Low Res Scan: Black Hand Gang, Pat Kelleher, 2010; The Ironclad Prophecy, Pat Kelleher, 2011; The Alleyman, Pat Kelleher, 2011.
Don’t bother reading Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World trilogy.
Why shouldn’t you read it?
For exactly the same reason you shouldn’t watch one of those well-done science fiction tv series that lasted a season. You get enraptured with the mysteries, the struggles of the characters, and, as you get near the end, you realize, with a sinking feeling, that there is no way all the conflicts and plots and subplots are going to be wrapped up, the mysteries solved.
Naturally, I was attracted to this series. A combination of science fiction and World War One would be combines two of my interests. And the cover art is gorgeous enough that I picked these three books up in paperbacks.
The story has the Pennine Fusiliers being swept into an alien world at the beginning of an assault on German positions on November 1, 2016 during the last stages of the Battle of the Somme.
The force behind all this is revealed in the first couple of chapters: Lieutenant Gilbert Jeffries, a murderous occultist who has nudged the battle into completing an occult ritual. Those who recognize the word “Croatoan” may anticipate some of the story’s elements. Jeffries is based, according to Kelleher’s clever promotional site for the trilogy, on non-occultist Percy Toplis aka the Monocled Mutineer.
Kelleher’s conceit, established at the beginning on the “Acknowledgements” page, is that this is a story reconstructed from films, journals, notes, military records, and personal items recovered through the years giving lie to the official story that the Pennine Fusiliers vanished when a German mine was exploded. A central text is The Harcourt Crater: Hoax or Horror?
The world the Fusiliers find across an unknown vastness of space has elements of H. Rider Haggard as they get involved with alien power struggles and are used by one faction, Edgar Rice Burroughs in its adventure and aliens (but decidedly no alien love interest or princess), and nasty alien flora and fauna a bit reminiscent of Harry Harrison’s Deathworld.
Those aliens, dubbed “Chats” (after the British Tommy slang for “lice” – the books all have extensive glossaries of World War One British Army slang and terms), keep human tribes enslaved and communicate via scents. “The Aromatic Archive of the Fragrant Library” plays a role in the story.
There is large cast of characters (with a dramatis personae list at the beginning of each book) swept onto that alien world besides British infantrymen: a tank crew and their tank, a film crew, and three female nurses.
The characters will struggle with alien assaults, the vicious local lifeforms, madness, and a mutiny. There will be ruins of an older civilization on that world and, of course, the Chat religion has ties to Jeffries’ occult interests. And that tank crew, tripping on the fumes of a petrol substitute distilled from alien plants, decide to build themselves an empire on an alien world.
The main character is Thomas Atkins (yes, he does get a lot of ribbing for a name out of the Kipling poem), and we come to care about him as he writes guilt-ridden letters home to a girl he got pregnant – and who is the fiancé of his brother who is now missing in action. There’s also Second Lieutenant Everson who finds himself burdened with keeping his men alive, supplied, and trying to maintain their morale when return home is very uncertain. There’s also an heroic chaplain.
I kept reading with interest to the very end, which finishes with a very small sense of closure and the words “THE END?”. Of course, all those records Kelleher “bases” his story on imply that, perhaps, some of the soldiers made it back home even if in secret and maybe not close to 1916.
My impression is Kelleher was willing to write more books in the series, but the publisher didn’t want to. Again, it’s rather like a tv show not continuing because of ratings or the unwillingness of a producer.
Abaddon Books has put out an omnibus, in paperback and kindle editions, of the books with some bonus material. I suspect, though I don’t know, that is material from the No Man’s World website.
Maybe if enough people buy it, the story will continue. I have my doubts though.
Obviously, this series would fit in with my Fantastic Fiction in World War One series, but that would require going through more than 900 pages of text. I did not spot any obvious historical errors. The only flaw that comes to mind is that the tank seems a bit more reliable and fast than tanks really were at the beginning of their deployment.