Book review: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

5 out of 5 stars for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Station Eleven

“One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time – from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.”

(Read more here.)

Station Eleven is an engaging novel that begins with a pandemic and ends with tenuous, uncertain survival. Its many good qualities include thorough characterisation, an intriguing plot, and the total avoidance of “strong” characters with little recogisable humanity and a plethora of unexplained skills. Often classed as sci-fi, I would hesitate to restrain it to one genre, as it is an assured and thoroughly enjoyable novel that should appeal to any reader with at least a passing interest in fiction that assesses the emotional complexity of the average human being, while presenting an equally intriguing plot. It also manages to avoid many of the stereotypes that science fiction is unfortunately prone to.

As for me, I loved it.

Throughout Station Eleven, there is a definite sense of inescapable danger, and of looming jeopardy. At the beginning, this comes from the Georgia Flu, undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the survival of Station Eleven’s characters, and later on in the narrative it is the great unknown of life after the apocalypse that takes that dubious mantle. The surviving characters have little to nothing to rely on, and their experiences of a world prior to the arrival of the Georgia Flu are not much help at all. It is a fact of life for the survivors of the Georgia Flu that the changed world is profoundly unsafe, and for the reader, it is impossible not to appreciate the inherent vulnerability of Station Eleven’s characters.

This gives Station Eleven an impressive sense of realism. Intuitively, a post-apocalyptic environment is likely to be dangerous, at the very least because it is entirely unknown, a situation that no character could adequately have prepared for. With as yet inexperienced challenges likely to be lurking around every corner, those that inhabit the changed world are placed in a difficult – and often dangerous – position.

I particularly enjoyed the way that Mandel establishes the clear difference between the characters that experienced and can remember life before the Georgia Flu, and those that cannot. The decisions made and actions taken by the first group are acknowledged to have been variously influenced by their memories and knowledge of the pre-Georgia Flu world, while the latter group call upon more recent experiences, of something and somewhere entirely different. This manifests in a range of situations,and more widely in their understanding of morality, and how their justify their behaviour.

The Georgia Flu is a powerful catalyst for Mandel’s equally powerful characterisation. Its decimation of the population brings about widespread destruction – including of the basic urban infrastructure on which many of Station Eleven’s characters are used to – and inevitably brings about irrevocable change, as a result of which ongoing survival is often uncertain at best, and the survivors left damaged if not crippled by loss. Their desperate situation often makes them unpredictable, wary of strangers and understandably hostile to the unfamiliar. The survival of each day requires, as well as skill and determination, a kind of ruthlessness that not all of Station Eleven’s characters are willing to contemplate, let alone utilise. The varying reactions to the situation and its inherent difficulties reveal the innermost foundations of each character’s personality, by establishing their strengths and weaknesses and revealing the preconceptions that ultimately give rise to their behaviour. The result is a richly detailed, in-depth characterisation.

The characters that do not endure the same tests are no less richly depicted. Station Eleven’s narrative is non-linear, and by moving back and forth in time across the lives of her characters, and between life before and after the arrival of the Georgia Flu, Mandel brings to the reader’s attention events that take place across the full span of Station Eleven’s timeline, using examples of past behaviour to clarify future events and decisions, establish the history and often-complicated nature of the relationships alluded to throughout, and to give some indication as to the likely motivational factors behind a range of actions.

My favourite characters in Station Eleven are those that comprise the Travelling Symphony, a theatrical troupe that travel to bring something more than just plain survival to the friendlier, or at least civil, communities. (Usually in the form of Shakespeare.) The manner by which the musicians identify one another primarily by instrument is a wonderful detail, and the petty disagreements that arise within the group even under – and often because of – the severe circumstances, are inarguably authentic. Station Eleven’s characters are so richly depicted and characterised that they genuinely resemble real people, lending the narrative weight and pathos.

