Want to end the war to end all wars? Put a mountaineer—and a woman mountaineer—to the task.
Willa Alden isn’t just any mountaineer, at least not by genre novelist Donnelly’s account. In a thick, overly long narrative peopled by a few returnees from The Winter Rose (2008, etc.), Willa is a standout, admirable in her many strengths. But then, just about everyone in this story is strong in his or her own métier, from Winston Churchill to charm-the-pants-off-anyone Kaiserian spy Max von Brandt. Heck, even the Dalai Lama is a brick—and a pal of Willa’s, natch, who “on occasion…would drink with her, sing Tibetan songs with her, and swap bawdy stories.” But all these are wimps next to Willa’s true amour, Seamus Finnegan, fearless polar explorer and breathless lover, who has gotten himself into countless scrapes with her and left her wanting only once, and then by way of something in a limb. (You’ll have to read the book for the details.) “You’re a very dashing figure, you know,” says one admirer of Seamie’s. “You’ve achieved so much, done so many amazing things.” Seamie knows, yet the one thing he wants eludes him. Meanwhile, old Max is up to no good, for these, after all, are the stirring years of World War I, and his job is to embarrass smarty-pants Britons and exalt Teutons everywhere. By the end of this endless exercise in historical fiction, one that gets all the details right except the way people spoke to each other a century ago, Max, Seamie and Willa have been replaying the Perils of Pauline in the company of Lawrence of Arabia, a perplexing and improbable turn of events that at least moves the plot along. Thank goodness Willa has picked up conversational Arabic and Turkish along the way. “Jamal Pasha is coming! Jamal Pasha is coming!”
But is Max that much a rotter, and Seamie that much a hero? Read this aspirational potboiler and find out. Or not.