THE WIND RISES by Timothée de Fombelle (Translated by Holly James)

The Wind Rises
(Alama Book 1)
By Timotheé de Fombelle
(Translated by Holly James)
(Illustrations by François Place)
Europa Editions — 16th August 2022
ISBN: 9781609457877
— Hardcover — 410 pp.


Tucked safely on the plains of a secluded and verdant valley, 13-year-old Alma lives with her family in peace, removed from continental conflicts and European colonial powers who sail the 1786 seas and plague the African coasts with resource confiscation: elements and minerals from the soil; human lives in the slave trade.

Alma and her younger brother Lam delight in the life and landscape of their home, its familiar comfort, and the seasonal cycles that provide for them. One day, they notice a strange looking ‘zebra’ of pure white, that Alma names Cloud. Observation of the new arrival awakens a curiosity in the siblings of what other wonders might lie in the world beyond their isolated valley home. Though their father has often warned them against straying away, Alma begins to consider nevertheless going off to explore further.

However, Lam pre-empts her plans when he decides to mount the inexplicably tame Cloud, and the white ‘zebra’ takes off with him beyond the valley. With her younger brother is gone – and understanding that the current pathway from the valley to the world beyond will close back up for year with the approaching change of seasons – Alma decides to set off after her brother.

In the meantime, their father also independently sets off after Lam, fueled by a desperation borne from his secret past: first-hand knowledge of the horrors that exist outside of their valley, horrors he played a direct hand in before meeting the woman who became his wife, and they settled into their secluded home to raise a family.

As these events proceed, a young orphan named Joseph Mars plots on the other side of the world to steal aboard a slave ship, the Sweet Amelie, on a clandestine mission to find something its ruthless captain has hidden aboard, and information on a trove of pirate treasure buried somewhere in the Caribbean. But, Joseph quickly learns this might not be so easy, and that others on board might have hidden agendas of their own.

Along with these two young protagonists, de Fombelle takes a large cast of characters from very different cultures and experiences, and places them onto intersecting paths of destinies in a swiftly changing world. The result is a rollicking adventure novel that captivates through the weighty emotion of its characters, themes, and historical setting as much as its entertaining and complex plot.

Written as a middle-grade/young-adult novel, The Wind Rises reminded me of some of the best books discovered during my childhood, thrilling adventures that spanned the globe and exotic locales. The illustrations here by François Place helped in such childhood connections. Of course, that term ‘exotic’ comes loaded with some baggage, and those childhood tales I adored were certainly colored by their colonial origins, even with some scrubbing over done since their original publications. What impressed me so much about de Fombelle’s novel is how well it captured my nostalgia by keeping the best of adventure story plots and diverse settings, but casting it in less problematic terms that still maintains educative historical accuracies.

The Wind Rises succeeds with its two contrasting main protagonists, female and male, African and European. Alma comes from a more innocent and protected life whereas Joseph comes from an existence of cruel, street-wise survival. Yet, they share important traits that sit at the thematic core of the story: human compassion and personal resilience.

Of the two, Alma is an open book to readers. Her curiosity, loyalty, and bravery becomes clear from the novel’s opening. It’s fascinating to watch her journey into a dangerous new world in search of her brother, and how that parallels her father’s search for Lam. Both are unstoppable forces of will, the father from drawing upon his knowledge and abilities from his past, and Alma drawing on her heart. Though ignorant of the world, she confidently asserts herself towards her goal, utilizing her practical experience of living in the valley (and the languages her parents have taught her) to find her way in strange new cultures and circumstances.

Joseph’s story, in contrast, remains a bit of a mystery to readers, as he keeps his exact goals and details of the past closely guarded while infiltrating the Sweet Amelie. At first, Joseph seems mostly concerned with himself, and gold, but slowly the reader begins to see there is more to Joseph and his convictions than might at first be apparent.

