on 20 February 2014
Following on from his debut novel,The Only Genuine Jones, Alex Roddie has once again produced an entertaining work of historical fiction. The Atholl Expedition is a short, pacey book centred around two contrasting ventures into the hills and glens of Atholl and Mar in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. The novel, a fictional history featuring a mixed cast of real and imaginary people, weaves together these two stories as the heroes and villains clash over access rights and battle against the elements as a heavy storm sweeps over the hills forcing everyone to reassess their priorities and prejudices.
Alex brings the Victorian world of deer forests and vast sporting estates to life, and so constructs a fascinating context in which to tell his story. The book makes for an exhilarating read, pitting folktales and fairy stories against enlightenment science, whilst mixing in a bitter and emerging social conflict between the landowning elite, their loyal servants, and those wishing for freer access to the hills for both leisure and research.
As with his first book, Alex’s description of the place is masterful. The hills of the Mounth and the Cairngorms come alive as the characters make their way into the heart of the range. Geography and geology play an important role in the story but the descriptions are far from dry or utilitarian. Alex’s use of the wild places of Glen Tilt, the Tarf, Glen Dee and the coires of Braeriach will bring a smile to anyone familiar with these iconic areas. He has a great way with capturing the feel and atmosphere of a place with deft use of the language, rarely venturing into cliché.
I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in the Cairngorms, the Victorian world or speculative historical fiction. It is a short book but serves as a bold introduction to this new world Alex is creating in his Alpine Dawn series. At times the stuffiness of Victorian dialogue can make it feel a little forced but the action is pacy, the plot exciting and the range of characters - from the dastardly to the heroic - make for a gripping tale of adventure set in a familiar but refreshingly different world.
on 25 December 2013
Ever since I read The Only Genuine Jones I've been waiting for Alex Roddie's next novel, the first in the Alpine Dawn series, that's set in the heart of the Cairngorms. The other day I got hold of it on Kindle and devoured it in a single sitting.
The Atholl Expedition is set around Blair Atholl and the southern Cairngorms, with the expedition taking place into an area I love dearly, the great corries and crags of Braeriach in search of, well, you'll have to read the book to find out. Don't be put off by the mountaineering connotations. This is not a mountaineering book. It's a damn good story with fantastic characters set in fantastic scenery. It's a book for anyone who loves wild places and cracking good yarns.
The book is 'speculative' historical fiction, in the same mould as TOGJ, in that famous characters and events of the times, in this case the late 1840s, are thrown together, their scenes set and their fictional adventures extrapolated to produce a riveting story, with the strands of Cairngorm folkore drifting like waifs through the narrative. It weaves together story lines of the main characters, with lots of conflict and resolution, a surprising twist in the tale and all told in Alex's wonderfully fluid style.
The conflict starts early in the story and I was hooked straight away. How on earth is he going to resolve this one? Now that's a real humdinger. I could feel the pull on the character. Ambition or loyalty? It's a tricky one and from then on I couldn't put the book down.
It was nice to see some Gaelic and it would be nice to see some more in the next novels, if the series unfolds as I think it may, in terms of mountain guides. There was more German than Gaelic, perhaps as the main character speaks it but is he the main character? A tiny wee niggle but there you go. I think a well crafted phrase helps bind a character to his environment or hints at his nature. In the story, Alec is definitely "stuth a'ghlinne".
There are some wonderfully philosophical gems which are a hallmark of Alex's writing, such as the evocative summit bivvy during the chase, in the heart of the wild Cairngorm landscape. One of the main characters is on the cusp of a life changing event and under a starry sky as the rest of the party sleep, says to himself:
'I will miss these lonely nights on the mountain when I have gone'.
I knew the summit well, I knew the view and for a fleeting moment I stepped into the characters mind. The mark of great writing.
All the strands of the individual characters meet in the wild corrie on Braeriach for a gripping finale. I could feel the wet snow on my face and I was transported back to wild winter days on these hills and the tension is wonderfully released by the arrival of none other than, well, read it to find out!
