I am bringing you another one of the selections from Rosie’s Book Review Team, and one that I chose because I had read a couple of books by our dear friend, talented blogger, and writer Mary Smith (sorely missed) set in Afghanistan, and I wondered how her point of view would compare with that of a former Canadian army officer who had fought there. I don’t think I had other wars in mind at the time, but things have moved on since I selected the novel, as we all know, and now it feels strangely apt and many of the reflections contained in the book hit the right spot for me.
It is so weird to think that many of the things I read about in dystopic books seem to be coming true at the moment… I guess we read these books thinking that the stories they contain might happen at some point, but I don’t think most of us expected it to be during our lifetime. And now we have global warming peaking up, pandemics running riot, and war in Europe (and threats of WWIII). Let’s hope all these books are wrong.
Sorry for wandering off on a tangent. Here comes the review.
An Idle King by Andrew Paterson
Imagine fighting a war no one wanted you to win. Imagine never wanting to leave.
Afghanistan has been abandoned by the international community. Left to the ravages of warlords and mercenaries, vying for dominance over the new Silk Road.
For Callum King, a former officer who was discharged from the army, his past remains very much tied to that forsaken place. When he receives an offer from one of his former soldiers to work for a private security company in Kandahar, the contract represents an opportunity to make amends for his failures as a soldier and a leader. But the cost would mean walking away from a family that he’s tried so hard to put back together.
An Idle King is a modern retelling of an ancient story about lost soldiers who can never go home.
Andrew Paterson is a former infantry officer who served with the Canadian Army and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a Platoon Commander. He now lives in Ottawa with his wife and two sons.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
I didn’t know the author before reading this book, and there isn’t much information available about him, other than the brief biography included above, which mentions his army experience that comes through loud and clear in the novel.
The plot can be summed up quite briefly: Callum King, a former army officer who was discharged in not very good terms, is struggling to find his place in civilian life. He is running a group of veterans and is back with his family, but there is something amiss. When he hears about one of his soldiers —the one involved in the incident that led to his discharge— he sees it as an opportunity to make amends, despite his family’s reluctance to his getting involved. So, he ends up back in Afghanistan in what proves to be the mission from hell (or close enough).
Although the main character and most of the members of his team will be recognisable to readers of war novels or people who watch war films, the story is not the typical one of heroism under fire and all resourceful soldiers who can deal with anything (although there is something of the brothers-in-arms at play). Regret, the difficulty in fitting back into life as usual, finding one’s place and identity in a changed and changing world, learning how to communicate with family members, discovering the narratives and stories that keep us anchored in the past and prevent us from moving on… It is a book that is not afraid to look into the depths of its protagonist’s soul and mind, to go digging even further, and it doesn’t pander to anybody’s expectations.
Callum is a complex character who tries his hardest to be true to himself and to not disappoint everybody else’s expectations (those of his father, his wife, his son, his friends, and team members, his employers, and society at large), but he has difficulty understanding himself and getting his priorities in order. It is difficult to identify fully with him because most of us have never experienced anything even remotely like what he went through, but the author shares with us his thoughts and point of view (although narrated in the third person, the use of the present makes us feel as if we were there), and we also get to share in some of the other characters’ thoughts and experiences, and that gives us a wider perspective of the situation while we can also appreciate how he comes across to others.
The rest of the characters are quite varied: the somewhat naïve but eager and less-experienced soldier; a non-military medic who ends up in a very tricky situation; a couple of soldiers who bail off as soon as they have any misgivings about the whole thing; a soldier more interested in his boxing career than in anything else, a fabulous huge and fatherly Maori from New Zealand whom I loved; as I did Murph, a female soldier who becomes Callum’s right hand and is resourceful as can be; a man that has lost his way but still retains his loyalty; a local with inside knowledge caught in the middle of an impossible situation… Oh, and the client is disagreeable, unbearable, demanding…. They also come across some fascinating individuals, but I won’t try and mention every single one of them. Let me just say that it feels at times as if we were on a mythical trip (The Odyssey perhaps), where we go from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the magical to the most abject carnage, and from naked realism to the heights of surrealism.
I have mentioned the point of view, and the author writes beautifully (some of the scenes are indeed breathtaking) and vividly about landscapes, people, and situations, some real and some hallucinatory or dreamlike. The pace is not constant, and there are slow and contemplative moments, but also action scenes that rump up the rhythm and the tension. Although this is not a violence-fest or a narration overflowing with senseless gore, there are very violent scenes, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people looking for a peaceful and relaxing read. This is, after all, a book set in a territory where war and armed conflict have become the norm, whatever the official status of the nation might be at any given time. The novel is peppered with military terms, some that I was vaguely familiar with, but others I didn’t really know (although that didn’t prevent me from following the story or being gripped by it). As I read an ARC copy, I wasn’t sure if later editions might include a glossary of terms, which readers not versed on the subject would appreciate.
The ending is bitter-sweet, because although it is not a happy ending (it wouldn’t be befitting to the book genre), I found the resolution satisfying, at least for the main character, and I am happy to confess that I felt very moved by the two last conversations in the book, where we see several generations of men of the same family, who have always cared about each other but never managed to talk in a meaningful way, finally communicating their true feelings for each other.
There are many quotable fragments I would like to share, but I will choose only a few, and you can always check a sample from your favourite online store if you wish to check it in more detail.
“Your people have been coming here for thousands of years trying to conquer our country. You might as well throw sand against a mountain.”
“Nation-states are finished. The future is the market-state. Instead of politicians and parliaments, now the world’s run by hedge fund managers and venture capitalists.”
“You are fragmented and lacking certainty. You will not be able to make any decisions that way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That is your problem, my friend. Like most people, you spend your life asking the wrong question.”
“Which is what?”
“What is my purpose?”
“Then what’s the right question?”
“What is our purpose?”
“There`s so much he could say, so much he should say. Why do the truest things always remain unsaid?”
I recommend this novel, which reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and even more of Apocalypse Now, to anybody who doesn’t mind harsh narratives that question the nature of reality, identity, war, and our own selves. Right now, when the future appears particularly uncertain, it seems more relevant than ever. A novel that will leave readers with more questions than answers, and one they will keep thinking about for a long time.
Thanks to the author and to Rosie and her team for their support, thanks to all of you for reading, sharing, commenting, and liking, and let’s hope things get better. Keep smiling, keep safe, and keep positive.