26 February 2013
In this alternative history set in 1952, debut author Guy Saville assumes that the negotiations of Lord Halifax, a British supporter of appeasement throughout the war, has led ultimately to détente between the Great Britain and Germany. In 1943, the two countries had met at in Casablanca and agreed to divide the African continent into two spheres of influence. The divisions would be primarily along the historical colonial lines: West Africa would remain largely under German rule, with Kongo, Kamerun, Dutch East Africa, Nazi-occupied Angola, SW Africa, and Madagaskar part of the German sphere, and Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Rhodesia, and Bechuanaland under British rule.
Setting much of this novel in German Kongo, author Saville depicts the changes in the growing colony. The Germans have already shipped most of the black population from their colonies to Muspel, a huge, undeveloped desert area in German West Africa. Remaining behind are those blacks who can be used as forced laborers for the creation of an elaborate empire. When Donald Ackerman, a Brit, appears at the home of Burton Cole in rural England, representing "interests in Northern Rhodesia," he makes a case to Cole, a former French Foreign Legionnaire, for the assassination of Walter E. Hochburg, now the Governor General of Kongo. For undisclosed personal reasons, Cole is anxious to see Hochburg dead, and reluctantly, he accepts the job.
In a dramatic opening scene, Cole arrives in Kongo as an SS surveyor, stabs Hochberg to death, then escapes with some of his co-conspirators, only to discover later that Hochberg is still alive. Determined to finish the job, Cole and six other trained men try to escape from Kongo, dividing into two groups, one heading toward Sudan, and Cole and two others toward Nigeria, with the German SS in hot pursuit. Eventually Burton Cole and his group connect with the resistance in Angola, including two brave women who have nothing to lose in their fight against the Germans.
Reading this novel is like reading a movie. The action is so graphic and so cinematic, that it is easy to imagine a violent action film, peopled with characters as impervious to pain as Superman. By the halfway point, Burton Cole and his friend Patrick Whaler have been beaten, stabbed, slashed, smashed, and tortured to the breaking point - except that they never break. Whether one has a broken femur, a broken nose, burns, or eyes swollen shut because the enemy has ground a hot pepper into them, none of these men gives in. About a dozen dramatic, over-the-top scenes including fires, bombings, shootings, torture, incredible escapes, near misses, and captures emphasize the author's focus on the action. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing specific about the Germans' long-range plans or about most of the characters, only as much as we need to know to keep them from becoming confused with each other. They remain sketchy and stereotyped, not characters with whom the reader identifies, a situation which may keep the audience reading for the excitement but weary of the repetition of near-misses, violence from which the characters somehow manage to escape, and little development in terms of character. The author knows how to keep the tension high and the excitement coming and coming, but I'll be hoping for more depth of character and more fully developed motivation in future novels from Saville.