There are some nice illustrations but as it's the Kindle version I couldn't really see them well enough but I'm sure they'll look wonderful in the print edition. I can understand why Alex added them as they are 'of the genre' of these type of 19th century books he's emulating but for me, pictures tend to break the spell of the imagination. I had a picture in my head of what Forbes looked like until he popped up at the inn door and I had to redraw him in my mind. Having said that, the illustration at the end fitted nicely with my experience of the corrie in which it's set. It's just a foible of mine. I prefer to draw my own pictures. Own the characters for myself. As art in themselves though, they'd be a great addition to any wall.
I love the fictional/philosophical mix of Alex's writing and he has a wonderful eye for the unseen. He can pick a place, add a character or two, get his magic spurtle out, give it a good stir and what comes out is more than went in and you're left thinking, nodding and smiling.
The end of the book is like that. The cusp is about to be reached and the characters are setting the scene for the next books in the series as Alex explores the birth of mountaineering and adventure in these wonderful mountains.
I'll leave you with a passage I loved and sums up the philosophical side of the book. Can Duncan resolve his struggle? Can he be satisfied with his path in life or must he choose another? We shall see...
'Life is not safety. Life is cold and danger, terror and triumph, work and perseverence, high reward and the risk of utter ruin; it is the wind on the heights, the enchanting sunrise over the loch, the cry of a buzzard and the thunder of an avalanche.'
As the series unfolds, perhaps we'll see the birth of a new pastime, visiting the places in the books and reading from the stories. 'Doing the Roddies' anyone?
Would I have any advice to offer Alex? Most definitely. Get Alex Norton (from Taggart) to play the Duke in the film version!
on 21 January 2015
I enjoyed Alex Roddie's previous two works, the short story Crowley's Rival and a full length novel The Only Genuine Jones so much that when The Atholl Expedition came along I bought it without hesitation or reading the blurb. I had little idea what it was going to be about but expected high mountain drama, man (and possibly woman) against the elements.
The Atholl Expedition immediately felt quite different. The historical context remains strong, indeed is fundamental, but to me this felt much more of a novel about place, which may sound strange given the magnitude of the Alpine climax in The Only Genuine Jones. The Atholl Expedition is set on a hunting estate in the Scottish Highlands and cleverly ties a number of threads: scientific exploration, hunting and compassion, the conflicting hopes of a father and son, the power of a monarch's patronage and how that passes down through the classes, with potentially devastating consequences for those at the bottom.
The characters, both fictional and historical, speak with authentic voices, even those of Victoria and Albert are utterly convincing. The narrative is clear and uncompromising, but the star of the show for me is the landscape and how the people live, survive and a even play in this inhospitable but magnificent place.
This novel is the first in a series, Alpine Dawn, and bodes well for the next instalment.
on 9 September 2014
first in the Alpine Dawn series, certainly fulfills that remit.
The first page transports us back in time to 1847 and we are introduced to Professor James Forbes convalescing in his garden, enjoying the warmth of the I enjoy a good adventure story and Alex Roddie’s ‘The Atholl Expedition, the summer sun in the highlands. He is clearly not a well man but the arrival of an old student, Ewan Carr, and the prospect of an adventure somewhat brings him back to life.
From the minute we find Carr telling stories to Forbes daughters, we know that there is a lot more behind his sudden arrival at Forbes homes. Carr is the complete embodiment of a rebellious, stubborn, young and charismatic adventurer.
There are a myriad of characters in this book, which include Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who have travelled to the highlands, with their family, to visit the Duke and Atholl. The inclusion of these characters is not just a marketing ploy. They are characters that have been well thought out and developed by Roddie and he gives the readers the opportunity to examine their vulnerabilities and complexities as human beings. Even though I did enjoy the arrival of Queen Victoria, who embarks on her adventure,’ my favourite character was Ewan Carr and I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the illustrations within the book which truly bring the characters to life.
Now for those who know their history, Professor James Forbes was a Scottish scientist and it is his adventures that are the driving force behind the ‘The Atholl Expedition. It is always a gamble when a writer uses real historical figures in their books and then proceeds to create an alternative history around them but this was a gamble that has paid off. At no point did I feel as though I was being subjected to a history lesson and Roddie’s creativity was not stifled by the history or by his admiration for Professor James Forbes.
The tensions in the book are created through the classic themes of class, a desire to fulfill a quest and young men seeking to forge their own way in the world. If Alex Roddie ever appeared on Mastermind then it goes without saying that his specialist subject would be the Scottish Mountains and it’s admirable how he uses the mountains to emphasise the fears and desires of his characters.
on 8 January 2014
The Atholl Expedition was a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of mountain fiction or fiction in general.
I like the way the author has used historical figures as the characters, it has now given me a thirst to find out more about them. I could really picture the action as it happened and I followed along with my ordnance survey map. I enjoyed the story that much that I now wish to visit the places that were involved.
In my opinion the book deserve 5 out of 5
on 26 July 2014
A colourful and enjoyable taste of the highlands of Scotland in the 19th century. This is a more significant and serious-minded work than Alex's first novel, The Only Genuine Jones, and though it lacks some of the humour of the first, it doesn't suffer because of it and the characters are much more substantial. It's the first in a series of novels charting the development of mountaineering, and if they are all going to be as good as this then I can't wait for the next one.
on 2 March 2014
I had high hopes for this and wasn't disappointed. Really enjoyed this, one of the best books I've read in ages. Would recommend it to anyone who loves the Scottish outdoors, such as Munro bagging etc, and the Victorian era of mountaineering.
An enjoyable combination of factual history and fictional story telling. I couldn't put it down, in fact i finished it the same day it arrived in the post.
Let's have another soon please Alex !
Alex Roddie has created a tale consisting of a number of stories interwoven. Two of his characters are Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, taking their holidays on the Duke of Atholl's estate. This was at the time when the famous rows between the two had died down but there was still some disagreement about certain things - like being home on your birthday! - to provide narrative tension. The Duke has threatened one of his ghillies with the loss of his job and his cottage if he can't provide the Prince with a famous stag to bring home as a trophy. The ghillie's son works with his father but yearns to break away. Forbes, a geologist, wants to follow up reports of a glacier in Scotland, but had to cross the Duke of Atholl's land and the Duke is famously against trespassers. There's all this and more here and it's a very interesting read.
I have always admired the author's approach to descriptive writing. It's not easy to do without sounding florid but his descriptions of storms, or of the mountains themselves, are studies in the careful choice of words. I love this style and I very much enjoyed the adventure story aspect of this book.
on 14 January 2014
This excellent book takes you into the early days of mountain exploration in the Scottish Highlands. The characters come alive, and the way they interact soon has you wanting to move forward to find out what happens next. If you love the mountains, and, if you love a well told tale, then this book paints pictures with words and will be a rewarding read.
on 29 June 2014
Almost a throw-back to a different era of story telling, this is a pleasant tale, with well-developed characters and a generally plausible plot, based loosely on historical fact. I say, "generally" because the writer takes some liberties with what one, even in prime health, can realistically be expected to endure physically in extreme Highland conditions, but apart from this slight oversight the story develops in a pleasing manner and the reader is drawn in by the established leading characters, and indeed, the new ones that also emerge.
The last time I was heading up Glen Tilt it was a late-started summer Mountain Bike expedition; it was getting dark and by the time I'd reached White Bridge, it was dark! Still, I made it to Bob's by 9.30 after leaving Gleb Feshie at 3pm and coming over the Gaick.
Happy days and that's why I like this story so much, having first hand experience of the remoteness and isolation of the higher reaches of Glen Tilt. Looking forward to Alpine Dawn Book 2.