Beau Geste by P.C. Wren

Beau Geste When choosing what to read for Karen and Simon’s 1924 Club, I was pleased to find two unread books already on my shelf that were published in the required year: Precious Bane by Mary Webb and Beau Geste by Percival Christopher Wren. I do still want to read Precious Bane at some point (I’m curious to see what I think of it, having read some very mixed reviews), but I decided on Beau Geste instead as it sounded like a book I would be almost certain to enjoy.

Beau Geste is many things: an adventure novel set in North Africa; a tale of the French Foreign Legion; an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit. But if I was asked to describe it in one sentence, I would say that it’s a book for people who like puzzles.

It begins with a particularly fascinating and perplexing puzzle – the discovery by Major Henri de Beaujolais of a fort in the desert manned entirely by dead soldiers, their bodies strategically positioned around the walls and ramparts. Their commander is dead too, with a bayonet through his heart, a revolver in one hand and a letter in the other. Telling this story later to a friend, the Major is still trying to work out what could have happened at the fort and what the sequence of events could have been. His friend, however, is more interested in the contents of the letter in the dead officer’s hand: a letter which leads us to a second puzzle – the disappearance of a precious sapphire known as ‘the Blue Water’.

Before we can solve either of these two mysteries, we need to go back in time and meet the Geste brothers – Michael (nicknamed Beau because he is so good and honourable), his twin, Digby, and the youngest, John. The Gestes are orphans and live with their aunt, Lady Brandon, to whom the Blue Water belongs. All three brothers are present when the jewel disappears and all three decide to take the blame. One by one, they confess to the crime and run away to join the French Foreign Legion. Eventually they find themselves at the Fort of Zinderneuf in French North Africa, where Henri de Beaujolais stumbles upon the scenario described at the beginning of the book.

Most of the novel is narrated by John Geste and through his eyes we are given some fascinating insights into life in the Foreign Legion, where people from a mixture of backgrounds and nationalities live and work together. During their time in the Legion, John and his brothers form some lasting friendships but also witness treachery and betrayal as a group of their fellow soldiers begin to plan a mutiny. And this provides yet another puzzle, as John tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted, who knows about the mutiny and who does not.

This book was, obviously, published in 1924 and it does feel very dated now, particularly in its attitudes towards race and class (it’s definitely not what you could call politically correct). Many of the characters – for example, Hank and Buddy, two American cowboys who befriend the Geste brothers – feel like stereotypes or caricatures. It’s so much fun to read, though, that it’s easy enough to overlook any flaws; the only thing that did spoil the book slightly for me was a long section near the end which takes the story in a different direction – this didn’t really seem necessary and only delayed the resolution of the mystery.

1924-club I enjoyed Beau Geste as much as I expected to and was pleased to find that P.C. Wren wrote more books featuring some of the same characters. I’m looking forward to reading Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal!

Historical Musings #7: Exploring Africa

Historical Musings It’s very easy to find historical fiction set in Europe or America. If you’re looking for a book on the wives of Henry VIII, the Italian Renaissance, the US Civil War or the French court, there are literally hundreds of novels to choose from – but historical fiction set in other parts of the world is not as well represented.

I’m participating in A More Diverse Universe at BookLust this month and will have two books to tell you about soon: the first is Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, set partly in 1930s Peshawar, and the other is Flood of Fire, the final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy set in India and China during the First Opium War. Last year, for the same event, I read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, set in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s, and The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan, a story of Mughal India. It seems, then, that when I do choose to read more diversely within the historical fiction genre, I tend to pick up books set in Asia (particularly in India and China) rather than in other areas of the world.

The Sultans Wife A quick look through my blog archives has shown me that I have read a very small number of historical novels set in Africa over the last few years – and even fewer that were actually written by African authors. Several of Dorothy Dunnett’s novels are set partly in Africa (the journey to Timbuktu in Scales of Gold is particularly fascinating), Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River is set in 19th century Egypt – and of course, there’s Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series which is set in Egypt too. I can also recommend three novels set partly or entirely in Morocco: Linda Holeman’s The Saffron Gate (1930s), Jane Johnson’s The Sultan’s Wife (17th century) and Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account (16th century).

half of a yellow sun If we can include the 1960s as historical fiction, then I have also read The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone) and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which covers the history of Ethiopia from around 1950-1980. I do prefer to stick to Walter Scott’s definition of historical fiction, though, which would rule out anything set less than sixty years before publication! Before I started blogging, I read Roots by Alex Haley and the Ramses series by Christian Jacq, but beyond these I’m struggling to think of anything else.

Can you recommend some good historical fiction novels set in Africa? Which are your favourites?

Scales of Gold by Dorothy Dunnett

This is the fourth book in the House of Niccolò series and my favourite so far. As always, I have done my best to avoid any major spoilers in this post but would still advise newcomers to the series to start at the beginning with Niccolò Rising and work through the other novels in order.

This book begins as Nicholas vander Poele returns to Venice from Cyprus following the events of Race of Scorpions. Facing financial problems and threatened by powerful new business rivals, he soons departs for Africa in search of a new source of gold. With him on the journey are his kinsman Diniz Vasquez, Bel of Cuthilgurdy (Diniz’s mother’s companion), the priest Godscalc who hopes to bring Christianity to the African tribes and reach the fabled lands of Prester John in distant Ethiopia, and Gelis van Borselen whom we first met as a thirteen-year-old girl in Niccolò Rising and who now blames Nicholas for her sister Katelina’s fate.

With the help and guidance of his friend Loppe, a former slave, Nicholas and the others sail down the African coast, a voyage fraught with danger as they find themselves racing against another rival ship. More trouble awaits them when they arrive in Africa – it’s important for those who know the location of the source of gold to keep it a secret and strangers from Europe are treated with suspicion and distrust. And that’s really all I want to say about the plot. Like all of the other novels in this series, Scales of Gold is very complex and intricately plotted, so I won’t go into any more detail but will leave you to enjoy Niccolò’s adventures for yourself.

One of the things I love about the House of Niccolò (and Dunnett’s other series, The Lymond Chronicles) is the range of unusual and exotic locations the books take us to. The period the Niccolò books cover (the second half of the 15th century) is a period I’m very familiar with in terms of English history, having read quite a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV. However, I have to admit that I know almost nothing about what was going on in the rest of the world during the same period and it’s been a delight to be able to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge – some of the places we’ve visited so far in this series include Bruges, Trebizond and Cyprus, all of which have been wonderful to read about. Although parts of Scales of Gold are set in Europe (the first few chapters take us from Venice and the glassworks of Murano to Portugal, Spain and Madeira) a long section of the story takes place in Africa. Historical fiction novels set in Africa are not very common and I loved learning about all the places Nicholas and his companions passed through on their journey, especially when they arrived in Timbuktu, yet another location I knew absolutely nothing about! I had no idea Timbuktu was once such an important centre of trade, culture and learning.

It’s also good to know that as far as the historical detail is concerned, I can trust that it will all be as accurate as Dorothy Dunnett could make it. In each book Nicholas meets a host of real historical figures and becomes embroiled in a series of real historical events, although his actions are never allowed to directly change the course of history. Scales of Gold, like all good historical fiction novels should, leaves me wanting to do some extra research of my own into some of the fascinating topics covered in the book.

Finally, any discussion of this book can’t be complete without mentioning the shocking cliffhanger ending! I was kicking myself because earlier in the story I had suspected something of that sort might happen but then I decided I had misjudged the character concerned and changed my mind – and so I was completely stunned by the revelations at the end, just as Dunnett had intended us to be. Outwitted yet again! Looking through some other reviews of this book, it seems people either love the ending or feel cheated by it. Personally I fall into the first group: I love it when an author surprises me, making me believe first one thing and then another, especially if the clues were there from the beginning. Anyway, I’m glad I already have a copy of The Unicorn Hunt at hand so I don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next and how Nicholas will deal with what he has learned!

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, takes our hero Francis Crawford of Lymond on a journey through North Africa, Greece and Turkey to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say anything about the plot of this novel as I expect most people reading this review will have either already read this book, in which case you won’t need a summary, or if you’re new to the series you’ll need to start with The Game of Kings and presumably won’t want to read too much about this fourth instalment. All I will say is that this book features some of the most heartbreaking moments in the series so far.

I had been looking forward to reading Pawn in Frankincense as the general opinion seems to be that it’s one of the best in the series, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think The Disorderly Knights is still my favourite, but I loved this one too. Like the previous three books it was exciting, emotional and almost impossible to put down. I thought the second half of the book in particular was stunning and the last few chapters were so powerful I’m sure I’ll never forget them; the chess game in the seraglio was one of the most tense, nerve-wracking scenes I can ever remember reading. If you’ve read the book I won’t need to explain why, and if you haven’t then I won’t go into any more detail as I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. I defy anybody to read it without crying or at least being close to tears!

I missed some of the characters from the previous books who didn’t appear in this one, though I do love Archie Abernethy and by the end of the story I loved Philippa too – I hadn’t liked her before but she really came into her own in this book. I also enjoyed learning about the Ottoman Empire, a world I had previously known very little about – I was maybe slightly overwhelmed by all the detailed descriptions at times but they certainly brought each location to life for me. Due to the nature of the story, with Lymond and his companions sailing through the Mediterranean to Constantinople (Istanbul), we are given vivid descriptions of all the places they visit on the way: Algiers, Djerba, Zakynthos, Thessalonika and others, none of which are places that I’ve read much about before.

I’ve started reading The Ringed Castle now and I’m already feeling sad that after I’ve finished it there’ll only be one more book left!