The Traitor and the Thief
Walker Books, $20.00,
Helper and Helper
Joy Cowley (Gavin Bishop illus)
Gecko Press, $23.00,
In this, the last year of the WWI centenary, it should not seem unusual to be reviewing three books that all have war or conflict as their central themes. The questions of what defines an enemy and how they are to be dealt with are addressed and (thankfully) not always answered, at least not in a didactic sort of way. Interesting in the present selection is the variety of approaches, not only to the topic of war and strife, but also to questions of friendship and belonging in the face of conflict.
In David Hill’s Flight Path, 18-year-old New Zealander Jack has completed his training as a bomb-aimer and arrives in England to join the fight against the Nazis. We understand that WWII is nearly at an end, though Jack is hoping to get his fair share of opportunities to “smash down the Huns”. Between missions, the crew of the Lancaster bomber make up most of the novel’s plot: navigator Reg is a fellow Kiwi, as are the two gunners Paul and Pete, twin brothers who finish each other’s sentences and provide some comic relief in the style of Harry Potter’s Weasley twins (and the similarities don’t end there). Bluey, the Aussie radio operator, is an exemplum of morally questionable behaviour, as his fondness for the (albeit tepid) beer in the local pub almost leads him to succumb to the temptation of two salacious “sheilas” and their shady black-market dealer friends. The flight engineer Stefan had escaped Poland after all his family were killed or taken away by the SS. His hatred of the Germans is understandably the most palpable. Julian is the British pilot, whose plummy shouts of “what-ho” and “wizard show” never undermine his calm authority and common sense.
And then there is Jack, the bomb-aimer, whose job it is to release the Lancaster’s bombs on the enemy below. His bird’s-eye perspective of the war in action prompts a change in his attitude. His boyish enthusiasm for the war and disdain for the provincial New Zealand he left behind are soon shaken out of him by the grinding drudgery of his deployment and replaced with a fond appreciation of his home and family. Early gung-ho slogans such as “We’ll show bloody Fritz what’s coming to him” and “Let’s give Jerry a bloody nose” are gradually replaced with more cautious reflections about the crew’s missions. Often these are practical worries (“How many chances did they have left?”), but more interesting ethical dilemmas are prompted by his growing feelings for a girl: after shooting down an enemy plane, Jack thinks “[Eileen would] be so proud of him… wouldn’t she?” However, considering the early abundance of us-versus-them rhetoric, I expected a more fundamental change in perspective. This is briefly hinted at when a discussion breaks out in the mess about whether “Every German is a Nazi.” But it is not followed up with any kind of realisation. Jack later looks down on Berlin in flames after a bombing: “any civilians who stayed behind … He didn’t want to think about it.” And he never really does. Though exciting and informative, the novel gives a somewhat two-dimensional snapshot of history.
Conversely, Sin, the main protagonist in Gareth Ward’s steampunk novel The Traitor and the Thief must readjust his viewpoint and allegiances almost daily, as loyalties are challenged and nothing is quite what it seems. The first striking feature of Ward’s story is its setting. Although this is not the world as we know it, Sin’s Coxford soon feels as familiar to us as Lyra’s Oxford in Pullman’s Northern Lights, its very name surely acting as a big nod to Pullman’s fictional universe. We encounter old-fashioned cobbled streets, noisy markets and trams, but in Coxford trams are steam-powered, the Corn Market has a “flurohydrous” roof, and the street vendor is peddling luminous “Radiant Active” pocket-watches which, the top-hatted seller assures us, are “to die for”. Sin is a street urchin (this alone is indicative of a pseudo-Dickensian setting, though we soon readjust this to a pseudo-early-20th-century), who is recruited to an organisation named Covert Operations Group (COG). COG is a kind of spy training school, and the trainees are all youngsters in their early teens, just like Sin. And what an apt name COG is, for not only do the young recruits have to learn to work together, but alongside every challenge we get a fuller picture of the weird and wonderful machines and technological inventions of Ward’s world.
Sin makes friends and enemies at COG, but is soon forced to question who is friend or foe, traitor or thief, not only among his fellow trainees but also his teachers. We, alongside Sin, are initially kept in the dark about the real purpose of COG. There is some political background chatter about an imminent war with the Teutonians (again!), but COG is neither a government agency nor an enemy one. Surprisingly, COG’s objective is to sabotage the war efforts of both sides with the aim to avoid war and its devastating effect altogether: a kind of militant peace keeping, if such a thing is possible. For Sin, the question becomes not only who is on which side and why, but also why he himself was recruited to COG in the first place.
The world of The Traitor and the Thief is one that would lend itself to a screen adaptation by Studio Ghibli’s Miyazaki. Ward’s visual descriptions and steampunk atmosphere kindle the imagination, his flamboyant characters add quirkiness and humour, and his anti-war stance is refreshingly unconventional. The novel also lends itself to a sequel. There is much to do in any world for an organisation that fights those who would wage war, and Sin and his allies must surely still have work to do. Plus, who would not eagerly revisit a world in which the French are called “Fromagians”?
Equally joyful is a revisit to the world of Joy Cowley’s Snake and Lizard. Helper and Helper is the latest installment of the series, and despite its harmonious title, the first chapter already sees the two friends and business partners at loggerheads over their joint enterprise. Their profession is to help the other desert animals by giving them advice in exchange for juicy beetles and eggs. Snake attempts to improve business with some marketing strategies, such as calling their patients clients, since they are simply too impatient to be considered patients. Snake and Lizard fall out over who is to have first billing on the sign, and Lizard goes off in a huff. He grumbles that it’s not fair, everyone should have a turn, and if Snake doesn’t change her mind, Lizard will not work with her any more. Lizard’s clever-clogs cousin hears Lizard’s complaint and concludes that Snake and Lizard should have a democracy, and that Lizard must go on strike. After explaining to Lizard the principles of democratic government and industrial action, Lizard simply replies that this was exactly what he had been saying to begin with. The adult reader will certainly see the humour of the episode, but perhaps the young reader has inadvertently also just learned the basic principles of democracy and going on strike.
Snake and Lizard soon make up and progress through a series of domestic, professional and philosophical adventures and disagreements. In one story, their business has competition from a healer; in another, they compete over their ancestral mythology; and, once, they try to determine what the humans in the nearby village cook in their fires. The stories are often stand-alone episodes centred on a single concept, riddle or punch-line, and as such they are reminiscent of Aesop’s fables. The most interesting chapters are those that irrefutably reveal Snake’s and Lizard’s natures. Their friendship survives in spite of the fact that Snake clearly sometimes devours Lizard’s friends and relatives. This is a thread already present in the first book of the series, and it shows that Snake simply cannot change who she is. Lizard’s natural naivety and forgetfulness complement this, though we are beginning to wonder if he might be oblivious to her behaviour by choice rather than by nature. Its philosophical playfulness makes this a rewarding read for young and old.
Tatjana Schaefer teaches English Literature at Victoria University of Wellington.