Monday, February 3, 2014

A (Free!) Fiction Recommendation

Since I quoted from this work a few days ago, I thought I would do a brief review.  I recently finished Talbot Mundy's King -- of the Khyber Rifles.  It is available from good old Project Gutenberg here, or, as an audiobook, via LibriVox.

I haven't read any of Mundy's other books.  King has a small element of mysticism, but it is mostly an adventure story.  The hero is ostensibly the eponymous Athelstan King, a British Army officer and secret agent in India.  I changed my opinion when I realized who really pulled off what.  I won't spoil it further if you happen not to have read it.  King's character is certainly central to what is accomplished.

For those familiar with Kipling's Kim, there are some similarities, both in the local color and the intrigues of intelligence work.  Kipling is the stronger writer and immerses the reader in India to a greater extent, but Mundy (born William Lancaster Gribbon in 1879 in London) is a solid literary talent.  Mundy probably has more in common with H. Rider Haggard, including his fascination with mysticism and fantasy.  I've always thought Haggard introduced his fantastic elements mainly for the purposes of a good story.  Apparently Mundy was more of a true believer.

There are also comparisons to Joseph Conrad, and that may be true of some of Mundy's other works.  King -- of the Khyber Rifles, despite the plots twists, is more straightforward and less abstract than Conrad usually is, and, unlike most of Conrad's protagonists, King is not often troubled by self-doubt or questions on the righteousness of what he sets out to do.  Early on he has a conversation with a fellow traveler from the Public Works Department about Britain's impending involvement in World War I -- at least there is an attempted conversation: 

 In the train on the way to Peshawur he did not talk any more volubly, and a fellow traveler, studying him from the opposite corner of the stifling compartment, catalogued him as "quite an ordinary man." But he was of the Public Works Department, which is sorrowfully underpaid and wears emotions on its sleeve for policy's sake, believing of course that all the rest of the world should do the same.

"Don't you think we're bound in honor to go to Belgium's aid?" he asked. "Can you see any way out of it?"

"Haven't looked for one," said King.

"But don't you think—"

"No," said King. "I hardly ever think. I'm in the army, don't you know, and don't have to. What's the use of doing somebody else's work?"
 This is characteristic of King.  He says little and listens much.  Silence and a sort of unspoken agreement with the speaker often get him through difficult situations. 

There's a lot to that approach.  We -- some of us, feel compelled to share everything we think with everyone.  I guess that's why we are bloggers.  I, at least, am not sharing with very many people, and, in my further defense, I don't exactly drag people here to make them listen to me. 

However, in interactions outside of cyberspace, the less said is usually the better.  That is never more true than when dealing with agents of the government. 

If you are looking for a fun read or something to listen to while painting like I have been doing, King -- of the Khyber Rifles is a good choice.

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