Recently, just last week in fact, I was browsing Barnes & Noble when I spied Kelleher's Black Hand Gang (Abaddon Books 2010), a World War I horror/military/fantasy novel, with an arresting cover by Pye Parr. However, a cover does not make a book so I gave it my patented first line test: "there was a Front, but damned if we knew where." Good, I am interested. From the cover I could tell the story takes place during the first Somme offensive and there are giant worms and tanks, and from the first line I could sense the exciting force percolating away, drawing me in to a distinctly unique, created world, so I read on.
The book begins as many novels of the great pulp fiction era do: with a pseudo- history based on some real events; however, here there is more "real" history than usual and this history does not just start with the first world war but goes back even further, raising the specter of other disappeared colonies and a surprising, but believable tie-in, to my old friend, the alchemist and Queen's Conjuror, Doctor John Dee. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought.
Additionally, as I read I determined quickly that the prose is tight and well-honed, and that this guy Kelleher, who I have never heard of, has the chops. I surmise this isn't his first time out.
So I buy the book and read it quickly over the weekend because it is simply one of those books--a page turner--and, once finished, I am not disappointed.
First, it is well-crafted, as I said; Kelleher structures each chapter to create suspense and take us onto the next, and the research spot-on. I believed the early chapters in no man's land implicitly, just as I did later when the situs morphs onto a new world and the heroes find themselves in a hostile environment. This bump, this movement from the known world of France during World War I to the secondary world, makes the novel ultimately a portal novel in the grand tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Norman, David Lindsay, and even C. S. Lewis. Further, the novel is more; it reveals all those earlier influences but it also shares similarities with H.P. Lovecraft, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne. In fact, during the reading I thought of Verne's Mysterious Island several times, as well as Wells' dystopian novels.
Although there seems to be a resonance of pulp and a direct lineage to the novels of the early 20th century, the novel has its own, post modern sensibility, as it employs pulp, horror, and military tropes to create a cohesive work that stands alone.
There is even a hint of steam punk. By choosing the first world war, which happens to be the situs of many early pulp novels, the novel has at its disposal a plethora of punky weapons, including a Flammenwerfer
Second, when we get to the novel itself, Kelleher has accomplished something that is quite difficult to do. He has given us an entire company of soldiers that we like, hate, or feel despair. Not since First and Only, the debut novel in Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghost series, have we had as intimate a view of the quotidian operations of a company. To juggle these characters is a task that only an experienced writer can accomplish and Kelleher does it well.
In summary, the novel involves a company of British soldiers on the western front that, through some apparatus (magic or alchemical), are transported to another world where they battle to survive its hostile environment and its strange sentient beings. The steam punk elements (biplanes, tanks, Flammenwerfer, gas, and trench warfare itself)and the historical accuracies, along with the Edwardian behavior of the men and women, create a unique reading experience. More particularly, the novel is action-packed; the world upon which the characters land is a brilliantly created "death" world that portends other books and adventures, evidenced by several plot lines left unsolved: a reference to the god Croatoan (which ties this novel to the mystery of the disappeared Roanoke colony in 1590), an escaped magus, not to mention an entire stranded company, and some crazy gods--alluded to and worshiped but not seen, yet.