Music and theatre are not fresh innovations brought into the post-Georgia Flu world, and “musician” and “actor” are not new, post-apocalypse occupations. A holdover from before the arrival of the Georgia Flu, the fact that they remain constantly in use despite having no practical application to immediate survival shows that Mandel’s characters retain a very human desire for more than just the basic practicalities, reiterating the lasting complexity and depth of Mandel’s characterisation, and the realism central to Station Eleven. Her characters are irrevocably changed by their experiences, but they do not become unthinking and inhuman, deprived of identifiable humanity.

One of my favourite moments in Station Eleven is when Clark is told that his client is “sleepwalking”. Due to a range of factors, he has found himself in a particular occupation, one that he has come to realise that he doesn’t much care for. But while he might be interested in taking a different path, his responsibilities ensure that he considers taking a risk by leaving his stable career to be out of the question. Thus, dissatisfied, he works mechanically, with neither interest or passion. He sleepwalks. This is one of my favourite moments because it is so realistic, a state of affairs that many of us can relate to, and because it emphasises the often-painful relationship between dreams and reality in the novel as a whole. A world in which an infectious disease swiftly turns into an unstoppable pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the population is not a world of happy endings, or a world in which dreams come true.

These are just a few of the many reasons why I enjoyed reading Station Eleven, and why I would definitely recommend it, even to readers who wouldn’t normally try anything like this. It has many excellent qualities, and on top of an engaging, well-structured and nicely-paced plot, it is insightful and empathetic, exploring the often-unpleasant depths and incongruities of the human condition in a manner that is assured and not without sympathy, and that contributes to, rather than detracting from, the plot. With an emphasis on character, it takes a refreshingly human-centric approach to its premise.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Bookish round-up: January 2018

Books read: 

  • Equal Rites (Discworld #3) by Terry Pratchett
    Genre: Fantasy
    My rating: 4 stars
  • The Bone Season (The Bone Season #1) by Samantha Shannon
    Genre: Fantasy, YA
    My rating: 4 stars

I’m a dedicated Terry Pratchett fan. I love his characters, his settings, his consistently inventive turn of phrase, and his prose. Further, his books are a masterclass in wordplay, his use of parody is flawless, and his questioning (and dismissal) of well-established fantasy novel tropes is undoubtedly refreshing – and often a relief.

As such, the fact that I enjoyed reading Equal Rites probably won’t come as much of a surprise. It has all the key hallmarks of a Pratchett novel – that is, it’s clever, it’s entertaining, and it overturns a not inconsiderable number of the aforementioned fantasy novel tropes, as well as being populated with interesting characters and a rich variety of settings – all of which I enjoy. Further, while it arguably has a less firmly defined, rich plot than Pratchett’s later work, it has a clear narrative structure and plenty of depth.

I also enjoyed reading Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. It’s an excellent urban fantasy novel, in which recognisable modern developments and advancements are seamlessly merged with creative supernatural elements. Further, its intriguing plot is supported by thorough, detail-oriented world-building, which stretches from politics to the justice system and the criminal underworld, and covers cultural beliefs, prejudices, and discrimination, providing a firm foundation for the subsequent narrative. The basic outline of the plot doesn’t present a completely unfamiliar pattern, but Shannon’s detailed world-building, and the flair with which she brings the supernatural elements of her narrative to life, easily compensate for any deficiencies in that area.

Added to TBR shelf:

  1. Red Rising (Red Rising Saga #1) by Pierce Brown, which came to my attention when Iron Gold was published this year. I’m a big fan of sci-fi, and this series promises to deliver on everything that I enjoy.

  2. The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden, which was recommended to me by a reader with excellent taste. It looks like it will fit perfectly into my favoured ‘weird and wonderful’ category, and has excellent reviews.

  3. The Mime Order (Bone Season #2) by Samantha Shannon, which I added to the list as soon as I finished The Bone Season. I wasn’t previously familiar with Shannon’s work, and I’m looking forward to reading more of it this year.


