Ascent (Large Print) Hardcover – 2008
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I'm someone who easily gives up if a book didn't hold my attention, but that did not apply. I would have liked a bit more emphasis on character, and a bit less on the technicalities, but that's a personal preference.
The author's chapter on the "world's first jet war" and the 'MiG versus F86 Sabre' dog fights over Korea from Yefgenii's perspective in the early 1950's is absolutely spellbinding, and for American readers possibly quite unsettling: after all, this was the face of the 'Soviet enemy' flying incognito for North Korea, presented in remarkable prose. Yefgenii experienced long periods of being denied participartion in the air battles, but he eventually morphs into "Ivan The Terrible". His life drew meaning from flying: "He was a falcon and in the actions of a fighter pilot he expressed his true nature." Flying is supreme, even beyond his nameless family. But that just sets the stage for the remaining tension-filled parts of the novel.
In the "Franz Josef Land" chapters, the flying sequences during 'the hunt' are absolutely stunning as the author shows both his knowledge of flying and ability to deliver a tension-filled scene that any layman reader can follow. If this chapter doesn't give the reader sweaty palms, I don't know what will. And then he cranks it up another notch as the parallel story lines converge in a place called "Star City" but will Yefgenii take the chance of a lifetime? And what is the cost? For the reader, more sweaty palms as Mercurio ramps up even more on the matter of "N1-5L Soyuz-7K-L3-1", as Yefgenii careens toward his huge dilemma and the novel reaches a great conclusion. The last three paragraphs are AWESOME. This amazing writer in his American debut has produced a superb novel about a determined man flying amidst the pages of history on a fantastic journey. Caution: some unsettling, disturbing scenes, early on. My Highest Recommendation! Five DAZZLING Stars!!
It's as good as the reviews suggested, written in a sparse and transparent style that's completely appropriate to its subject matter. Jed Mercurio's decision (what a name!) to use technical vocabulary and associated acronyms without recourse to footnotes, glossary or explanatory digression is a bold move which may irritate some readers, but which only adds authenticity to what is, in general terms, a very convincing story.
Which makes a couple of plot points stand out as all the more implausible. Firstly, during air combat in Korea a pilot is said to have been hit in the leg by a ".22" bullet from another aircraft: yet another occurrence in the venerable tradition of the "minor flesh wound"... I haven't checked this out but it seems more than unlikely that such ammunition, more suitable for use on rats at close range, has ever been used in aircraft weapons. In early WW2, even the eight .303 guns used on some British fighters were quickly seen to be underpowered.
The second implausibility is the "push" which the hero imparts to his colleague's fighter after it runs out of fuel. Well, maybe. It's one way of generating a bit of necessary thrust to the plot, but it sounds absurd to me.
The characterisation of Yevgenii, the central character, is skilfully handled too. An essentially cold, orphaned individual, emotionally crippled beyond repair in an early childhood, is a difficult character for whom to create empathy, but the author pulls it off wonderfully, particularly in his evocation of Yevgenii's relationship with his almost equally damaged wife. It's hard to see many women readers being attracted to this novel on the basis of its overt subject matter, so it's a relief to see that at least one woman reviewer here has enjoyed what's liable to be seen as an archetypal "boys' book".
There are many other good things about the book. As an example of "counter-factual" fiction, frequently a doomed undertaking, it could hardly be bettered. Its handling of the human relationships within the Soviet military / scientific bureaucracy is both a convincing depiction of utilitarian callousness and an acknowledgement of human resilience and loyalty.
Despite minor criticisms "Ascent" is a brilliant novel which, like another reviewer, I could hardly bear to put down. I wish it had been a little longer.
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