Retribution Road by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator)

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Retribution Road by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator)

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A global look at the horrors left after war deserves a global audience, from this author who already showed small suggestions of greatness, but has only stepped up his game.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: March 2017
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857053749

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Sergeant Bowman wasn't just a hard man, he was something else: a dangerous man. If, indeed, there was someone who was ideal for a suicide mission, it was him. Working as a soldier for the East India Company in the rural, remote, outlaw hotbeds of Asia in the 1850s, he's tasked with taking a boat of unknown prospects up the Irrawaddy to try and combat local warlord Pagan Min. It doesn't go well – to start with, he's supposed to run the rule over ruffians saved from the gallows, but can't command them until he's forced his way to having the knowledge of the mission he needs first, only for all hell to break loose. But get back he does, only to find that while his nightmares about what really happened are met with equally dark goings-on, the official record suggests the mission never actually existed…

This was a surprise for me, in so many regards. For one thing, there seems (without meaning to sound racist) to be no reason to expect such a book from a French author. I had hardly learnt a thing about the East India Company, when it was, what it was doing and how it ended, from anything written by anyone from the same country as it and I. I knew about the sanitary problems of mid-19th Century London, and the lads that delved amongst the ordure to find what was washed down the drains, but I have never seen anything like that evoked so effectively by someone from a different country. Since when did any British writer peg a drama on to, say, Haussmann's work in Paris? There's the very fact this is fully a historical novel, which you can see Varenne's career moving towards, but this is a hefty chunk longer than his prior books, and just not seemingly in keeping. C'est quoi chameleonic en Francaise?

And it should remain a surprise to you, as regards further locations, plot, even genre, so that's it for the summary you'll get from me. Suffice to say, it's all good – and often really great. I certainly tend to avoid longer books – but rarely was I aware of the page count clicking up or otherwise, and hardly ever thought about the length of things. This meant I wasn't second-guessing the narrative, either, but merely following it along. It does, as other people have referred to, carry similarities to books and authors long past, but it's also pretty modern, in that it can allude to the modern world in quite angry comments now and again. It does, however, revert to Varenne's main subject, which seems to be a discourse (although a perfectly readable one, mind) on masculinity. This is a world that is butch, for want of a better word, and the book definitely gives us a quite forensic look at the problems in the life of men at war, both on and off the battlefield.

Finally, I didn't think references to classical authors and so on, as delivered by the French reviewers when it came out in 2014, really served this book well. It is its own beast – certainly it seems to behave that way at times, with a latter longueur, and one or two bits I can't mention in a review that showed up as failings, inasmuch as they would be failings if you addressed these pages merely as a genre work. For being a cross-genre read, and one that really opens the reader's eye up to something new to them, only rarely showing too much exposition and research, it's at times astounding, and again a book you just don't expect from such a source. There will be people who point to how much Dickens and his ilk packed into his long novels, as compared to this, but hang it – there is so much that will stay with the reader here that you really don't mind the length, and however many hours it takes you will be fully absorbed. Long novels really can be worth the work.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I can see parallels between this and the likes of The Missing by Tim Gautreaux – damaged ex-soldier types on a mission, with a wonderfully evoked world framing the character study. Varenne last tried to weave the lessons of history into thriller-type dramas with Loser's Corner.

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