Bookish round-up: December 2017

Books read: 2

  • Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
    Genre: Historical fiction
    My rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed reading Star of the Sea. Rich with detail, its prose draws the reader effortlessly into the setting and the time period, establishing not only the historical significance of the events, and the position of the characters in relation to them, but also the associated frustrations felt and the difficulties experienced by all kinds of people at that time. Star of the Sea brings that period of history to life with great confidence, and with an engaging plot and prose, is well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a little (or a lot) of history with their fiction.

But Gormenghast is one of the strangest series of books that I have ever read, and one of the most enjoyable. Its prose – equipped with both vivid, highly descriptive imagery, and an incredibly nuanced attention to detail – applied distinctly to the physical features and accompanying personality of each character, accentuates each to the extent that the ordinary turns into the grotesque, twisted into the unusual while remaining just recognisable. Ultimately, Gormenghast is strange – a strange set of books with strange characters and oppressively strange weather – and that is exactly why it is such an enjoyable read. Every inch of the setting and every twitch of every character’s expression forms an important, inescapable part of the narrative, and it is all equally, uniquely strange. No detail is omitted, no stone left without consideration. Well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a little creative flair alongside detailed imagery and exceedingly memorable characters.

What did you read in December 2017? Let me know in the Comments below.

Added to TBR shelf:

  1. Singapore Saga Vol 1: Forbidden Hill (Singapore Saga #1) by John D Greenwood.

  2. The Speckled People: A Memoire of a Half-Irish Childhood by Hugo Hamilton.

Check out my most recent book review.

Top reads of 2016

It was long and emotional, but the 2016 book year (that is, the most important kind of year) is now a thing of the much loved past. All that remains is the opportunity to reflect, and, of course, to make plans for 2017, however cautious and however loosely defined. Whether this involves committing to a new and improved reading goal, adding several exciting new titles to your ever-increasing TBR pile, or resorting to making your beverage of choice so that you might stave off the responsibility of compiling a 2017 reading list for just a little longer, change is upon us.

I pledged to read a grand total of 50 books in 2016, a goal that I later decided, while languishing painfully in the midst of a particularly long novel, had been innocently meant, but ludicrously ambitious. As it was, however, despite the occasional moment of uncertainty, through a startlingly beneficial combination of delayed train journeys and no small amount of stubborn commitment, I reached my goal, reading a wonderful 51 books.

Are you proud? I’m proud.

I enjoyed many of the books that my greedy little hands alighted upon, regretted my interest in a couple, and even abandoned some, too profoundly unimpressed to read any further. To my considerable surprise, I delved into more than one classic of my own free will – something of a novelty after my lengthy stint studying English Literature – rediscovered my love of sci-fi/fantasy, and even took the occasional cautious sojourn into the realm of non-fiction, buoyed by a similar compilation of Terry Pratchett’s work.

I did, naturally, have favourites. Some were unexpected – penned by authors I had not previously discovered, or structured in a manner that I do not usually find enjoyable – and others were familiar titles taken from the shelf for a comfortable re-read. They were as varied as they were numerous, and in attempting to pick my top read of 2016, I, well. Let’s just say that I struggled. A little.

(By that I mean: a lot.)

So I decided to pick a top ten, from which I could derive a winner. They are as follows (in order of consumption):

  1. The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan
  2. Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
  3. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
  4. The Vagrant by Peter Newman
  5. Treachery by S. J. Parris
  6. Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon
  7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  8. The Trees by Ali Shaw
  9. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  10. Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

From this list, I decided, with some solemnity, that my top read of 2016 had to be a book that was particularly memorable, and that I thought was genuinely incredible. It didn’t need to have won any awards, but it had to have a quality or aspect that more than adequately distinguished it from the rest, and that rendered it an appropriate occupier of the pedestal on which it would remain for the entirety of 2017. The ten titles listed above were considered at length.

Finally (drum roll please), I decided that my top read of 2016 had to be China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.

Perdido Street Station is an incredible novel. From the profound diversity of the characters to the vivid grittiness of the landscape, it is well written, expertly crafted, and brilliantly portrayed. The imagery seethes with life, the prose is astonishing, and each chapter is more intense than the last, encouraging feelings of suspense, compassion and even heartbreak with undeniable skill. It is impossible to pretend at indifference when reading Perdido Street Station, and the novel is so richly detailed and so wonderfully immersive that there would be little value in even attempting to.

