Musings on writing, lessons learned by an aspiring professional, book reviews, movie reviews, an occasional t.v. show review, and unashamed opinion.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Every once in a while it's good to take a break from fantasy and science fiction.  These two genres are most definitely my favorite, but I also love historical fiction.  Usually, I avoid anything 20th century... simply because I'm less interested in recent history.  I'd rather learn about medieval France, or Napoleonic-era Britain.  Anyway, that's a lot of an intro to just tell you that I recently finished listening to a novel about the Vietnam War, called Matterhorn.  I have mixed feelings about it, but mainly because of the subject matter.  The writing and characters are superb.  It's reading about the horrors of an actual war that get my stomach in knots.

I've talked lots about how I appreciate the new gritty fantasy.  George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Scott Lynch are the kings of this type of story telling.  However, since listening to Matterhorn, I've got to say that those guys have nothing on Marlantes when it comes to depicting the gut-wrenching realities of war.  Of course, Marlantes, unlike Martin, Abercrombie, or Lynch, (Scott Lynch is a part-time firefighter, so he probably comes the closest to seeing real horrors) has actually seen combat--experienced it first-hand.  Marlantes's knowledge lends an authenticity to his fiction other authors can only grasp for.  I don't know if this is a positive or negative attribute for his book to have.  In some ways it's Matterhorn's greatest strength, but in others it's greatest weakness.

Matterhorn follows many Marines as they fight for a hill on which they've constructed a firebase.  The main character is a 2nd lieutenant fresh out of college, named Mellas.  Mellas attended an Ivy League school, and joins the Marines to further his political ambitions.  He goes about his duties as a Marine in a way that will be most likely to earn him medals, honors, and notice from his higher-ups.  I won't give away his character arc, but I think it's safe to say that Mellas discovers being a Marine officer encompasses a bit more than medal hunting.  I could tell more about the book, but I prefer to let readers find out more of the story themselves.  My reaction to Matterhorn was quite strong, however, so I can tell a little bit about that.

War is damn depressing.  It isn't hard to come to that conclusion.  I just reviewed Germline, which was about nothing other than how crappy war is.  There's lots of books out there that can let a reader know this.  I've read several.  Where as a lot of these war books can make you feel sad or sick about war, Matterhorn kicks you in the nuts repeatedly once it gets you down.  There was a point in the book (not far from the beginning) where I just had to put the book down.  I was very close to not finishing it.  After a two or more month break, I came back to it and decided to give it another go.  I'm glad that I did, but boy, it wasn't an easy ride.

I mentioned that Marlantes's experience is what lends authenticity to Matterhorn.  I can't imagine the hell Vietnam soldiers went through during this war.  Vietnam is one of those wars that feels so pointless in the end.  What did we really accomplish over there?  Marlantes doesn't pull any punches as he paints a very realistic depiction of a fictional battle.  Again, his experience is what give this book so much strength, but also, for this reader, it was too much for me to handle at times.

If you're interested or curious about the Vietnam War, give Matterhorn your time.  Just know what you're getting in to before you open its pages.  I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.  



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