Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones

Much has been written about how much of the American South was complicit in the institution of slavery. Historian Ira Berlin wrote in Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in America (1998) that the South wasn’t just a “society with slaves”; it was a “slave society”. Chattel slavery was the institution around which life in those states revolved.

Slaves tried to break the chains that bound them. Many former slaves, and descents of slaves, fought in the Grand Army of the Republic for that reason.

There were also white Southerners who resisted. West Virginia broke from Virginia. Eastern Tennessee was in full revolt. Free State of Jones gives a third example of freed slaves and deserting white soldiers fighting together against the tyranny of Confederate rule.

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The Fall of Rorke’s Drift

The Fall of Rorke's Drift

Ideas are cheap. Most people can come up with a thousand concepts for books. The skill is in the execution. In bringing that vision into life, putting the idea into words. And yet there is still a value in a good concept. There are hundreds of well-written, well-executed books that hold no interest to me because the concept is one I don’t care for. The world’s best-written story about the innate eroticism of painting walls is still unlikely to become a bestseller.

Alternate history is no different in this than other genres. For alternate-history books, often the selling point is the concept rather than the writer. Thus a question to be asked when considering writing alternate-history fiction is often less, “Is this a plausible alternate world?” and more, “Is this an interesting alternate world? Can I say something interesting about our society with this setting?” An eye-popping setting or point of departure can immediately attract the eye.

A useful weapon for that, of course, is novelty. There are a lot of alternate-history books working with World War II or the American Civil war, but other areas are less explored. There have not been many alternate-history stories written about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and so, as someone who has written an article about that war, the concept of this book immediately appealed.

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More than a century removed from Versailles, where that armistice for twenty years was signed, we in the English-speaking Atlantic world tend to think of World War I as a static conflict. This is because we are mostly presented with the Western Front in fiction, where endless rows of trenches are bombarded with tear gas and brave men and foolhardy officers who go over the top are flayed by machine guns and corroded by poison gas. (Australians and New Zealanders had different experiences.) When the men are not charging and dying, they are languishing in squalor in the mud.

Not so 1917, directed by Sam Mendes, of Skyfall and Spectre fame, and released in 2019. This is a film of rapid movement and brutal battle. It is a film that will never let you forget that these men were not eating plum and apple jam, and the sergeant does not deliver the men breakfast in bed. They were the currency used to match the price of a mile.

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All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is widely acclaimed as perhaps the finest antiwar novel of all time. It is a book that exudes the despair and hopelessness that we commonly associate with the Great War (if any war can be “great”). It has codified how we think of the War to End All Wars (if any war can end war). It is little wonder, then, that it was adapted to film multiple times.

Here I will discuss the 1979 version produced by ITC entertainment, directed by Delbert Mann, and starring Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine. This is a film that absolutely succeeds in bringing Remarque’s vision to life in a manner that takes advantage of the medium of film.

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The Dandy Medium

The Dandy Medium

The Dandy Medium is a gaslight-era adventure novel mixing good old-fashioned detective work with the supernatural and paranormal. And does a great job of it too!

Author Dez Schwartz takes the best elements from the genres he mixes, including a detective duo that can easily measure up to Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, but also more contemporary teams, such as Castle and Beckett, with excellent chemistry. Super powered characters that easily could have messed with the story, but don’t, because it’s so masterfully told.

I could go on for quite a while, but this is simple a great book. The story is well written, the pace is excellent, it twists and surprises, it has just the right volume of character and setting background to give you all the information you need and the characters just… work.

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Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise was only the second movie I saw in the cinema since it reopened from the COVID-19 lockdown, and it was money well spent.

(It helped that we saw it in Amsterdam’s magnificent Tuschinski Theater. If you’re ever in town, take two hours out of your schedule to see a movie in what Time Out has called the most beautiful cinema in the world.)

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to classic adventures like Indiana Jones, Jungle Book, Tarzan and The Africa Queen, but, unlike the more deliberate and grown-up The Lost City of Z, this one is family-friendly and a whole lot more fun.

Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson are cast well opposite each other as the intrepid Dr Lily Houghton, who is determined to find the Tree of Life whose petals can cure any illness, and who has no patience for the disbelief and sexism of the male explorers of her time, and steamboat skipper Frank Wolff, who knows the Amazon like his back pocket. Jack Whitehall provides comic relief as Lily’s snob younger brother.

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The Two Georges

The Two Georges

The two most common alternate-history settings are ones based on World War II and the American Civil War. Bringing up a distant third are those based upon the American War of Independence, one of which is The Two Georges by author Harry Turtledove and Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

The history presented within the novel is kept deliberately vague in favor of a globetrotting adventure mystery across this alternate North America, unraveling a vast international conspiracy against the British Empire and indulging in all of America’s favorite stereotypes of Britain and the British.

This last aspect of the novel mars a riveting plot that makes up for a lot of holes in the history presented, but the novel is unashamedly pop alternate history with recognizable twentieth-century figures of the United States shown broadly similar to their historical personalities within the timeline. In going for this feel, the history presented in the novel comes in brief facts and flashes throughout that has to be pieced together, but enough for the reader to get an overall feel for the different direction history has taken.

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Remaking the World

It wasn’t until the modern era that would-be conquerors and do-gooders could think on a global scale. The discovery of the New World and the invention of steamboats, the telegraph, airplanes, television and intercontinental ballistic missiles made the world feel smaller. Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors may have claimed to rule everything under the sun and the heavens; it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that an island nation on the western edge of Eurasia could acquire an empire on which the sun never set.

The potential of world conquest inflated the ambitions of political movements. Marxists called for a world revolution of the proletariat. Fascist Germany and Japan planned to divide the world between them. America sought to make the world safe for democracy.

If world war and world conquest were possible, then surely so were world peace and unity? Pan-Europeanism and internationalism flourished in the twentieth century, giving life to the League of Nations, the United Nations and what would become the European Union.

From the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas to the would-be EUs of the present day, here’s a history at attempts — few of them successful — to remake the world.

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Germany has the Thirty Years’ War. Britain has the Somme. America has Vietnam. Israel has Lebanon. Many countries have their battles or wars that forever imprint within the minds of their populations that armed conflict is a putrid slaughterhouse where nothing is gained but a pile of bones.

Australia has Gallipoli, that peninsula on the north of the Dardanelles, guarding the way to Istanbul (or Constantinople) where so many of its young men were sent to die in the name of an island thousands of miles away from their home.

This human tragedy is chronicled in Gallipoli, the 1981 film directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. It is a film that retreads many films about World War I: that war is a pointless, bloody mess not worth fighting. It’s an understandable position, given how little it seemed to accomplish and how it set the stage for the unrestrained carnage after what Ferdinand Foch called “not a peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

But Gallipoli does not aspire to be so grand. History is not just the story of kings and presidents and prime ministers. It is also a story of little people who have, for good reasons or bad, been thrown into the maelstrom that kings and presidents and prime ministers created.

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The Sightless City

The Sightless City

Politics, science, intrigue, the supernatural and a murder mystery that seems to be at the heart of it. It sounds like an excellent combo and, yes, at first glance The Sightless City seems to have it all. But while the concept is good, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s the same old story: warring states, races that don’t get along and an evil mega corporation with an evil mastermind who has been the big bad all along. A Moriarty this guy is not, because that would have made him a better villain. The lead character, Marcel Talwar, a former soldier, could be more like Sherlock Holmes, for he is a detective, but the comparison ends there.

The story does have a few very interesting characters, Talwar being one, feral want-to-be-engineer Sylvaine being another. A bunch of side-characters contribute to the story, but their background, like the setting’s, is sparse, jumbled and chaotic. There is enough to keep the story going, but the lack of depth and detail is disappointing. The Sightless City feels like a grand saga that is missing many of the pieces that would make it grand. In the end, it falls flat.

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