Timotheé de Fombelle sets the stories of these two teens within a period that allows incorporation of historical events and themes that are important for people to learn and remember. The horrible nature of the Middle Passage and the slave trade of course ranks foremost here. The issue is related through the eyes of perpetrators, sympathizers, victims, and opponents alike. Sometimes a character might fall into two of these categories even. Importantly, de Fombelle handles such a difficult topic with aplomb, neither glamorizing or exploiting the issue. The ‘villain’ and antagonist of the novel appears to be the entire political/economic system of colonialism and Africa, rather than any single human. Yet, the reprehensible captain of the Sweet Amelie does fit into the villain category too, particularly for Joseph’s plotline.

Slavery is not the only societal issue taken up by de Fombelle through the plot of The Wind Rises. The entire global political/economic system that slavery fits into is a broader stroke of the historical focus of the novel, and a secondary character who stands to inherit her family’s business fortunes (though not really, because she’s a female) serves to put feminist perspective into the novel as well.

One of the largest ironies within the novel is that the plot involves pirate treasure (and hopefully not to spoil much, eventually pirates.) However, what becomes glaringly obvious to the reader through the perspective of Alma and her family, and other Africans, is how the legitimate vessels of business are really no different, plundering the oceans and a land.

As the pages of The Wind Rises pass, it’s easy to become impresses with how much de Fombelle does in a middle grade adventure novel. Moments of tranquility pass to fun and laughter, to joy, but then to agony and pain, to resilience and stubborn pride, despair to hope. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion that goes alongside the rollercoaster plot and changes of scenery from Africa to Europe to the seas and to Caribbean plantations. Through this all the writing is impeccably measured to convey informal excitement and reverential beauty each, and Holly James does a powerful job here in retaining that in the English translation from the French.

Moments of beauty in the novel mark perhaps the most memorable for me: Alma’s appreciation and wonder of her home landscape, the songs of captive slaves who communicate in support through misery, the little choices of defiance by those with some power, who look to restore some humanity to those treated inhumanely, the show of power still present in the oppressed.

Amid all that is that adventure story to keep readers hooked: the mystery of Joseph and wondering what will happen to Alma, and each member of her family. Readers can expect some answers here, but not all. The Wind Rises is the first novel in the Alma series, and I cannot wait for Europa to release the remainder in English translation. I kind of mean that literally: I can read them in French. Though, I’ll eagerly check out future releases in English regardless.


Journal of the Plague Year

Journal of the Plague Year:
A Post-Apocalyptic Omnibus
 by Various
Publisher: Abaddon Books
ISBN: 1781082464
400 pages, paperback
Published: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
Orbital Decay, by Malcolm Ross
Dead Kelly, by C.B. Harvey
The Bloody Deluge, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 Though I’ve read plenty of shared-universe novels, they all have fallen into the media-tie-in category, but I’d been intrigued by titles in the Abaddon catalog and the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic setting of this “Afterblight” series seemed like something I’d easily enjoy. And this omnibus collection ended up being basically what I expected, nothing flashy or awe-inspiring, but a fresh and varied series of genre stories that keeps the reader entertained.
Each of the three novellas in the omnibus has its positive qualities, but each also came with problems for me. As such, no single story stood out above the others: none exceptional, yet each ultimately satisfying and worth the read. What impresses me most about Journal of the Plague Year is how unique each of the three novellas is. All apocalyptic, each falls into a particular sub-genre.
Orbital Decay has an emphasis on science fiction, and in terms of plot and set-up I found this the most intriguing. The American and Russian crew aboard a space station in orbit of Earth watch in isolation from the rest of humanity as the disease known as “The Cull” begins to spread throughout the world. The physical and psychological stresses of space coupled with international and personal tensions between crew-members become exacerbated as the characters watch the Apocalypse unfold below them to friends and family and some struggle to figure out the disease’s cause and how safe they are on the station.
The strengths of Ross’ contribution to the omnibus center on the characterizations, their individual psychology and interactions. Unfortunately in terms of science fiction, serious errors occur when dealing with biology, with Ross apparently confusing critical differences between viruses and bacteria. The sections dealing with the nature of the disease took me right out of the story into sighs and groans. There are also a lot of technical details in the story, but I can’t really comment how believable or accurate these were.
Dead Kelly is best classified in crime, or horror, being a tale full of degenerate criminals struggling for control and pursuing personal vendettas in the power vacuum following civilization’s collapse. Kelly is the former leader of a group that fell apart when a big heist went sour. Having faked his death, Kelly has been hiding out in the Australian outback, but now returns to his old familiar haunts and colleagues in the new post-Cull world. This story has a lot of raw energy, with a protagonist who is both revolting and compelling depending on the particular passage being read. It is a brutal story of betrayal, justice, and revenge.
And as such it is a lot of fun. Readers that can’t stomach intense situations or unlikable protagonists won’t want anything to do with this. The overall tone of Harvey’s novella as a revenge tale is rather familiar, however. Most of the story proceeds in expected fashion and thereby comes across as too simplistic. But to Harvey’s credit, it does end in a particularly strong fashion that is unexpected, yet ends up feeling just right.
The Bloody Deluge was the deepest of the three novellas, about big ideas of faith versus reason, order versus chaos, freedom versus control, hope versus despair. Here, Tchaikovsky tackles the big issues of what could happen to society and individuals faced with a post-apocalyptic landscape. Set in Eastern Europe, it has a certain novelty of setting, which helps against the familiarity of tackling these sorts of issues in the post-apocalyptic genre. Though the themes are well-worn, Tchaikovsky still has important things to say and handles them in a far more balanced and nuanced manner than I first expected.
This final novella falls into a general adventure genre where a group of individuals on the run from one cult-like community/power ends up falling into the protection/influence of another. The story can be separated into three distinct parts: the chase, the rescue/protection, and an ultimate battle. I found the final portion vastly superior to the opening, which really seemed to drag. I’m glad I stuck with it to read completely, but it would’ve been improved shortened.
In the end this should be a straight-forward decision for anyone considering reading Journal of the Plague Year – it’s safe to judge on its marketing appearance. If apocalyptic sci-fi and adventure stories are a genre you generally enjoy then this is worth checking out. If you are looking for a particular kind of emphasis (sci-fi, horror, or adventure) then you may want to just read a particular novella here rather than them all.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Abaddon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Honor Among Thieves, by James S.A. Corey

Honor Among Thieves,
by James S.A. Corey
Star WarsEmpire and Rebellion Book 2
Publisher: LucasBooks
ASIN: B00F1W0DFE
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

Years upon years ago I read several of the early ‘expanded universe’ Star Wars novels, but haven’t picked up many since then. Partially this was from general disappointment and disinterest caused by the prequel films, but it also was a result of simply falling behind on the many publications that came out. For newer novels the characters now had significant history I was unfamiliar with. It just seems daunting to catch up, particularly knowing these shared universe, media-tie-in novels can be hit or miss.

What’s really nice then about this novel is that it is straight up Star Wars enjoyment that can be approached with knowing nothing more than the original movie. Additionally, although this is the second in a series, I haven’t read the first and the novel works perfectly fine as a stand-alone. The novel has few aspirations and the story has little frills. It is a simple action/spy story with a lovable feature character, Han Solo. Constrained by the existing films and novels the threats facing the characters will not appear realistic dangers at any point. Instead, the story here is about watching Han Solo thrive in those conditions that make us love him. The authors (writing under a pen name) put the most interesting touch on the novel in their writing of Solo’s thought processes, taking advantage of this point of time in the grand story as Solo begins to move from selfish, conservative scoundrel to someone who has begun to care about others and reconsider his social positions. Han rings conflicted, but true to our vision of Harrison Ford’s performance and the film directors/screen writers characterization. Finally, the novel also includes an interesting female foil for Han in the form of a character that shares a bit more personality with him than Leia, which works nicely and isn’t overworked. While this novel isn’t aiming to be a significant lot in terms of fiction or even Star Wars fiction, a ‘minor’ tale like this could easily be treated as a throwaway and go south rapidly, but instead this one is kept respectable and entertaining for an easy read for those that like Star Wars and those that particularly would look for a story set in the familiarity of this time period in the mythology.

Three Stars out of Five