I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough.

Read more in my review here.

As for 2017, I do not yet know where my interests will take me, or what books I am likely to enjoy above all others. I do know, however, that my TBR pile contains the sequel to Perdido Street Station (which I clutched lovingly for some time), and that 2017 has the potential to be a fantastic book year.

I will always be grateful for the authors that make this possible, and whose work continues to inspire and delight.

Which book did you most enjoy reading in 2016?

Check out my most recent review here.

Book Review: Dear Amy – Helen Callaghan


My relationship with crime fiction, at one time both congenial and seemingly long-lasting, has suffered. We used to be very close (to the unutterable dismay of my presiding bank account), but, more recently, I decided that the characters are frequently too predictable, the details of the plot all too easy to anticipate and rarely well depicted, and, finally, in more general terms, that crime fiction is a genre that yields too fully and too regularly to tedious habit, and, subsequently, that it is one that I wanted very little to do with.

In short: I was considering divorce.

Although Dear Amy falls firmly into this bracket, it sounded both intriguing and unusual, a more creative contribution to a genre occasionally guilty of stagnancy. Having read the synopsis, I decided that even if it did ultimately prove to suffer the aforementioned weaknesses, reading it would be, at worst, a brief return to a genre that is in possession of many glorious attributes, but that no longer meets my expectations. A throwback, if you will.

Drum roll please.

I genuinely enjoyed it. Helen Callaghan’s Dear Amy is well written, nicely structured, and cleverly paced, and could quite justifiably be provided with an admirable position on even the most highly regarded (and likely heaped) bookshelf. A startlingly compulsive read, it is assured and mature, neither circumventing in-depth explorations of the emotionally fraught scenes that feature in the narrative, nor avoiding delving into the painful and often far-reaching ramifications of the multitude of base cruelties that give rise to them. A suspenseful, gripping story, it is delivered with both delicacy and sensitivity.

(To paraphrase: I liked the thing.)

Dear Amy’s protagonist is Margot Lewis, a teacher and newspaper agony aunt. Her life is more or less predictable, aside from the unpleasantness of an impending separation from her husband, until she receives a strange letter addressed to ‘Amy,’ claiming to have been written by a victim of a kidnapping that took place many years ago. Margot initially assumes it to be a hoax made in spectacularly bad taste, but as more letters arrive, each more intense and desperate than the last, she is unable to dismiss them as meaningless. The possibility of a connection between the letters and a more recent disappearance is too important to disregard.

The answers that Margot finds, however, take a form she never expected, and the consequences for her own life are unutterably and decidedly severe. A vast, jagged hole is torn in her small, more or less predictable world, and emerging unscathed and unchanged from the ordeal proves to be impossible. With time running short and lives at stake, Margot struggles not to lose all sense of herself as everything she values and understands is thrown into painful confusion, and the actions she is obliged to take waver helplessly into dubious moral ground. Dear Amy‘s narrative is rife with deep, dark secrets and the darker predilections that give rise to them, and Margot cannot remain detached.

However, while the characters are realistic, often admitting to uncertainty and never devoid of weaknesses, Dear Amy is, unfortunately, comprised of rather too many gratuitous crime fiction stereotypes, to which the aforementioned moral uncertainty is an obvious example. Margot is easily identifiable as the tortured hero, replete with a tragic past and an absent family. These are familiar details, and lack originality.

Further, the novel begins with the conclusion of Margot’s marriage and ends with a burgeoning romance, a subplot that arguably offers little that is particularly original to the plot. It felt unnecessary and a little bit ridiculous, for the plot would have worked equally well in its absence, and while its inclusion was perhaps indicative of Margot’s eventual success and renewed certainty, I felt it detracted from the evocative imagery of Margot’s solitary struggle. Thematically, Dear Amy focuses on Margot’s journey, and the hard, uphill climb to the hidden truth. With the inclusion of the male romantic lead, her arc loses strength, for it is no longer herself that she depends on. This is again a familiar aspect of crime fiction, in which the protagonist is often paired off.

