No sacred cows

War and monsters: my new favourite author

28 July 2018

9:00 AM

28 July 2018

9:00 AM

If you’re looking for a good beach read this summer, look no further. A few weeks ago I was reading the blog of an American anthropologist called Gregory Cochran when I came across a reference to an author I’d never heard of: Taylor Anderson. According to Cochran, he’d written science-fiction books about an American destroyer that heads into a storm to escape a Japanese battleship during the second world war and ends up in an alternative universe.

It looks a lot like our world, except there was no massive asteroid strike 66 million years ago, which means no mass extinction event. As a result, dinosaurs still roam the Earth and the species at the top of the food chain are vicious, lizard-like creatures called the Grik that look a lot like velociraptors. When the Americans emerge on the other side of the storm, they’re immediately confronted by a sea battle between the Grik and the Lemurians, a more gentle, human-like species descended from the lemurs of Madagascar. They’re not forced to choose sides, but the captain of the ship, Matt Reddy, cannot bear to watch the slaughter and decides to engage the Grik force. Thus begins an epic adventure.

Cochran complains that Anderson gets one of the geological details wrong. To provide their ship with fuel, the destroyermen build an oil refinery in Balikpapan in Borneo. But according to Cochran, it’s a well-known fact that Balikpapan oil is so light it could be used in the second world war without needing to be refined. ‘After a mistake like that, I could take no pleasure in Anderson’s series,’ Cochran says. Although he does add: ‘At least, not after the first two or three books.’

Well, I’m midway through the fifth book in the saga — Rising Tides — and it’s still providing me with a great deal of pleasure. I’m a fan of science fiction, historical fiction and military history, but I don’t think you have to be in the sweet spot of that Venn diagram to enjoy this series. Anderson is a gunmaker and ballistics expert, so there’s no shortage of technical arcana. He’s also a historian with a particular interest in ‘four-stackers’ — destroyers built during the first world war but pressed into service at the beginning of the second. The ship at the centre of the story, USS Walker, is a four-stacker and every inch of it is described in loving detail, from the boilers to the bridge.

But what makes the Destroyer-men series so much fun is the relentless action. I’m a fan of the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian, but always felt that O’Brian is a bit parsimonious when it comes to the action sequences. Don’t get me wrong. They’re beautifully rendered and absolutely gripping, but there just aren’t enough of them. Sometimes you have to slog through more than 100 pages of exposition before Captain Jack fires a broadside at a French warship. Too often, it feels like you have to earn those moments. They’re like Hornblower’s adventures re-written by the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships.

Not so with Anderson’s books. No sooner has Captain Reddy survived an encounter with a squadron of Grik ships than USS Walker is being chased through the South China Sea by a ‘mountain fish’, a prehistoric monster that’s about ten times larger than a whale. Then, after making anchorage in the Philippines, Reddy and his crew are having to face down yet another species of terrifying predators. Make no mistake, this is a hostile universe and if the destroyermen let down their guard for one second they’ll become ‘prey’ — the Grik’s name for every species below them in the food chain.

I’ve been doing most of my reading on the Kindle app on my iPhone, but I’ve also discovered you can download the talking-book versions from Audible for less than £4. That means I don’t have to tear myself away from Captain Reddy’s adventures when I do the gardening or go for a run — I can just pop on my headphones. The voice actor who narrates the stories is called William Dufris and he is a master of his art. His deep, melodious voice lulls me to sleep every night.

I swore to myself that I’d get through the Palliser novels this summer, but after reading and enjoying the first one I decided to take a break. Now I fear I won’t get to number two until I’ve read all 13 books in the Destroyermen saga. For sheer visceral excitement, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

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