The Ironclad Prophecy by Pat Kelleher
The Ironclad Prophecy by Pat Kelleher (No Man’s World II) (Abaddon Books, 2011) is one of these books you pick up from the pile waiting for review and then almost immediately feel like putting it down again. By an act of magic, a chunk of the trenches at the Battle of the Somme has been transported to another world. . . When Edgar Rice Burroughs was trying to think of something exciting to write about one-hundred years ago, he took a single Confederate soldier off to Mars (that’s Barsoom to the fans). Here we’ve got a couple of hundred British Tommies, all their rations and equipment, three nurses, an aeroplane with guns attached, and, most important of all, one of those experimental tanks that tended to break down, get stuck in the mud and suffocate the people inside. Wow! That’s really scaling things up.
Now we can rerun all those stories from my youth with the British Army fighting the Zulus on the Veldt. Yes, that nicely pegs the technology of the local alien nasties. They sport the equivalent of spears with no long-range capacity. Had the magic spell not conveniently carried a chunk of the French countryside complete with trenches and barbed wire, we could have replicated the laargering of wagons into defensive positions to show the British superiority in fire-power and tactics. For those among you who like your history, the situation here is roughly comparable to the Siege of Eshowe (1879), albeit that the British have not arrogantly attacked the natives, believing in their own invincibility. They have been involuntarily dumped in the middle of enemy territory and so find themselves under siege with limited supplies of food and ammunition. The only relief would come from the tank except it went off to explore some time ago and hasn’t been seen since. Cue a small group of self-sufficient, salt-of-the-Earth Tommies to go off and find it. Yet, now we come to a problem as a reviewer. I read First World War and adventure stories set in Africa when I was growing up so find myself bored to tears when invited to go back to narrative content I thought long dead. To modern readers who’ve never thought about asymmetrical conflict using only one-hundred year old weaponry against “primitive” native tribes, this will all be shiny, new and exciting.
Hey, then we’ve got hostile plants and other beasties. Welcome home to Harry Harrison’s Deathworld where local flora and fauna do their best to kill a human on sight. Except here we have a nice irony because, inadvertently, the British fight fire with fire. Just as carving a wooden leg out of a local tree can have an unfortunate effect on the wearer, so the poppies in the area just outside the trenches have a disorienting effect on the local Zulus. Instant highs from the poppy without the need to process it into heroin or cocaine disorient the attackers. Frankly, I’m stunned to discover The Ironclad Prophesy is the second in what’s intended as a series, although I do concede the clever puniness of the series title. So instead of giving into temptation and throwing the book into the nearest bin at around 50 pages, I grit my teeth and keep reading. There must be some good in this morass. In today’s high-pressure commercial world, no sane publisher would produce something at this level of drivel unless something more interesting happens.
For a moment, let’s digress into the Heart of Darkness (1903) by Joseph Conrad which creates a metaphor for the dangers when entering a poorly explored landscape, the cruelty of the treatment meted out by the European colonists to the natives, and the essential darkness to be found within people. Francis Ford Coppola later conflated the original story with the war in Vietnam. Both book and film require the rescue of a man called Kurtz who’s less than sane. The original Kurtz described by Conrad tries to declare himself a God. The second is a commander fighting his own demons, partly due to the consumption of mind-modifying substances. Apocalypse Now has passed into legend both as to the problems in making it and as a completed product. That said, whenever any small group sets off into the unknown and finds individuals heavily under the influence of psychotropic drugs, comparisons are inevitable. In his case, the leader is not only inhaling fumes but also drinking a distilled version. There are both physical and psychological changes. The fact we’re on an alien world, with an odd metal wall that shouldn’t be there and a secret hidden in the jungle can’t paper over the recycled nature of the plot.
Well, in the end, the alien world does prove to be interesting as it rescues the Tommies when they would otherwise be unable to save themselves. There’s also an improvement in the clichéd “temple” scenes deep in the jungle as our crazed commander finds the ability to commune with the present and past inhabitants due to his symbiotic enhancement. Unfortunately, we’ve had to stagger through too much dross to get to this point. So here’s the truth of it as best I can supply it. If you’ve never read anything about the life and times of the British soldier in the trenches, and you know nothing about colonialism and the wars it engendered, you’ll probably enjoy this. Set on an alien world with an interesting set of native species, there’s a fair amount to find exciting. But if, like me, you’ve been reading straight adventure and military fiction for more than sixty years, you’ll find The Ironclad Prophesy a somewhat tedious retread of very old ideas that only comes to life in the final third of the book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.