“Darwin’s Soldiers” by Ste Sharp (2018)

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“Private John Greene of the Royal Fusiliers stumbled through the dim forest with the Lewis light machine gun held tight across his chest and his khaki bags strapped across both shoulders.”

War! Huh! What is it good for? Well, interesting fiction, for one thing. The fictional world seems to be at war almost continuously, but who can blame it when it’s been created by a species that has spent much of history perfecting the art of killing its own members. Darwin’s Soliders brings together an eclectic mix of history’s fighters to create a unique and compelling new novel.

John Greene is fighting in the Great War, missing his son Joe, and wishing he wasn’t sat in a trench, stinking of rat shit, as gunfire whistles overhead. And then suddenly, he isn’t. He finds himself on a strange hill, facing a white obelisk and all around him are hundreds of others, but they aren’t the rest of his regiment. He’s here with members of every major army in human history, from Aztec to Zulu, via Viking, Spartan, Babylonian, Mongol, Celt, Amazonian, and even wars that haven’t yet happened in his timeline.

The carving on the obelisk gives them a message – this new army has fourteen days to reach the silver gates, where they will apparently achieve victory. But first they need to solve the problem of working together, as each of them has a particular set of skills. And things get more complicated as they begin their trek through this strange new world and they begin to develop unusual abilities, be they extra limbs, sonar, or telepathy. As they get deeper into this strange situation, they discover that they aren’t the first beings to have been brought here, and it isn’t just the environment that wants to kill them…

Ste Sharp, like me and my second novel, crowdfunded this book via Unbound, but it’s publication was an inevitability, as someone would’ve picked it up eventually. The concept alone is amazing and while I’m not generally someone who reads much about war, I was curious as to how this would play out. It’s like one of those idle Internet questions – “Who would win in a fight between a Viking and a Roman?” – but played out for real. The literal evolution of the characters to gain new abilities that help them in warfare is also useful, and Sharp clearly enjoyed giving everyone superpowers. They are also explained away quite nicely, such as one character’s new ability to see sonar being due to a growth in his sinus cavity.

The amount of research in this book is absolutely staggering. While Sharp includes some of his own creations, such as soldiers from the future, mushrooms that allow for communication between races, and a Celtic tribe that didn’t exist, and, of course, all the aliens, much of the information is factually correct as he has studied the methods and weaponry of everyone from the Japanese samurai to the explosives experts of World War Two. This all brings the novel to life and drags you deeper inside it. The other races he’s created too are all superbly rich in their description, and none of them are just humanoid rip-offs of our species, but instead run the gauntlet from cat-people and robots to indescribable lobster-like beasts with too many eyes and claws and not enough empathy.

The pacing is unstoppable and even from the opening, there’s no farting about and we’re immediately on that hill, surrounded by soldiers, sharing in their confusion. Much of the rest of the novel centres around combat and there are few books more action-packed than this. It’s a hefty tome, but entertaining, never particularly dragging. It ends on a neat note that sets up the promised sequel – and I for one already can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Book Chat: Ste Sharp

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Ste Sharp is another one of the myriad authors working with Unbound to get his projects off the ground. Earlier this year, he achieved the funding on his debut novel, Darwin’s Soldiers, the first in a trilogy about rapidly evolving warriors. By day, however, you may not suspect him of writing something like this, being a 41-year-old IT developer for a major publisher. After years working on the technical side of book production, he’s decided it’s time to swap sides for a bit.

A family man, he lives in Suffolk with his wife and two sons, and when not writing or taking care of the family, he still finds him to paint, play guitar and sing in indie band Atlas, as well as being, what he calls, an “avid allotmenteer”. Despite this harrowing schedule which I doubt allows for much sleep, he even manages to get a lot of reading done.

I managed to commandeer a few moments of his time to ask about the books he’s currently reading and what books grab his imagination.

What are you reading at the moment?

Spring Tide: a short story collection by Chris Beckett (author of the Dark Eden trilogy and America City), which is a surprising mix of speculative and contemporary fiction. “The End of Time” blew me away!

What were your favourite books growing up?

Anything by Roald Dahl! The first book I read in one sitting was The BFG – I was totally addicted. On the other hand, I was sick over Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator after a marathon reading session during a long journey in a Talbot Horizon.

Which is your favourite book from the classical canon?

I guess this depends on what you class as classical. I loved the Iliad and the Odyssey, which gave some great inspiration for writing battle scenes. I had no idea how graphically detailed they were! As for more modern classics, The Grapes of Wrath would be high on my list.

Can you describe your ideal reading set up? Where, when and what?

A thought-provoking, fast-paced sci-fi paperback in a hammock in the dappled shade of an apple tree just after lunch, with a pot of coffee, which also how I’d like to pass away – preferably having finished the book first.

What genres do you prefer?

You could argue there’s only one genre – science fiction – and everything else is a sub-genre that fits inside the literally limitless boundaries of SF, but I’m sure many people would disagree. Often, what I read depends what I’m writing at the time, but I gravitate towards sci-fi and fantasy novels (nothing beats how they meld well-crafted characters with intricate plots and mind-bending scenarios) but I like to cleanse the palate with the odd historical novel every now and then (fewer robots).

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

Whatever I read tends to be in the same tense as whatever I’m writing at the time. Last year I wrote a first person crime novel set in Brighton in the nineties, so I only read first person novels for ten months. Now I’m back into third person, which is way less intense and much better for head-hopping from character to character like how George R.R. Martin does in his Song of Ice and Fire novels. More importantly, the book has to entice me and make me want to know what happens next.

Can you tell me about a book that taught you something, either about yourself or the world?

The Good Immigrant taught me a great deal about the UK today and, on a personal level, how everyone has to deal with how they are perceived or judged by their physical appearance in modern society.

Can you tell me about a book that made you laugh?

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion was filled with genuinely laugh out loud stuff. The main character reminded me of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, but Australian, and the story of how he tries to find what he deems as the ‘perfect wife’ is hilarious. Definitely worth a read, along with the sequel, The Rosie Effect.

Do you judge a book by its cover?

Only if it has a so-called celebrity’s name on the front – then I may judge it harshly. Actually, a great deal of pressure is put on book covers, especially these days when many readers just see thumbnails when they’re searching for their next read. The cover for my book, Darwin’s Soldiers, is being designed right now and I have a lot of respect for the designers who manage to attract readers to a book whilst somehow distilling the themes into one image. I know a picture paints a thousand words but cover designers paint a hundred thousand words with one picture. Legends.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Today I’m going to say Cloud Atlas because of the genre switches, range of characters and pleasing structure. But tomorrow, I could easily choose another title… probably something by John Steinbeck.

You can find out more about Ste’s upcoming novel, Darwin’s Soldiers – and pledge your support – by visiting Unbound, or following Ste on Twitter: @SteSharpAuthor.