spawning descendents, as such entertaining farragoes as the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean ultimately owe their existence to it.

While it operates at one level as a coming of age story, it is also a quest story. The two often go together. The plot follows the standard format for such tales – at the start the hero, Jim is a child, but by the end he has matured to the extent that he has outwitted the most bloodthirsty of pirates and secured the treasure. As with all quest stories there is the call – the discovery of the map, the gathering of companions, and then the journey through increasingly difficult experiences to the final confrontation with the villain. As in many such quests, one of the companions proves false and this gives impetus to the plot. It is of interest here as this false companion, the villain, Long John Silver, is not as black as such villains usually are, but is a more morally ambiguous character, and indeed for part of the novel acts as a role model for Jim. Unusual for a Victorian children’s novel. Of course, Jim is ultimately triumphant, overcoming this false friend and finding the treasure by himself. Thus the group of companions owe their success in their venture to him.

This is an eminently readable novel, with marvellous characters and a zippy plot, if not quite in the modern style. I love it.

You can download the complete text at Project Gutenberg, or here among many other places.

Wikipedia has an excellent synopsis and literary assessment, but there are many similar resources available.

Horns of a dilemma: The Betrayer by Violet Needham (1950)

This is the fourth of Needham’s novels that deal with Richard Fauconbois, and it takes place several months after the end of the House of the Paladin. In it a former member of the dissident party that Dick worked for, decides that things are not going as they should and that the young Emperor must be removed. Working with a hired assassin and a woman seeking revenge for her brother’s death, they begin to stir up trouble. However, Dick’s mentor, Far Away Moses is concerned about his old friend, and Dick is soon involved. He is faced with the unwelcome need to reconcile loyalties to various groups of old friends and his determination never to betray them brings tragedy in the end.

As an adult, I began to feel more sharply than ever the lack of an ideological context to Needham’s various revolutionary groups. These conspire to replace various bad monarchs with good ones rather than do away with monarchy altogether, which would ring more truly. However, at least with earlier novels there really was a bad monarch to be dealt with. Here, the entire conspiracy seemed very artificial, and although the dilemmas faced by Dick are a sign of his maturity, I was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied with this book.

This book is not as easy to come by as earlier novels, and this was the first time I had read it.

See also
The Black Riders
The Emerald Crown
The House of the Paladin

Lucky white heather: Mr Rowl by DK Broster, 1924.

This novel has long been out of print, and for those more familiar with Broster’s later, Jacobite related work, represents a departure, although the French Revolution, in which this novel is set, was her favourite period. Like Ships in the Bay! Which I reviewed some months ago, this features a tortured hero, separated from his love by force of circumstances. However, I feel that the former book is the more mature work.

The Mr Rowl of the title is a dashing young officer of almost nauseating integrity and goodness who has the misfortune to be a French prisoner of war in the England of 1812. He has given his parole, which means that provided he stays within certain limits he is free to come and go as he pleases. Along with other French officers, he frequents the houses of the local gentry, and in one, he meets our heroine, Miss Forrest. Sadly she is engaged to one of these local gentry who feels that Mr Rowl is paying far too much attention to his betrothed. When Mr Rowl breaks his parole on a technicality, he arranges for him to be imprisoned, and our poor hero’s fortunes decline from this point forwards.

I did feel that much of the book was a catalogue of misfortune, with things continually going from bad to worse. The relationship between hero and heroine was also of rather less importance than that between Mr Rowl and his later benefactor Captain Barrington, to the extent that fans of slash may find this book of interest. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book and it’s worth ferreting out if you can find a copy.

Knights and Ladies: The House of the Paladin, Violet Needham (1945)

I always liked this novel; Needham was getting into her stride much more, and the characterisation, particularly of Anastasia, the heroine, is much more believable. In some ways it is a continuation of Needham’s earlier Ruritanian novels featuring the Empire and Flavonia, but the two main characters are new although old friends do appear.
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