RogerBW's Blog

Tomorrow the World, John Biggins 01 April 2024

1994 historical military fiction, fourth and last in its series, but this time falling back on the early life and career of Otto Prohaska of the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Apart from filling in more details of Prohaska's childhood, this book mostly deals with his cadet cruise, on one of the last military sailing ships. As with the other books, it's more a series of incidents than a story with a plot; some of them are quite enjoyable, but the characters do sadly fall into stereotype (the randy officer who's less self-important than the rest, the sadistic disciplinarian, the nervous administrator thrust into command and terrified of making a mistake).

Of course things go horribly wrong, and what was meant to be a few months of flag-showing and surveying manages to hit the high spots of trouble a ship can get into (including how not to round the Horn). But there is also a civilian passenger, an enthusiast for craniometry in the style of Samuel Morton including the inevitable plans to partition society along notionally racial lines, who just gets tedious with his ranting and his murder of natives and his skull-collecting. Yeah, I do realise he's not supposed to be a positive character, but he gets a lot of narrative time and he's dull.

The real flaw for me is that if I want stories about sailing ships, that's a supremely well-served market, and the daily business and shenanigans in a sailing ship don't feel wildly different in 1900 from the way they were in 1800 even if the ship's now made of steel and has a steam engine for backup. To me, and I realise other people may feel differently, this seems like a different style of book, not only the different naval technology but the single long voyage rather than a series of short missions.

There are several internal suggestions that this is to be the last book of the series (as indeed it was), and at times I feel Biggins scraping the barrel a bit: for example, a few small anecdotes get used multiple times in different chapters. Prohaska hints at his later career, for example commanding the Paraguayan Navy in the 1920s, and I suspect I'd have enjoyed a book about that rather more than I did this one.

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Previous in series: Two-Headed Eagle, The | Series: Otto Prohaska

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