Book reviews: audiobooks of War and Peace, and latest instalment in The Divine Cities series

Undemanding entertainment with Clive Cussler, science fiction and the old Tolstoy classic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 January, 2016, 11:01am

The Pharaoh’s Secret

by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown (read by Scott Brick)

Penguin (audiobook)

Clive Cussler’s NUMA series has always brightened up early January, not by dint of its excellence exactly, but by providing some light, diverting but undemanding entertainment. Lead by Kurt Austin, the National Underwater and Marine Agency pursues Cussler’s own hobby: deep-sea research and discovery. Their 13th adventure sees them tussle with a host of Dan Brownish enigmas from the distant past: 1353 BC give or take. Pharaoh Akheaten discovered a secret that, almost inevitably, threatened the entire planet: a deadly plant known as “Black Mist” that could kill in an instant. The last trace of this toxin sank, seemingly without trace, in the late 18th century along with the Orient, a French warship. When NUMA are called in to investigate strange happenings at Lampedusa island, it seems the botanical might just have returned along with Osiris, lord of the underworld. As this suggests, the plot is not boy meets girl, boy takes girl to dinner but granite-jawed heroes confront mythological McGuffins by the Da Vinci Code load.

Scott Brick reads with enviable velocity, which lends a certain drama to even the more nonsensical moments, but also a hint of monotony and the sense that he may be trying to finish the book before lunchtime. That at least gives you time for another Cussler before bed.

City of Blades

by Robert Jackson Bennett (narrated by various)

Jo Fletcher Books (audiobook)

Science fiction/fantasy epics are particularly suited to the audiobook format. Creating strange, credible worlds deep in space and far from our own material concerns is helped by the intimacy of clamping headphones over your ears and escaping. City of Blades is a sequel to the impressive City of Stairs, something that Bennett himself notes is a first for him. The world of “The Divine Cities” series is two parts science fiction to one part Norse mythology.

Bennett’s urban spaces were once presided over by various warring gods capable of petulance and magic. City of Blades is set, for example, in Voortyashtan, a dead ringer for Kabul which belonged to the goddess of war and death. There are hints of Rambo and Aliens, as Turyin Mulaghesh (a bit part player in City of Stairs) is forced to undertake a final mission: to find a missing secret agent. Buffy Davis has a soft, slow, lulling voice that doesn’t always suit the more pulsating action sequences. She is good on the exhaustively detailed history, cultural and political backdrop, and convinces as Mulaghesh, but is sometimes less effective when distinguishing Bennett’s enormous cast. There is plenty of dialogue to keep you intrigued, not to mention ghosts, conspiracies and giant robot women with knives for hands.

War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy (read by Edward Petherbridge)

CSA Word (audiobook)

A handsome new BBC dramatisation of War and Peace hopes to do for Leo Tolstoy what Colin Firth’s wet-shirt competition did for Jane Austen two decades ago. While the battle scenes look low on manpower (as did the originals, apparently), the bouffanted sex appeal of the leads reminds you how much love wants to elbow into that title. Choosing an audiobook presents two problems. There are a few on show: do you choose English actor Edward Petherbridge, English actor Neville Jason or English actor Frederick Davidson? The pair seems to be in a competition for who can sound suaver. You can practically hear the raised eyebrows as Davidson goes to town pronouncing “la grippe” and Jason knowingly describes a character who ‘spoke languidly like an actor repeating a stale part.’

I went for Petherbridge’s calmer but bravura reading. Which leads me to the second challenge. Save for an unsuitable five-hour abridged reading, all audiobook versions last roughly 60 hours – roughly four days. My advice? Take a holiday and fall for Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova and Anna Pavolvna.