In the early 20th Century, the idea of human flight was only starting to make its way from the realms of fantasy to a visible reality. Some of the first flights were extremely sought after: performed in arenas in front of thousands of guests, in obvious immediate danger from the frail machines and who saw the events unfolding in front of them as a mixture of miraculous and somewhat ridiculous. Some were still trying to work out the ‘trick’. It’s these early days on which THE ASTONISHED EARTH builds.
The core characters are legends of flying in Europe: Fokker, Garros, Strange, Immelmann, Boelcke, Hawker, and Richthofen (the Wright brothers get a look in, too, albeit a brief one). That’s an all encompassing concept, as most of those figures would be worthy of a small book in their own right. But what author Christopher Beck brings to the text–with impressive strength–is a really strong, coherent narrative that pulls the book through, while loosely linking the characters and their development.
While Fokker is still contemplating his role in the war, as a Dutchman living in Germany, he has the opportunity to run from his growing factory in fear of developing hostilities. At the same time, Richthofen is a highly successful cavalry soldier, yet to be transferred into the fighter pilot role that would make him famous as the devastating Red Baron.
It’s the detail here that captivates. These events happened, of course, but the sheer lucidity of the characters and their experiences delve heavily into emotion, texture and thought processes, and most of those are the realm of fantasy. The scent of vapor and the pride of men who lived 100 years ago shines from these pages. There’s a simple valor to the World War I explorations, but also a sense of disbelieving wonder, from those flying off towards battle, to those seeking to get the very first flights just a few feet of the ground, and drunken navigators scared to leave earth.
Naturally, it’s highly educational on some of the specifics of World War I and early flight that have, in all probability, passed by most non-historians. Those range from the very role of early planes to the horse regiments and attacking strategies of the German forces. These areas are portrayed spectacularly lucidly: there are moments of seriousness, pulling rank, severe danger and the kind of letting loose with wine and luxurious seafood that hints at the chance of no tomorrow.
Beck’s writing is complex and slow moving. Largely, that’s a good thing, though it may not appeal to those who are looking for a more frantic or casual read. What it does spectacularly well is bring his scenes to life; deliver technical concepts in a way that’s easy to relate to, and uncover an era whose last protagonists have only relatively recently passed on.
THE ASTONISHED EARTH is fact-based fiction that takes on the events of the early 20th Century. Its emotionally-laden, transformatively realistic, heavily researched, and almost nonchalantly transporting. If historical fiction with a strong factual base is your thing, they don’t come much better than this.
~James Hendicott for IndieReader