This week I’ve featured a number of reviews by indie authors I enjoyed over the holiday. This is a focus I’d like to start honing on this blog, and it’s been a way to test the waters. The intent is to highlight some of the wonderful work being put out by writers who simply love to write, but don’t want to get embroiled in the bureaucracy of the Big 6. There’s some fantastic work out there that isn’t being seen, and I hope to be able to bring some of it to light, in my own small way.
So why feature Kevin J Anderson, the of Star Wars, Dune, and author of more than 100 published works?
Well, he’s certainly not indie, but he’s a proponent for the eBook format. Anderson has most of his works available in eBook format, many of them put through his own e-publishing company Wordfire Press–which also publishes work by Neal Peart (of Rush), Frank and Brian Herbert, and Rebecca Moesta.
But on to the review.
I can sum up this book in one word: fun. Make that two words: incredibly fun. Really, in all seriousness, this is a great book, and I’d highly recommend it. That said, it’s a book of particular taste, and it won’t be for everyone. So take my review with a grain of salt–but at the very least, I’d urge you to try a few chapters.
The premise is simple: Jules Verne, author of such classics as 20,000 Legues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth and basically the inventor of the science fiction genre, is a struggling writer who longs for excitement but can’t seem to leave the confines of his dull life. Meanwhile, his childhood friend Andre Nemo is catapulted from adventure to adventure. Nemo is everything that Verne is not, and the best our struggling author can do is live vicariously through his friend.
You can see where this is going. Nemo corresponds with Verne throughout his adventures, and eventually Verne transcribes them into story, gaining considerable fame for it. He achieves his dream of becoming a successful writer–but at what cost? Are the stories even his? This is a question that’s at the heart of the book, and though it’s never answered, it begs to be asked with each page–and not just within the narrative. I think it’s no mistake that Anderson chose this conceit while using the real Verne’s stories as a structure–the entire book becomes a commentary on the fleeting originality of literature (or lack thereof), the ownership of ideas, and the ethical uses of those ideas if they’re borrowed.
Anderson could be asked to answer those questions as well, of course, and I wouldn’t think to answer for him. It’s all very meta, and I think it’s enough to let the questions hang. What I can say is that, despite what some reviewers have said, this book is by no means uninspired, derivative, or simply reinterpreted. On the contrary, the way Anderson weaves Nemo’s life with Verne’s is well done, and makes for a compelling narrative. Even if you don’t want to read it through a glass of literary criticism, it’s a rousing adventure tale, and quite simply a love letter to the sci-fi genre.
The book is divided into several parts, each referring to a different story written by Verne, and in which Nemo shares the adventure that supposedly inspired that work. Interspersed with Nemo’s exploits is a fictionalized biography of Verne himself, as he struggles with home life, direction in his career, and his disappointments in love and writing. While Verne’s story is interesting, it’s definitely Nemo that steal the show, and his incredible escapades set up a stark contrast to Verne’s dull life. And herein lies the main theme of the book (and one so pertinent to writers of any genre): is it better to experience your life, or to live through other people’s experiences?
The meat of this book, as said, is taken up with Nemo’s adventures. He find himself battling pirates, gets shipwrecked on a mysterious island, journeys to the centre of the Earth, fights in the Crimean War, builds a submarine…and more. It’s simple, unabashed fun. If you’ve read any of Verne’s stories, you’ll probably love this book (though ‘traditionalists’ might wonder at some of the liberties taken). Even if you’re not–as I admittedly am not–each adventure is exciting and engrossing. Anderson’s style is also languid and easy to become immersed in, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to read 50-100 pages without lifting my head from the book. If I had one complaint about the action in this story, it’s that there’s almost too much of it; some of the adventures aren’t explored as much as I would have liked, and so much was crammed into the book that it was a strain to suspend my disbelief. That said, I wouldn’t change it for the world–it’s not supposed to be believable, it’s adventure.
That reflects what I like most about this book. While I’m not accustomed to Verne’s writing (having only read Journey), I’m familiar with other writing from the era, and can say that Anderson successfully captures the ‘voice’ of late 19 Century Romantic literature. The language isn’t as stilted and formal, but the feel behind it is there. I found the passages with Nemo traveling across Africa in a balloon to be most effective in putting forth the sense of exploration and curiosity that filled Europe at the time. Everything outside the Continent was curious and exotic, and people were eager to swallow up everything they could; the writing of the era reflected that, and it’s a testament to Anderson’s writing that he’s able to do so as well, even after having learned so much in the past hundred and fifty years.
Nemo has a great character arc, and is fully fleshed out. He’s easy to sympathize with, and the reader immediately connects with his curious nature and wish to explore the world. His story was extremely satisfying, and I found myself hanging on every word. By contrast, Verne’s character is a bit dull and flat; he comes off more as a complainer than anything, and I honestly didn’t find him very interesting. I didn’t need to follow his story, as I could guess where he’s end up almost from the beginning (and indeed, a prologue shows us just that). I was really only interested in his story inasmuch as I wanted to see what he would do with Nemo’s.
But in Anderson’s defense, I think this bland portrayal of Jules Verne is completely intentional. Set against the themes of the book, it makes sense for him to be underdeveloped and uninteresting–the whole point of this story is that he lives vicariously through Nemo, and doesn’t have much personality of his own. Perhaps it’s a stretch on my part, but I could see this as being a further commentary; Verne is only interesting through the filter of Nemo–that is, the storyteller is only as good as the story.
The only real complaint besides that noted above is that the book is a bit repetitive. There’s a common trick of writers that do series or sequels, in that the first pages of a book give a brief summary of the last one, to either remind the reader or help “catch up” someone who hasn’t read what’s come before. This is unnecessary for a single book like this, but Anderson does it rather often. I found myself regularly reminded of what happened in the last chapter or even several pages back–and for someone who tends to read in large chunks, I found it a bit wearing.
But ultimately, as if it weren’t obvious, I loved this story. I try my best to be objective when I review a book, because no piece of literature is absolutely perfect–but I enjoyed Captain Nemo so much that I’m finding it difficult to come up with things that didn’t work. That’s not to say it should be on the syllabus next to Shakespeare, Hemmingway and Verne, but in my own and honest opinion, it’s very simply a Damn Good Book.