By Susan Tomaselli
In his first novel for Bloomsbury, Magnus Mills takes us on a semi-scientific journey toward the Agreed Furthest Point (“Even the name of it spells adventure!”). Tostig and his Nordic team comprising Guthrum, Thegn, Snaebjorn and Thorsson of the Perseverance, are efficient and well-organised, and take the easier route, forging a path along dry river bed. Johns and his party of Scagg, Summerfield, Plover, Cook, Blanchflower, Medleycott, Seddon, Chase and Firth make up the Centurion, imbued with a sense of fair play, plough over scree rather than follow Tostig’s path.
So far, so Scott of Antarctic. But, this is Magnus Mills, and, as the English idiom goes, the devil is in the detail, and Mills is wonderfully English. Each party succumbs to various ills – at one point Johns in forced to send a deputation back so that they have enough food and water for their return journey, and Cook mistakenly takes all of the female mules with him. One of Tostig’s crew is tried for stealing the ship’s manual, and Tostig himself faces the quandary of bringing the bottle of green ink, which looks like it may not be used, or to take an extra ration of food: “If there’s no green haven then our journey becomes pointless,” but “whoever controls the map controls the route.”
Johns lends Summerfield a book entitled ‘The Theory of Transportation’ by FE Childish: “It’s written in an archaic sort of style which takes some getting used to, but all the same it’s absolutely brimful of ideas.” And so is Mills’ work. Says Medleycott:
“This endless scree, this darkness, this pitiless wind: men have been driven to distraction by lesser torments. It’s an utter wilderness. Do you know, I’ve been standing here for almost an hour gazing at absolutely nothing?”
A little over half-way through, we learn of the true purpose of the expedition – taking the mules to the Furtherest Point from Civilisation, and leaving them there, for the mules “do nothing profitable; they are strangers to industry; they don’t invent things…neither do they have any understanding of science…Simply put, the mules are completely immune to the forces of civilisation.”
And this is were the book takes an odd turn. The mules start speaking, and overhearing conversations, and catching objects thrown to them – or do they? It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions, however sinister, but in this “desolate region bereft of life,” the likelihood of a Utopia looks unlikely, despite the honourable intentions of both crews.
An old-fashioned adventure to cherish, where men wear polonecks and speak in clipped English accents, and where it’s not hard to imagine a pipe too far from their hands. Wonderful.
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills