We interviewed James Holland a few weeks ago in a Q & A post, where he mentioned his upcoming historical fiction project - a series of novels set in the Second World War and featuring infantryman Jack Tanner. James very kindly arranged to have a review copy of the first book in the series, The Odin Mission sent to the Osprey blog - and I have just finished reading it.
Now I will be the first person to admit that I am probably not the most objective of reviewers of historical fiction, because to put it simply I love the genre. From Sharpe to Hornblower, Conn Iggulden's stuff and of course Patrick O'Brian, I have read it all, enjoyed it, and quite often re-read it whilst on a long train journey / flight etc.
And James Holland has slipped quite comfortably into the company of the greats like Bernard Cornwell. His main character, Jack Tanner, is like a Second World War version of Sharpe.
Tanner is dropped into the chaos of the German invasion of Norway in 1940. Already an experienced soldier, having served in India, Tanner takes charge of a small group of poorly trained, inexperienced and poorly equipped British soldiers caught up in the chaotic Allied retreat. Along the way Tanner and his men get sent on a reconnaissance mission and get separated from their retreating armies. Eventually they are forced to cross enemy territory whilst protecting a civilian whose knowledge could change the course of war. With the whole German army on his tail. Of course.
The first thing that struck me about this book was how well James Holland portrayed the sense of chaos and bewilderment which surrounded the British forces in Norway. Hopelessly overwhelmed by the brute force of the Blitzkrieg, and the superior numbers and equipment of the German forces the Allies fall back, regroup, and are once again crushed and sent retreating. Throughout the book there are little touches which reinforce the sense of inferiority. The aircraft are always faster. The Germans have better uniforms and equipment. The British move around on foot, on bikes or in stolen civilian cars. The Germans have tanks, M/T, aircraft and staff cars. At one point a British commanding officer notes that they know exactly when the German attack will come - as they always attack first thing in the morning. But they are still unable to slow or stop the German advance. In the very last couple of pages of the book Jack Tanner comes face to face with the biggest tank he has ever seen. He destroys it, but the giant metallic monster does not bode well for the future of the Allied war effort.
Throughout the novel the attention to detail iks second to none. Working for Osprey I am always interested in seeing how weaponry, and in particular uniforms are described in historical fiction. Quite often there tends to be more of the 'fiction' in the description of troops or uniforms, but I am glad to say that The Odin Mission is thoroughly researched. From descriptions of the edelweiss on mountain troops' caps through to the new British uniforms, (which are not camouflaged or waterproof|), James Holland pays close attention to it all. I would like to think that this accuracy is down to James' use of the Osprey Campaign title on the invasion of Norway - which he admitted to finding invaluable. But I feel that a huge amount of research went into this book - Holland was a historian before he was a novelist and this shows in his quest for accuracy.
All in all I thought The Odin Mission was a great read, I enjoyed it immensely. James Holland is a great story teller - and this is a terrific rip-roaring adventure. But, it is the little touches which set it apart both as a book, and within its own (very congested) genre. Flashes of insight into the lives of soldiers in the early, terrible days of the war give this story a human flavour, and it stands as a memorial to all those soldiers who lost their lives in the disaster of Norway.
The Odin Mission ends with a nod towards Bernard Cornwell's habit of finishing his Sharpe novels by saying that Sharpe, Harper and the Chosen men will be back. In this case it is Tanner and his sergeant who will be returning, and I for one can't wait!
The Odin Mission by James Holland is out now in Hardback for £12.99 and is published by Bantam Press. It is available to buy at http://www.rbooks.co.uk"
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