The First to Land
by Douglas Reeman
OK class, pop quiz time. Can you name the 20th-century war in which the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Japan were all together on one side? Hint: While saber-wielding hordes rushed at them wearing white gowns and turbans, screaming "Kill!" with all but inhuman ferocity, the allies fought for survival behind defenses designed by an engineer named Herbert Hoover. Do you give up? Oh, well. I'm sure you'll pick up the answer later...
In this second book of the Blackwood Novels, also known as the Royal Marines Saga, one of naval fiction's most prolific authors carries his account of Britain's sea soldiers into a new generation. Whereas Blaze of Glory introduced us to Crimean War hero Philip Blackwood and his younger half-brother Harry, this novel finds their sons serving "by sea or by land" at the turn of the 20th century. This was the troubled tail-end of Queen Victoria's reign, when the sun seemed to be doing its damnedest to set on the British Empire.
David Blackwood is the eldest of three sons of the old General (whom we know as Harry) who have followed the family tradition of serving as Marine officers. While he mourns the death of his middle brother, killed by a sniper in the Second Boer War, and wonders what has become of his youngest brother who has only lately put on the uniform of an artilleryman, David finds himself in the disagreeable position of having to look after his wretched cousin Ralf. The latter is nothing like his heroic father, but David has neither the time nor the inclination to stroke the lad's petulant temper. For thanks to a combination of diplomatic and military blunders and the rise of a fanatically xenophobic cult known as the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists," the two cousins are about to land right in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion. Oops! There's the answer to our one-point quiz! How did you do?
Boxers may not sound very scary. But we're not talking about Kung Fu masters flying through the air, chopping with their feet and fists of fury. We're talking about virtually fearless killing machines who tortured, mutilated, and killed every foreigner they could get their hands on, whether man, woman or child; and who even butchered entire Chinese villages if they were felt to be under the influence of the "foreign devils." "Boxers" was really a whimsical nickname for a group better described as the "Big Knife Society." And because China's royal family and imperial army sympathized with the Boxers, the Boxer Rebellion wasn't just a wave of uncontrolled violence; it was actually an officially declared war. To start with, at least, representatives of foreign governments and business interests on Chinese soil had a rough time of it. No, that's not putting it strongly enough. They got massacred.
David and Ralf Blackwood go ashore to keep the allied supply lines open. But the enemy they face is perhaps more terrifying than any other foe I have yet encountered in my readings of historical naval fiction. Even the Muslim pirates featured in Ramage and the Saracens were less scary, considering that they were more interested in capturing slaves for their galleys and brothels than torturing and killing for its own sake. Imagining the horrors witnessed by the characters in this book will make your flesh crawl. If you have a weak stomach, you may even join some of Britain's finest marines in throwing up.
To make up for the graphic nature of the violence in this novel, author Reeman treats us to a cast of fully fleshed characters, flaws and all. One Marine sergeant, for example, carries a gruesome secret. A lieutenant finds courage through fearÂ—the hard way, that is. David Blackwood carries on a steamy (not to say adulterous) affair with a German countess, which at times makes this book seem as much a romance novel as a story of war. And Ralf proves his mettle only after convincing us that he has no redeeming character traits whatsoever. But brace yourself. A lot of good men are going to die as wave after wave of screaming fanatics rush at the allies' increasingly frail defenses, cut off from reinforcements in the foreign quarter of Tientsin (now Tianjin). Their endurance in the face of virtually certain extermination is one of the greatest stories of courage under fire that you'll have never heard before. Because, face it, when have you ever read a book about the Boxer Rebellion?
It's an intense and compulsively readable book. Nevertheless I owe an "adult content advisory" to parents, and a "political incorrectness advisory" to schoolteachers, before recommending this book to younger readers. In the first place, do I really need to go back and underline the words "steamy" and "graphic" in my review above? In the second, as unsympathetic as I am to the forces of political censorship, I have to recognize that a book containing the "n" word could stir up trouble in a classroom, especially in a book published as recently as 1984. That a character of that time would have naturally and innocently used that term in the context in which it crosses David Blackwood's mind is obviously no defense, given the criticism today leveled at such books as Huckleberry Finn. I, for one, see no problem with letting history be history. But a word to the wise is sufficient.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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