A review of Alex Roddie’s historical fiction novel The Atholl Expedition
Following on from his debut novel Alex Roddie has once again produced an entertaining work of historical fiction. The Atholl Expedition, his new novel, is a short, pacy book centred around two contrasting ventures into the hills and glens of Atholl and Mar in the eastern Highlands of Scotland. Professor Forbes, an ailing glaciologist troubled by his professional past is seeking Scotland’s last glacier, rumoured to exist high in a Cairngorm coire, in the hope this discovery might rekindle his career. Meanwhile, on the same estate, Prince Albert, with the blessing of Queen Victoria, sets out with the Duke of Atholl to stalk a legendary deer which will likely lead him and his retainers into those same coires.
The novel, a fictional history featuring a mixed cast of real and imaginary people, weaves together these two stories as the heroes and villains clash over access rights and battle against the elements as a heavy storm sweeps over the hills forcing everyone to reassess their priorities and prejudices.
In The Atholl Expedition, Alex brings the Victorian world of deer forests and vast sporting estates to life, and so constructs a fascinating context in which to tell his story. The book makes for an exhilarating read, pitting folktales and fairy stories against enlightenment science, whilst mixing in a bitter and emerging social conflict between the landowning elite, their loyal servants, and those wishing for freer access to the hills for both leisure and research.
The cast of characters is wonderful. Notable is the feisty portrayal of Queen Victoria, who weighs into matters both practical and personal, and the young apprentice forrester Duncan McAdie through whose eyes we see the first glimpses of a challenge to the entrenched social structure and attitude towards the hills.
As with his first book, Alex’s description of the place is masterful. The hills of the Mounth and the Cairngorms come alive as the characters make their way into the heart of the range. Geography and geology play an important role in the story but the descriptions are far from dry or utilitarian. Alex’s use of the wild places of Glen Tilt, the Tarf, Glen Dee and the coires of Braeriach will bring a smile to anyone familiar with these iconic areas. He has a great way with capturing the feel and atmosphere of a place with deft use of the language, rarely venturing into cliche.
The set pieces also work well, fast paced and full of drama they propel the story towards its conclusion. Unlike in The Only Genuine Jones, I felt that the drama was more believable here, and the fantastical element came about organically through the fears of the characters themselves and the inter-mingling of folklore and superstitions.
I enjoyed the conflict that the young forrester Duncan McAdie felt between familial duty and the urge to seek an escape from the hard life of the glens. Forbes too is a brilliant character, motivated by personal feelings, he also starts to realise a different sort of affinity with the mountains. The realisation of his deeper purpose forms much of the more philosophical aspect of the book. I enjoyed the scientist responding to personal feelings engendered by wildness such as in this wonderful passage:
“Although his scientific training demanded scepticism, Forbes wanted to believe in it. A more primitive part of him, his soul perhaps, felt the thrill of the wild deep in his bones, relished the cutting wind on the heights, responded in some primeval way to the roar of a stag. That part of his mind could be moved to tears by a sunset.”
Whilst the philosophy is strong I found the pivotal shift around which this new series shifts to be a little less dramatic than that which underpinned The Only Genuine Jones. However I trust Alex to develop this world further. It should be noted that this is only the first book in a new series of novels Alex is writing, Alpine Dawn, which will explore the early years of Victorian mountaineering and the ongoing social upheavals as ancient ways of life begin to change. I look forward to seeing how the story develops and how the world is further fleshed out with more locations, characters and adventures.
I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in the Cairngorms or the Victorian world. It is a short book but serves as a bold introduction to this new world Alex is creating. At times the stuffiness of Victorian dialogue can make it feel a little forced but the action is pacy, the plot exciting and the range of characters - from the dastardly to the heroic - make for a gripping tale of adventure set in a familiar but refreshingly different world.
I bought The Atholl Expedition for Kindle, but a paperback is now also available. For full details of how to buy please visit The Atholl Expedition’s page over on Alex Roddie’s website.