In light of drone strikes, cyber terrorism, religious extremists, and morally ambiguous international policies, it’s easy to look at World War II and say, “That’s how to fight a war!” Which is of course why World War II stories are so popular still. They have become real-life reflections of the greatest story ever told: the battle between good and evil, glorified in fiction and history alike as our finest hour.
But what if we hadn’t won?
That’s the premise behind Guy Saville’s debut thriller The Afrika Reich, set in an alternate-history 1950s. Pearl Harbor never happened, the US never got involved, and the British were massacred at Dunkirk, leading to a truce that divided the African continent.
Richard Burton, British ex-Foreign Legionnaire-turned-mercenary heads up a squad to travel to the heart of Nazi Africa. The iron-fisted Walter Hochberg, sadistic head of the African SS, is the target for a secret assassination attempt. Hochberg killed Burton's father and possibly his mother, and Burton wants revenge. But “something” (down with spoilers!) goes wrong during the mission and Burton and his former Foreign Legion commander Patrick are left in the middle of Nazi-held Africa. Finding themselves in the middle of a growing international conflict, their only chance to survive is to get out of Africa.
The Nazis have interned all of the Africans within their borders to a Saharan camp called “Muspel.” (Subtle Norse mythological hints abound throughout the book.) Vicious supporting-lady/child-soldier Neliah has flashbacks to the horrors of the Herero genocide, which fuels her rage and makes her a perfect partner for Burton and Patrick. Her weapon of choice is a dull, rusty machete, which she refuses to sharpen – it makes the cuts worse.
In an epic of “Die Hard” (or maybe “Predator”) proportions, the remaining team members wade through a sea of Nazis in the jungle. The remorseless main characters have no compunction about killing hundreds of other people. There's tons of huge explosions, and bloodthirsty bad guys so insane that they make The Red Skull look like ... something not so insane. Saville never lets up on the gas as this book busts some major blocks.
Saville’s debut tries to rise above the average middle-grade thriller novel and his meticulous research does stand out amongst the explosions and blood. But "The Afrika Reich" never quite rises above the level of an airport bookstore bestseller – a fun read, but not truly outstanding. It rests too much on fast-paced action sequences to pull the reader through the plot. (I also dislike being purposefully mislead; it feels "gimmicky.")
“The Afrika Reich” takes its premise of alternate history at face value, letting the reader pick up on the overarching scheme of what changed when and who are now the world's major players. (Hint: one of them rhymes with “Mitler.”) No long expositions break the flow of action in this book. To Saville’s credit, I was never confused by the complicated alternate political back-story. His writing is smooth, and the book is structured well.
Because it's revealed that his archenemy is still alive (gaah! spoiler – sorry!), Burton is never in any real danger, which allows Saville to insert him in more and more cartoonish battle sequences, leading up to the final inevitable confrontation. It makes for an arresting read, but there’s a sense of distance from the killing that feels like, well, watching an '80s action flick – complete with the “I should’ve retired/realizing that revenge isn’t worth it” emotional scenes.
As the first novel in a planned trilogy, “The Afrika Reich” sets up the coming epic conflagration well. (Seriously, get cozy with your Norse mythology.) Saville's knowledge base and skill do much to bolster this book. But as a fast-paced read in the style of Dan Brown (lots of plot twists, cliffhangers, etc.) it doesn't quite make the leap from pretty good to great.
-Ben Frederick is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor