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Dave-Brendon de Burgh

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Review: Only the Dead by Hamilton Wende

This review has been a long time coming, and I can only thank the author for being so patient. :)

I’ve got a list of authors whose work I begin reading as soon as I can, and Hamilton Wende’s work is on that list. His first novel, ‘House of War’, though not what I focus on reading (because it’s not SFF), really impressed me with it’s mix of authentic, emotional characters, dramatic plot and beautifully realized settings. ‘Only the Dead’ is not only further evidence of his skill as a writer and story teller, but also an indication of just how damned good he’s become since then.

The focus of the tale in his second novel is something very few of us have witnessed and can probably even understand. Child soldiers seem to be like the wind and the sun, in terms of what is expected on the African continent. I think it has become a subject that we no longer even talk about, or wonder about. It takes place far away, doesn’t affect us.

But Wende manages to make this a very real and very important subject by telling aspects of the story in ‘Only the Dead’ from the point of view of a child-soldier. It’s not a nice place to be, but the reader is given the chance to understand just what pushes these children into making these often-fatal choices. There is a strange kind of brutal innocence in the prose, when it comes to the child and the scenes he is the focus of. His interaction with the other characters, many of them also children but some the adults who are directly responsible for his situation, show not only how damaged he is but also how much of a capacity for strength and caring he has – a feat Wende pulled off with grace and deep empathy.

Sebastian, the main character from Wende’s first novel, returns in this tale, and one of the things that impressed me most about his character arc was the fact that Wende allowed him to stumble and fall before allowing him to grow again – he’s the same man we got to know in House of War, but he’s also harder, more skeptical, and knows (as we do) that we can be deeply hurt even when we think we’ve done enough to remain unhurt.

Another focus of the tale is that of unmanned drones, previously a subject mainly Americans would discuss; but here we are faced with the fact that everybody should be talking about drones, not only the countries with the technological capability to use them, or even the countries who’s people suffer when the drones are deployed against them. Wende manages to do this by also telling sections of the story from the point of view of a drone pilot who is thousands of kilometers away from the story’s setting, and we are given an unflinching look at just how what these drone-pilots do must affect them. They are among the thousands of unknown, uncounted casualties of a war that seems to have no end in sight.

All things considered, this isn’t a novel about any one thing. It is a detailed and emotionally powerful look at subjects which always take a back seat when the Kardashians get married or the Pitt’s and Jolie’s of the world conduct their Africa Trips. It is also a novel that beautifully and brutally portrays the depths of empathy and forgiveness, and also a call to force us to try to better understand what we would so easily dismiss or forget about.

In short, ‘Only the Dead’ is a novel that proves that Hamilton Wende is a damned good writer and story teller and not a one-book wonder. I’m definitely looking forward to his next novel! :-)

9 / 10

only the dead



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