People have been telling stories about strange and tempting things in the sea since at least the ancient Greeks. Do not Scylla and Charybdis count? In the age of sail, they became stories of krakens and mermaids. Even now, in an age of satellites that have mapped the entirety of the world’s oceans, tales of the sea are enrapturing to us, as the success of Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World show.
E.C. Ambrose has written a short novel which is another take on those legends: The King of Next Week.
It is the 1860s, after the end of the American Civil War. A merchant ship under the command of Matthew Percy loaded with ice stops briefly on an island somewhere near the coast of Morocco. He and his crew expect it to be empty, but they find that it is inhabited by jinn, the creatures of Islamic legend. The captain falls in love with one of these jinn, who he ends up marrying within a day of landing.
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Few actions of the British Army are more infamous than the Charge of the Light Brigade, a doomed attack on the wrong Russian artillery emplacement during the Battle of Balaclava of the Crimean War. For the men under the command of Louis Nolan, it was “theirs but to do and die,” to quote Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem. It is an example of what the rich and powerful do to the poor and powerless in war: the former command and negotiate, the latter die ingloriously.
Tony Richardson brought this contrast to the silver screen in 1968 with his film The Charge of the Light Brigade. Befitting its time — it was made at a time of rising anger over America’s savage war in Vietnam — it is a bleak, cynical movie, similar to Peter Watkins’ 1964 Culloden and John Guillermin’s 1969 The Bridge at Remagen.
Britain at the time of the Crimean War is a country obsessed with class. This is made excruciatingly clear in the film, as it follows Nolan (David Hemmings) navigate the arcane structures of the British Army. He is the rare officer who earned his commission in India, rather than having bought it. (This was before the Cardwell Reforms of 1874, which abolished the sale of commissions.) Despite this, he is snubbed again and again and again, for reasons that are silly at best and incomprehensible at worst.
When it gets to the fateful battle at Balaclava, it is perhaps too peaceful. The battlefield is a simple valley between hills, with the Russians only visible in parts. That battle isn’t thrilling. Nolan dies, and it cuts away to his superiors. There is a distance to the fight that makes you think of it in a manner not unlike those noblemen, until you remember how horrible the thing really is.
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The most known example of handing out white feathers to those accused of cowardice was during the First World War, when British men who didn’t enlist were handed the plumes by women who supported the war effort. The tradition, however, is older. It has its roots in the eighteenth century.
In 1902, A.E.W. Mason wrote his novel The Four Feathers about a man who does not want to fight but is made to by his compatriots. It is a novel about what war does to the unwilling and the nature of societal pressure.
Harry Feversham never wanted to be in the British Army. This is inconvenient for him, for he is from a military family. He serves unhappily for a time, then resigns his commission. Unfortunately for him, it is a day before the British Army is deployed to Sudan. Three of his friends send him a white feather each, and a fourth comes from his fiancée, who breaks off the engagement. To restore his honor, Harry disguises himself to go to Sudan to prove himself worthy.
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The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a hard book to describe. I went into it expecting a steampunk story. That influence is clear, but there is more. Jim Butcher brings elements of high fantasy and naval fiction (albeit transposed into the skies) and perhaps a dash of the post-apocalyptic.
What I can tell you with certainty is that this is an entertaining book.
The world of The Aeronaut’s Windlass (the first volume in the yet-to-be-completed Cinder Spires series) is dominated by massive towers, called spires, in which human beings live. One memorable scene involves a woman seeing the sky for the first time. It is implied that many never do. Something horrible must have happened on the surface, for dangerous creatures will occasionally crawl up the spires through ventilation tunnels.
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George R.R. Martin is probably known best for not having finished The Winds of Winter yet. This is something of a shame, I think, given the many great stories he wrote even before A Game of Thrones (which I confess to never having read). His short stories are incredible: “Nightflyers,” “A Song for Lya,” “The Way of Cross and Dragon.”
Here we turn to one of Martin’s older works: his 1982 gothic novel Fevre Dream.
Martin has described Fevre Dream as “Bram Stoker meets Mark Twain.” It combines an icon of horror with an icon of antebellum America: vampires and steamboats. It is a book that takes advantage of the vastness of the Mississippi and its attendant rivers, providing an oftentimes eerie isolation to proceedings. Like the spaceships of science fiction, steamboats work well as closed environments for odd things to be afoot.
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It is not obvious from my name, I am a Filipino-American. My father is white, of Scots-Irish, German, English and French descent. My mother was born in Manila. Since I was young, I was told stories of my ancestors who fought the Japanese. At times, I regret how little I read about the country, given how much I read in absolute terms. So when I was offered Miguel Miranda’s novel Hostile Participants to review, I leaped at the chance.
Hostile Participants is set during the conflict that is referred to on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia (my hometown) as the “Philippine Insurrection.” Filipinos tend to refer to it as a crushed war of independence, an act of flagrant imperialism done in the name of access to Chinese trade and a “civilizing mission.”
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From a Ponte Vecchio-style bridge across the Thames to a monorail running through Regent Street, we take a tour of the London that never was through the centuries.
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The Christmas Truces of the First World War have become the stuff of legend. The actual history is frankly poetic: men of different nationalities seeing each other as human, friends even, in what had been no man’s land, where they had slaughtered each other only the day before. It’s great kindness among great horror, a juxtaposition that has inspired great stories.
One such take is the 2005 multinational film Joyeux Noël, directed by Christian Carion. It is a film that takes its time to be humanist, no small thing in today’s cynical culture. It revolves around six characters — one French, two German, two Scottish (not English, they insist) and one Danish — from a variety of backgrounds, with officers, enlisted and civilians represented. They are representations of how total the war was, and how it affected everyone in those countries, and beyond.
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For want of a ship, a nation was lost.
Such is the point of divergence of Arturo Serrano’s To Climates Unknown: the premature sinking of the Mayflower. Otto von Bismarck said that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” In this world, that civilization, Anglo-America (which includes Canada, much of the Caribbean and Belize), simply never comes to pass.
It is a strange point of divergence, one that a pedant could poke ample holes in. I certainly could; it makes an assumption that usually irritates me, for I am from Virginia. I remember in fourth grade having the saying “Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World” drilled into my head. As such, an overemphasis on Plymouth irks me.
The nitpicker might discount this novel for that oversight. They would be making a grave mistake, for I can say without hyperbole that To Climates Unknown is the best alternate-history novel I have ever read.
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Stephen Beale asks if steampunk hasn’t become too reliant on Facebook:
As much as steampunk fans depend on Facebook to connect with one another, it’s fair to say that many of us have a love-hate relationship with the platform. Much of this relates to concerns about data privacy as well as Facebook’s alleged role in exacerbating a range of social ills, including political polarization and the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.
I agree. I quit Facebook when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. Never Was doesn’t have a Facebook presence. (The Facebook page of our predecessor, The Gatehouse, still exists, because Facebook refuses to delete or rename it.) It’s a challenge. It’s harder to keep in touch with people. We still receive many visitors from Facebook when users share one of our stories there. We’re probably missing out on readers because we don’t promote our content on Facebook ourselves.
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