Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Literally the Best Reviews: The Second Sleep

Second Sleep - Robert Harris
Knopf Publishing
320 Pages

I started reading Robert Harris when I was just graduating from high school in 1992 with his debut alternative history novel Fatherland. Once I saw new novels released by Harris, I was grabbing them as quickly as I could. I always felt Harris was one of the best alternate history and historical fiction authors out there. So, when I saw The Second Sleep on the shelf at the Lockport Library, I had to bring it home with me.

Typically when I read historical fiction, I lean towards the Civil War era and the early twentieth century. In my opinion, once we get beyond World War II, it’s less history and more current events. At least that’s my point of view when it comes to reading that genre. Mostly. I often avoid anything before the Napoleonic Wars, although there have been some exceptions to that rule.

When I first read the summary for The Second Sleep, I was almost tempted to put it back. The year 1468 jumped out at me, and that’s really outside of my realm of interest and knowledge of the era. Aside from Monty Python, this is not an era that I could readily recognize during the enjoyment of reading. However, I had already read Pompeii by Harris and knew he would write it in such a way to make me more interested in that subject. I figured, what the heck, and added the novel to my stack to take home.

I began reading this book in the parking lot of our local middle school while waiting for my daughter to get out of drama rehearsal. Two things were almost immediately evident. First, this was going to be a good book. The opening description of Father Fairfax as he made his way to a tucked away village in his diocese was entrancing enough for me to keep reading.  Secondly, thi summary was a bit misleading. This was not set in fifteenth century Britain. No, it was something much greater.

Father Christopher Fairfax has been sent by his Bishop to a remote village to conduct the funeral of that community's priest. While there, he uncovers the old priest may not have died by accident. There may have been sinister ulterior motives involved. He also discovers that the old priest may have had an unhealthy interest in heretical artefacts from the past. It is at this point that we learn that the story may not be set in 1468 as we know it, but 1468 in an entirely different calendar than we’re used to. And that’s about all I’m going to say about that part. You’ll have to read the book to get to the truth behind that.

Fairfax is dragged into a study of the scattered pieces from history, which goes against every fiber of the ingrained training by the Church. The past was evil and was best forgotten. However, curiosity gets the better of him and he ends up following in the footsteps of his predecessor. WIth tenuous alliances made among some of the villagers, Fairfax leads the charge to understand what hints from the past mean for their future.

This novel is a treatise on the state of our civilization at the dawn of the 2020s. We are overly reliant upon our creature comforts and seemingly have lost our connection to the nature that we are an intricate part of. The messages from the past are a warning for our present and future. Harris has adroitly detailed our future and cleverly hidden it in a world from our own past. 

This book, for the first 275 pages, was a great book. I could not put it down. As Harris wound the story down to the end, however, I couldn’t figure out how he could neatly wrap up the story. Instead of uncovering a little more of how the ancients survived their global catastrophe, we’re left with more questions than answers. The last chapter, where all the potential to make this an epic novel, fall just a bit short. Meanwhile, the last page sucks all the life out of the book with a definite ending. 

Just before that last page, I thought that this could have been the first book in a series. That would have been more than alright with me. The first three-quarters of the book was very intriguing, and could have served as a solid base to a trilogy. It’s the ending that slightly disappoints. Otherwise, the rest of this book is outstanding and worth the read. 

Robert Harris delivers an important message to us in The Second Sleep. The “what if” portion of this book is very intriguing. If only he had written more to finish off the book, this would have moved into the Top 5 of my favorite books for the year. At any rate, it’s worth the time to read this book. And maybe he'll surprise us...

Craig Bacon loves reading. He probably has higher expectations than he thinks. But he’ll still find the best in any book he reads.