Fortunately, Callaghan’s prose offers no small remedy. Descriptive and intense, Dear Amy is vivid and immersive, and stacked high with explosive imagery and intense language. Some crime fiction novels suffer from a sparse style and a bland setting, given only some measure of life by the details of the plot and the driving force of the protagonist’s often-abrasive personality. Dear Amy is the opposite, powerfully written and expertly structured, with every aspect encouraging engagement and exciting suspense. The characters are realistic and varied, and her plot unusually structured.

I enjoyed the language, the imagery, and the broad strokes of the plot. I thought the concept was original and nicely crafted, and that it was suspenseful without being crass. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be too predictable, the romantic subplot uncomfortable at best, and the constant adherence to crime fiction stereotypes neither laudable nor unique. Finally, while Margot was an interesting and undeniably sympathetic character, she was too isolated, and very difficult to relate to.

(Maybe it’s a character flaw. Maybe it’s – never mind.)

Helen Callaghan is a brand new voice in the crime fiction world with an impressive turn of phrase and a brilliantly creative outlook on a genre that often suffers from descriptive brevity. Unfortunately, Dear Amy suffers from a number of predominant weaknesses alongside its many strengths, and as such, despite finding the plot genuinely riveting, I could only give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Book review: Perdido Street Station – China Miéville


Perdido Street Station is evocative, hard-hitting, and startlingly intense. Wonderfully detailed, it is rich with explanations and explorations, and both structured and solidified by a strong dedication to establishing the facts on which the story hinges. There are no plot holes and no attempt to brush over details with the hand-wavy dubiousness that occasionally rears its extremely ugly head (no, uglier than that), and Miéville’s incredible prose is matched only by the truly admirable lengths to which he reaches in presenting and bringing to life his vibrant setting.

With impressively varied vocabulary and a plot that practically oozes from the pages, Perdido Street Station is provocative in its content, intriguing in its structure, and gloriously imaginative in its detail, rife with constant complications and frequent misdirection. Unpredictable and often brutal, the events of the novel leave no room for sentimentality (and even less for the shining hero), but yield not to the temptation to shock the readers above and beyond what is strictly necessary. There are no needlessly escalated scenes, and despite not inconsiderable savagery, the content is fundamentally believable, in the context both of the unfolding plot and the setting to which the reader is thoroughly introduced.

In Perdido Street Station, the main character, Isaac, an innovative scientist, offers his not inconsiderable services to a strange, isolated creature motivated by just one thought – to recover the wings that were torn from him as punishment. The circumstances are murky, and the potential consequences even harder to parse, but Isaac is drawn irrevocably in by the ambrosia of new discoveries, and by the exciting prospect of delving into a topic that has yet to be adequately plumbed, and he agrees to do what he can.

He furthers his stipulated intention with confidence, wielding resources and connections without impunity. In doing so, an unanticipated chain of events means that Isaac unwittingly unleashes a creature far more powerful and dangerous than he knows, to tragic effect. Removing the threat calls for the combined efforts of many, and no few sacrifices, but abandoning the matter to the attention of others is untenable, when so many have fallen by the wayside. Isaac does not, strictly speaking, consider himself to be responsible, but he does what he can, regardless.

Miéville leaves no stone unturned (and they are wonderful stones) in his smooth prose. From his depiction of the setting to his extensive character development, he is in every respect a master at work. New Crobuzon, the city in which the events of the novel take place, is carefully defined and fully explained, as are the characters that live in its difficult environs. From the historical details to cultural shifts, New Crobuzon is richly inhabited, and should the reader be so inclined (I am absolutely always inclined, and cordially invite you to join me), the unrelenting amount of detail ensures that imagining all that transpires is no difficult task, aided not insignificantly by Miéville’s varied imagery. Reading Perdido Street Station is a singularly unforgettable experience.

