Monday, April 10, 2017

No Man's Land by Simon Tolkien

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 2, 2016

From the slums of London to the riches of an Edwardian country house; from the hot, dark seams of a Yorkshire coalmine to the exposed terrors of the trenches, Adam Raine’s journey from boy to man is set against the backdrop of a society violently entering the modern world. Adam Raine is a boy cursed by misfortune. His impoverished childhood in the slums of Islington is brought to an end by a tragedy that sends him north to Scarsdale, a hard-living coalmining town where his father finds work as a union organizer. But it isn’t long before the escalating tensions between the miners and their employer, Sir John Scarsdale, explode with terrible consequences. In the aftermath, Adam meets Miriam, the Rector’s beautiful daughter, and moves into Scarsdale Hall, an opulent paradise compared with the life he has been used to before. But he makes an enemy of Sir John’s son, Brice, who subjects him to endless petty cruelties for daring to step above his station. When love and an Oxford education beckon, Adam feels that his life is finally starting to come together – until the outbreak of war threatens to tear everything apart.

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“Inspired by the real-life experiences of his grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, during World War I, Simon Tolkien delivers a perfectly rendered novel rife with class tension, period detail, and stirring action, ranging from the sharply divided society of northern England to the trenches of the Somme.”

I must have read that line three times before glancing at the rest of the description on Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land. I’m a World War junkie anyway, but Tolkien’s life is a brilliant story and I couldn’t resist the idea of seeing it brought to life by the iconic author’s own grandson. I’ll grant I was a little wary of the fact that Simon’s protagonist required a name change, but I was otherwise optimistic so I tracked down a copy and jumped in.

Unfortunately, the reality of what I discovered didn’t rise to the level of my admittedly inflated expectations. I mean no offense to either the author or the many readers who’ve praised his work, but No Man’s Land simply didn’t work for me. I’m in the minority here so feel free to throw my opinions to the wind, but I found both the pacing and prose insufferably dull and struggled with the harsh perspective afforded through inadvertent comparison to Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants.

I read the books only months apart and despite obvious differences in size and scope, there is a noticeable degree of overlapping plot between the two. I tried to disassociate and judge on individual merit, but when push comes to shove I have to admit that Follett is the stronger writer and that Tolkien’s approach to the same material left me wanting.

Is it fair to judge a book this way? Probably not. Will my admission ruffle feathers? There’s a chance. Do I care? Not a whit. I’ve great respect for the author’s ideas and intention, but I can’t see myself recommending No Man’s Land to fellow enthusiasts of either Tolkien’s subject or genre.

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“You can't win because of the guns," said Adam with a sigh. "Machine guns, mortars, field guns, howitzers: it doesn't matter how much courage soldiers have, how much will; flesh and blood can't pass through bullets and shells, or at least not in sufficient numbers to have any effect. The guns win in the end and they always will. Not us, not the Germans - the guns.” 
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