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“Subversive Activity” is a reminder of why I like his work so much! Wry, deadpan humour; distinctive characters; fresh, deft writing; solid research that enhances rather than overwhelms the story – it’s very satisfying!
It’s especially delightful that this book is about one of my favourite themes – someone waking up to life! Caption Horatio de la Terre of the Royal Navy is the Naval Attache to the country of Maldona. He is rigidly traditional, an Englishman and naval officer with a lifetime’s training in keeping his expression neutral and his mind clean of thoughts and opinions he ought not have. His has been a life lived in small brown rooms, until it has become a small brown life.
This is the story of how all of that cracks, and the light gets in, and he discovers he has an imagination, and opinions – and that neither of these are quite what he would have expected, if he’d ever thought about it, which he hasn’t.
“Subversive Activity” is set in a kind of alternative Victorian history – the Moldonan landscape is littered with the convoluted politics of Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Hapsburgs. It features the brash, daring, brilliant Letty and Hetty, identical twins sisters who are in the midst of revolutionising seagoing engineering. There are spies and counterspies, and sometimes these are the same people.
It’s as warped and complicated as a plot by Wodehouse, charging on at a wonderful rate of knots. De la Terre is particularly fun, because his habitual non-expression leads other people to think he is more clever and knowledgable than he really is. His blank-faced puzzled silences are taken for cunning strategy, and this – plus his dazzlement by the exceedingly and captivatingly un-English Letty – are the chisel that cracks apart that small, brown shell of his world.