Alex Roddie’s new novel is a whirlwind ride through an alternate vision of late-Victorian mountaineering. Sweeping across Europe from the sooty streets of Cambridge to the glistening great north faces of the Alps it is a tightly-plotted thriller revolving around a fierce climbing rivalry and the dawn of a new era as innovative technical equipment opens up the possibility of bold new routes.
Following the ups and downs of O. G. Jones, a gifted English climber at the forefront of the Progressive Mountaineering movement, the novel imagines a climbing world transformed by ice axes and crampons embraced many years earlier than in reality. This turns a new wave of mountain exploration into a bitter, dangerous battle between several young climbers eager to push the sport to new heights.
The book has a number of strengths and I particularly enjoyed the brisk plot, the cast of historical characters and the fascinating, flawed hero, O.G. Jones. Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of British mountaineering will recognise the names Collie, Raeburn and Crowley to name but three. The settings too will be familiar to anyone with a love of the mountains: the Clachaig in Glencoe and Wastdale Head in the Lake District being popular places in mountain lore then and now.
The descriptions of the locations and the feel for the climbing are particularly strong elements of the book. Alex brings to life the Victorian climbing establishment, filling the corners of the Clachaig with pipe smoke and laughter, and his descriptions of climbing in Scotland in particular convey an affinity with the high, wild places of the Highlands. One of my favourite passages from early on in the book reads:
“Stars burned steady out of the cold depths. This felt like a primal place where humans were not welcome; it belonged to atoms and frost, the slow turn of the heavens, and the ravages of geological time.”
The technical writing never gets bogged down in excessive detail, but rather dangles the reader in amongst the rock and ice of some iconic routes.
In the early chapters I struggled to get to grips with the female characters. They seemed at first vapid and inconsistent but as the story developed and the characters filled out these concerns were largely allayed. The strongest characterisations came towards the end of the book and the denouement was genuinely emotional. Whilst one or two of the early dramatic set pieces suffered slightly from excessive artistic license, I thought that the climax had a feel of true mountain mythos.
There are a couple of pleasing twists as the novel heads to its dramatic conclusion with Alex striking a good balance between moving the plot on and dwelling on the relationship between man and mountain and what risk means in such an uncaring and fatalistic environment. The final third of the book provides a fitting, thrilling denouement, uniting all the elements: believable characters, iconic settings and deft descriptions of climbers and their feelings out on the lonely rock-faces.
This is a confident piece of work that provides a thoroughly entertaining read from start to finish. With clear nods towards the likes of Harrer this is a book that will appeal to climbers and mountaineers but one that will also sit well with those interested in historical fiction and the quirks of Victorian society. I look forward to reading more from Alex.
For more information, including links to purchase the book at Amazon and elsewhere, Alex Roddie has his own webpage for the book.
Image: The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau by Eduard Spelterini [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons