book review the atholl expedition by alex roddie

Wed, Dec 25, 2013

Ever since I read The Only Genuine Jones I’ve been waiting for Alex Roddie’s next novel, the first in the Alpine Dawn series, that’s set in the heart of the Cairngorms. The other day I got hold of it on Kindle and devoured it in a single sitting.

The Atholl Expedition is set around Blair Atholl and the southern Cairngorms, with the expedition taking place into an area I love dearly, the great corries and crags of Braeriach in search of, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. Don’t be put off by the mountaineering connotations. This is not a mountaineering book. It’s a damn good story with fantastic characters set in fantastic scenery. It’s a book for anyone who loves wild places and cracking good yarns.

The book is ‘speculative’ historical fiction, in the same mould as TOGJ, in that famous characters and events of the times, in this case the late 1840s, are thrown together, their scenes set and their fictional adventures extrapolated to produce a riveting story, with the strands of Cairngorm folkore drifting like waifs through the narrative. It weaves together story lines of the main characters, with lots of conflict and resolution, a surprising twist in the tale and all told in Alex’s wonderfully fluid style.

The conflict starts early in the story and I was hooked straight away. How on earth is he going to resolve this one? Now that’s a real humdinger. I could feel the pull on the character. Ambition or loyalty? It’s a tricky one and from then on I couldn’t put the book down.

It was nice to see some Gaelic and it would be nice to see some more in the next novels, if the series unfolds as I think it may, in terms of mountain guides. There was more German than Gaelic, perhaps as the main character speaks it but is he the main character? A tiny wee niggle but there you go. I think a well crafted phrase helps bind a character to his environment or hints at his nature. In the story, Alec is definitely “stuth a’ghlinne”.

There are some wonderfully philosophical gems which are a hallmark of Alex’s writing, such as the evocative summit bivvy during the chase, in the heart of the wild Cairngorm landscape. One of the main characters is on the cusp of a life changing event and under a starry sky as the rest of the party sleep, says to himself:

‘I will miss these lonely nights on the mountain when I have gone’.

I knew the summit well, I knew the view and for a fleeting moment I stepped into the characters mind. The mark of great writing.

All the strands of the individual characters meet in the wild corrie on Braeriach for a gripping finale. I could feel the wet snow on my face and I was transported back to wild winter days on these hills and the tension is wonderfully released by the arrival of none other than, well, read it to find out!

There are some nice illustrations but as it’s the Kindle version I couldn’t really see them well enough but I’m sure they’ll look wonderful in the print edition. I can understand why Alex added them as they are ‘of the genre’ of these type of 19th century books he’s emulating but for me, pictures tend to break the spell of the imagination. I had a picture in my head of what Forbes looked like until he popped up at the inn door and I had to redraw him in my mind. Having said that, the illustration at the end fitted nicely with my experience of the corrie in which it’s set. It’s just a foible of mine. I prefer to draw my own pictures. Own the characters for myself. As art in themselves though, they’d be a great addition to any wall.

I love the fictional/philosophical mix of Alex’s writing and he has a wonderful eye for the unseen. He can pick a place, add a character or two, get his magic spurtle out, give it a good stir and what comes out is more than went in and you’re left thinking, nodding and smiling.

The end of the book is like that. The cusp is about to be reached and the characters are setting the scene for the next books in the series as Alex explores the birth of mountaineering and adventure in these wonderful mountains.

I’ll leave you with a passage I loved and sums up the philosophical side of the book. Can Duncan resolve his struggle? Can he be satisfied with his path in life or must he choose another? We shall see…

‘Life is not safety. Life is cold and danger, terror and triumph, work and perseverence, high reward and the risk of utter ruin; it is the wind on the heights, the enchanting sunrise over the loch, the cry of a buzzard and the thunder of an avalanche.’

As the series unfolds, perhaps we’ll see the birth of a new pastime, visiting the places in the books and reading from the stories. ‘Doing the Roddies’ anyone?

Would I have any advice to offer Alex? Most definitely. Get Alex Norton to play the Duke in the film version!