The plot is, arguably, taken in broad strokes, simple and identifiable, but its execution is unparalleled, and the twists and turns to which it plays amiable host are decidedly unpredictable, taking the parameters of the novel far wider than an original impression of the plot might suggest. Perdido Street Station is not a novel that would benefit anyone to underestimate (you have been warned), and to bypass the spectacular content on that basis would be a colossal miscalculation.

The characters are detailed and extraordinarily well explored, and their personalities, motivations, and deepest, darkest desires are discernible from the text without being explicitly and/or clumsily shoved into the foreground. The reader is able to understand and connect to the various characters and the roiling setting with ease, and Miéville’s distinctive adjustments in vocabulary and sentence structure help to underline changes in perspective, thus aiding comprehension and eliciting a sense of sturdy realism. The most obvious instance of character development occurs, predictably, with Isaac, the protagonist, but it is by no means solely restricted to him.

Morality is a complex and unforgiving topic in the dark streets and dubious alleys of New Crobuzon, and survival so often predominates over friendliness, in accordance with practicality. Moral decisions are complicated by clashing cultures and personalities and thrown into vast uncertainty by conflicting personal beliefs, and the decisions made by the characters that err on the side of the angels – that is, Isaac, and the team he builds to fight the creatures that plague the city – arguably give rise to the most shocking ramifications, justified somewhat inadequately by reference to some vague greater good. As the catalyst of the novel’s events, Isaac can be interpreted as singularly responsible for the destruction, and his subsequent actions are not entirely morally pure.

This is not a world in which there are easy choices, and by generating unavoidable complexity, Miéville arguably presents Isaac as, on one hand, the hero that helps purge New Crobuzon of the creatures that stalk it, but, equally validly, on the other as a destructive force whose thoughtless experimentation and belief in his own superiority are directly responsible for the terrible situation in the first place. Miéville’s characters resist categorisation, and Perdido Street Station avoids the pitfall of presenting easily definable moral decisions and behaviours based solely on the notion of a ‘greater good’ and absent of a mature understanding that the consequences rarely behave in accordance with this prior determination of black and white morality.

I loved Perdido Street Station. I lost myself in its pages, and never really wanted to emerge. There are no happy endings, and the subject does not lend itself to easy, unbothered reading, but it would be a lesser novel if it had those things. It is truly extraordinary and startlingly evocative, pulling no punches and offering no apologies. It is also well rounded and admirable in its detail and structure, and the tremendously varied vocabulary, alongside an unutterably vibrant setting, ensures that reading it is an experience that registers on many exciting and unforgettable levels.

This is, in short, the kind of novel that I could genuinely conceive of reading multiple times, and discovering something – a detail, an idea, even a particularly intuitive description – wholly new and exciting each and every time. Reading it was an honour, and it is of course well worth 5 stars. For any fans of solid, immersive, and exquisitely imaginative fiction, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Review: Under Orders – Dick Francis


Dick Francis’ Under Orders is a gripping and fast-paced novel from a veteran author. Following the often unplanned and occasionally even dubious (shock, horror) exploits of Sid Halley, jockey turned Detective, it is heavy on drama and action, and has a considerable sense of pace.

A respected figure in the horse racing community, Halley was obliged to retire when he sustained very severe injuries. He now makes a living as an investigator of sorts, with a marked preference for marching to his own beat and taking the work wherever he can get it (bank holidays not included). In Under Orders, Halley, somewhat inexplicably finding himself at the distinctly uncomfortable epicentre of three seemingly disparate investigations – into online gambling, race fixing, and the tragic murder of a young jockey, respectively – attacks each with a mixture of gusto and belligerence in a high stakes race to find and apprehend the culprit. Whatever Halley uncovers will undoubtedly have severe ramifications for the horse racing community, and he acts accordingly.

That is to say, he doesn’t inject much (any) tact into his approach.

Halley soon discovers that the three seemingly unconnected events are not as disparate as they initially seemed to be. What’s more, there are a number of individuals with a clear interest in forcing Halley to abandon his efforts, and his investigations sidle into dangerous territory, putting the people he loves in danger. Desperate to find answers and protect those caught up in the crossfire, Halley bludgeons through every obstacle to connect the dots and solve the mystery in a tense and exciting no-holds-barred ending.


Under Orders is an adventure that just barrels along, packed to the rafters with intrigue. Any momentary relief to the tension afforded by the occasional intervention of a comedic or romantic interlude (yes, they do actually happen, I kid you not) ostensibly for character development, provide a startling contrast to the sense of danger and jeopardy that so utterly characterises the rest of the novel.

Under Orders is well structured and confidently crafted, and is in possession of a great many enjoyable aspects. I was most impressed by the consistently exhaustive amount of detail, the setting (the horse racing scene, jockeys here, there and everywhere) and Francis’ undeniable talent for storytelling. If the devil is in the details, then he is eagerly dancing to Francis’ tune, because Under Orders practically brims with solid, factual information. This arguably lends the novel an impressive sense of dependable believability, and this firm injection of cold, hard realism ensures that the setting, so well and vibrantly described, practically leaps from the page, enabling a fully immersive read. Francis writes about topics he knows, and his mastery of those topics is palpable.

Additionally, no prior knowledge of the ins and outs of horse riding is necessary, as Francis explains everything well enough that there is little opportunity to be left by the wayside, floundering uncertainly, lost in a maze of meaningless terms and the occasional thoroughly bewildering acronym.

(I’ve had enough of bewildering acronyms.)

However, Under Orders is a classic Dick Francis novel, by which I mean that, having read one, I am able to more or less perfectly predict the structure and ending of all the others. The protagonist is of standard stereotypical stock (alliteration intended), being brave, stubborn, and recklessly dedicated to finding and revealing the truth, there are clearly defined heroes and villains, the former of which succeed in their endeavours, and the latter of which are punished in accordance with their heinous crimes (feel free to join in if you know the words), and the characters on the side of the angels run into a whole world of trouble and a not insignificant number of generally unhelpful people, but nonetheless eventually emerge victorious.

Additionally, there is little evidence of moral complexity, either in the behaviour of the characters, or in the novel as a whole. There are a few vaguely acknowledged grey areas, but they’re not explored or developed, which felt a little like a missed opportunity. The result may be light-hearted enough to match the sense of pace and tension, but I felt as if the narrative suffered, lacking complexity, maturity and depth. Connecting with the characters is difficult without some insight into what they might be thinking and feeling, even with some suggestion of their most prevalent motives, and as such I had little to no emotional investment in their behaviour and situations.

The protagonists in Dick Francis’ novels are heroes, replete with tragic backstories and a list of glowing accomplishments. While they may occasionally suffer from a number of decidedly less admirable personality traits, those uncomfortable factors are typically subsumed by an overwhelming horde of the opposite. Every so often, Halley does or considers something that may be considered not to be undoubtedly pure and admirable, but the moral consequences are bypassed by the simple expedient of categorising anything and everything under the idea of some sort of greater good or higher truth. There is little in the way of character development, and the romantic additions felt utterly extraneous, and also a little ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the plot is equally predictable, leaving little uncertainty as to what the result might be. While Francis’ aforementioned talent for storytelling makes it an interesting read quite irrespective of the content, I felt that it was somewhat lacking, vaguely akin to what I imagine would be the result of a fairly lacklustre attempt to write by numbers. All the necessary aspects are there, and it is undoubtedly cohesive, but it needed a little something more to impress me.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading Under Orders, but I was generally underwhelmed. It was in many respects too easy and too predictable a read, although the text and in particular the setting were detailed and vivid enough that it was thoroughly immersive. Sadly, I failed to connect on any level with the allegedly sympathetic character of Sid Halley, and I thought that more effort could have been expended to erase the damning predictability and inject some uncertainty into the conclusion. Therefore, despite enjoying many other Dick Francis novels, I rated it 2 out of 5 stars, and would not consider reading it again.