Into The Valley of Death by A L Berridge
|Into The Valley of Death by A L Berridge|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A rip-roaring retelling of the Charge of the Light Brigade and the battles that went on before and after. Harry Ryder is a maverick cavalryman with no time for incompetent commanders, but his partners in war come from more obedient stock. Thoroughly enjoyable|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 512||Date: April 2013|
Master Harry-sahib saunters up the path of the family bungalow in some unnamed Indian British town, puzzled to see the pathway choked with weeds, surprised by the absence of servants and disgusted by the swarming ants. There is worse inside. His father, the colonel, is dead on the floor. The money was gone, obviously, but it would take more than that to make a devoted soldier to blow his brains out. What had it done to him, this army he'd given his whole life to?
What indeed? Into the Valley of Death isn't the novel that will tell us.
This is the story of what Harry did next. In essence he reinvented himself, although it takes us a while to know that for sure, and signs up again in the same army, but a different war.
From India we shift to the Crimea. Harry Ryder is cavalry corporal. He's a loner, but has a way with the horses and a way with the raw recruits. He also has a way with the officers, but in that case it's a way of rubbing them up the wrong way. The problem is, no matter what his current service record shows, Harry Ryder has been to war before. He knows the reality of it, and many of those in with whom he's now thrown his lot have absolutely no idea.
Men and officers alike.
The Crimea was quite possibly the turning point for the British army. This was where we learned that officers required something more than the natural authority of class to be able to lead men. And men learned that they'd only follow orders that appeared rational. It was also where we learned that disease kills as many soldiers as injury and did something about that and maybe where we started to think that sending guys out to fight in bright red uniforms wasn't that smart a notion. It was also where the notion of spying took another leap forward.
The book takes its title from Tennyson's famous poem
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
The six hundred of the Light Brigade into that desperate charge of which one French onlooker declared C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre which roughly translates as magnificent but no way to fight a war.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is one of those cornerstones of English mythology that we're all aware of, but probably don't generally know very much about. My own ignorance was sufficient that half way through Berridge's rendition of events I checked with my military-history-buff boyfriend What happened? What is the currently accepted view?
We should know this stuff.
And if, like me, you're not that keen on deadly dry military history, you could do worse than picking up your bits and pieces through the story books. So far as I can tell as a non-expert on the period Berridge delivers a believable account.
She has her hero abandoned shortly after making landfall, due to a crass decision on the part of his officers, but this is part of the narrative mechanism for the chance meeting of men from a number of regiments and backgrounds who will cross paths and join forces throughout the battles to come. It clearly didn't happen, but there's no reason why it shouldn't have done.
We have Harry Ryder – the sensible maverick cavalry NCO, always at odds with his vindictive TSM Jarvis. Left on the beach he teams up with the core group for the adventure: there's the young cavalry recruit Polly Oliver, who sees in Ryder the proto-hero he'd like to be; Nial Mackenzie the mad highlander straight out of Braveheart, complete with kilt and a touch of madness, and the friendless grenadier guard Dennis Woodall who stands too much on his dignity. Between them on their first night on dry land in the Crimea they fashion a shelter out of the rain, share the coffee and learn a new card game called Bridge from an officer who just happens to be passing.
And then the battle commences…
For near-on 500 pages Berridge takes us through the Alma, Balaclava and on into Sebastopol.
The battles are bloody, but told with the kind of matter-of-factness that you'd expect seeing through the eyes of soldiers trained to it, having to deal with, daring not to think to much about it while it's happening.
The interactions among the men are the real story, and those between the men and the officers. Berridge has pitched her characters to give us the full gamut of attitudes of the time. None of her senior officers come out smelling of roses, but among the ranks there is a mixture of solid obedience to authority and self-serving insolence and just about every shade in between. The one thing that does seem to echo among all of her characters though, is their sense of belonging to the army. There are those clearly seeking personal honour, and those seeking to avoid it, but at all costs, all of them want to protect the family that is the army.
I can't help wondering if that is just a reflection of the attitude of the times, that has come out of the research, or whether there's a touch of modern sentiment in there. It seems to me that all of the recent public debate about the rights and wrongs of the conflicts our governments involve us in, have regenerated a feeling that the men on the ground are doing what their country, their army, their regiment, has asked of them and that we're proud of that, and of them.
You can ignore any political import though, and just read this for the ripping yarn that it is. Ryder has the Sergeant Major on his back (quite literally), he can see the stupidity that many others can't, but he does his best to follow orders.
Having a face in each camp, Berridge is able to give us the grand sweep of the battles as they were fought on all fronts.
She takes us in to the camps and the hospitals, shows us the grit and grue as well as the glory. She has a few 'on the staff' women to round out the story.
And she throws a probably fictitious traitor into the mix to make the narrative hang together.
The whole thing simply works. It rattles along and makes you care about whether your central characters live or die (and you may want some of them to die sooner rather than later).
A short historical note puts the fiction in context of the facts, which I actually appreciated. The maps were helpful too.
If you like the Sharpe novels you'll enjoy this.
For more tales from Britain's so-called glory days you might enjoy Under Enemy Colours by Sean Thomas Russell
You can read more book reviews or buy Into The Valley of Death by A L Berridge at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Into The Valley of Death by A L Berridge at Amazon.com.
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