Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: The Afrika Reich: A Novel, by Guy Saville

New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2013, pp. 400.

In The Afrika Reich, hard-bitten British mercenary Burton Cole, despite having settled down to a peaceful existence with a woman he loves, is enlisted by government types to lead a commando team on a secret, high-risk mission to assassinate a blood-soeaked foreign politican.

Things don't go as planned (is it blunder, or treachery?) and the members of the team end up on the run for their lives.

As this description of the story suggests Afrika Reich by and large reads like a genre action movie, down to the plenitude of enemies unable to shoot straight so that they can be conveniently mowed down, the narrow escapes of our outnumbered heroes, and the twists along the way.

Of course, there is more than one way to tell this kind of tale, with the type perhaps clarified by a comparison of Saville's novel with the commando novels of Matthew Reilly. Reilly's marathon fifty-page action scenes, for all their violence, make their principal impression with their spectacular scale and intricacy, their flashy technology, their colossal pyrotechnics, and what in a film would be called their stunts. Thinking of them I recall scenes depicting such things as speeding hovercraft, flying Maghooks, trucks and buses jumping the void--and Scarecrow's escape aboard a fighter jet from a sinking aircraft carrier.

With Saville one gets shorter and more grounded (if still lengthy and implausible) firefights, and it is the grit and the gore I remember.

To put it another way, where Reilly offers the $200 million summer blockbuster, Saville serves up the blood-and-guts, guns-and-knives B-movie (if a handsomely budgeted one). Less Michael Bay and more The Expendables--with some rather soap operatic plot twists (there is, of course, a connection between hero and villain) thrown in.

Guy Saville's handling of this material is suitably robust. However, what makes the novel different is the fact that this generic scenario is set in a different context from the usual--a world where Nazi Germany won World War II.

Of course, that might sound fairly generic in itself. There is no more common alternate history premise--as I have written myself. However, the tale of Axis victory is, at least in English, usually set somewhere closer to home. We are much more likely to get, for example, a portrait of London under the governance of a gauleiter.

Saville, however, assumes a Britain which, following disaster at Dunkirk, made peace with the Nazis, clearing the way for German triumph in Eastern Europe and dominion from the Urals to the Atlantic, but a redivision of Africa that ends with Germany the dominant power on that continent as well, paving the way for the extermination of the inhabitants and the import of colonists and Slavic slave labor in their place (one genocide exploited on behalf of another).

These points are central to the plot. The polician Burton is sent to kill (a decade after Dunkirk) is Walter Hochburg, Nazi Governor General of the Kongo. It is in his headquarters that the initial assassination is conducted, and the subsequent chase extends from Sudan to Angola. As has increasingly been the case with novels of the type, the essentials of the counterfactual are plausible, and Saville devotes a good deal of effort in imagining the resulting world, as seen in the accompanying map of Africa, with a wealth of small details carefully woven into the events that lend it a good deal of verisimilitude.

Still, in the end the horrific altered world (however extensively developed and well crafted) is less the subject of the book than a backdrop to the running and gunning. What I know of the reviews of the sequel, The Madagaskar Plan, suggests that it is much the same--but expect to get my two cents in here when I get around to reading it.

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