Tuesday, 29 June 2010

‘No Man’s World - Black Hand Gang’ – Pat Kelleher (Abaddon Books)

As a History A-Level student I went on a field trip to the First World War battlefields of the Somme; something that cannot fail to leave it’s mark on anyone who goes (even a bunch of eighteen year guys who were trying to find out where the nearest pub was to the hostel, I don’t think we ever found out...)
One part of the trip I’ll always remember is visiting the Hawthorn Crater where 40,000lb of explosives were detonated as part of the offensive to capture German positions. As with most British plans during the war, it worked well in principle but not in practice with the Germans easily driving off the British advance... Such monuments to man’s inability to get to grips with a whole new kind of warfare are dotted all over the Somme. What if they were monuments to something else entirely though? That’s Pat Kelleher’s spin on things and the result is a gripping start to a new series from Abaddon...

On November 1st 1916, nine hundred men of the Pennine Fusiliers vanish in the middle of their advance on the German positions in Harcourt Wood. They awake to find themselves in the middle of an alien world where the natives are aware of their presence, and hungry...
Getting back home is the number one objective but this must be balanced out with replenishing dwindling supplies, maintaining some semblance of morale and surviving first contact with an inscrutable alien race. All these perils though might just fade into insignificance however when the soldiers are faced with a threat within their own ranks. It might just be that the Fusilier’s arrival on this planet was someone’s plan all along...

I’m pretty much like this the whole year round but it’s always the summer months that bring out a real need in me to indulge in some good old fashioned pulp fiction. You know the stuff that I’m talking about here. Books that you can read in the sun but can easily put down when it gets too hot and you want to reach for that second beer. That is exactly what ‘Black Hand Gang’ is but with one difference, at least as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t put this one down, not until I’d finished reading it. It wasn’t a perfect read but there was never any question of my stopping with it.

Pat Kelleher has clearly gone to a lot of effort and research to give his readers a look at life in the trenches that is as authentic as possible. He has played around with some of the place names etc (and his prologue adds a subtle hint of ‘what if…?’ to the proceedings) but what the soldiers go through in the book is pretty much what their real life counterparts would have experienced. Kelleher pays tribute to these men by not holding back with the conditions that their own commanding officers forced them to fight under. Officers saw shellshock as cowardice and punished it accordingly, there’s plenty of that here and it’s all the more pointless when you see what the men are running from.

Having got his readers filthy in the mud of the trenches, Kelleher then proceeds to use this authenticity to make what is to come even more bizarre and out of this world. Kelleher only gets it half right but what he does hit the target it’s definitely worth sticking around for. He really nails not only what it must be like to experience an alien world for the first time but what it must have been like for a soldier of the First World War (who might never have gone beyond his village until he joined up) to experience that world. There’s a real stand off between claustrophobia and agoraphobia as the men are at constant alert with no idea of what might come over the horizon… When they finally meet the natives the scene is set for explosive action as the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force meet… you’ll have to wait and see. It’s done brilliantly and I’m looking forward to more of the same in future books.

Sometimes it goes a little awry… I seem to have a thing about too much background detail at the moment, especially when it gets in the way of the story. ‘Black Hand Gang’ falls foul of this on more than one occasion with perhaps a little more detail of alien forests etc than is needed for the story to flow smoothly. That the story tends to flow very smoothly the rest of the time makes these moments even more infuriating; you know what the story is capable of and it leaves you wondering why it seems to have taken a backward step.
If this wasn’t bad enough, you’re getting all of this through the perspective of soldiers who often don’t have the slightest idea what they are looking at. If they don’t know then you’re not going to know either as Kelleher sure as hell isn’t going to tell you. Why should you know when they don’t?
While this approach does make an alien landscape even more alien it can also leave the reader as confused as the characters they’re reading about. There’s nothing to connect with other than a bunch of guys who are just as confused as you are but I guess we all get to find out what’s going on together!

When Kelleher gets the story away from these moments, it’s clearly one that I’ll be around for more of at least. Black magic, alien beings and a dirty great tank! ‘Black Hand Gang’ is very much a book that sets up future sequels but those three ingredients mean that it’s a lot of fun to read in the meantime and there are intriguing possibilities for the future (as well as a degree of closure that you wouldn’t normally get in the opening book of a series). Kelleher may be writing pulp here but he takes time to give us characters that we can care about. The ending comes with a couple of cliff-hangers and one of these in particular left me feeling really sorry for a main character. That’s not something that happens an awful lot and I’m all the more eager to find out what happens to him next.

‘Black Hand Gang’ does suffer from erratic pacing at times and a narrative approach that can leave a reader floundering. Give it a chance though, ‘Black Hand Gang’ is also a thoroughly entertaining tale that promises great things for the future. I’ll be around to see if the series meets the standard that it has set itself.

Eight and a Half out of Ten

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