I don’t usually review historical fiction titles as a rule here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, because quite honestly I don’t read many of them; I much prefer alternate history titles where the historical narrative is amended or manipulated in some manner to produce a new and ahistorical result. There’s also the fact that most of the historical fiction I’ve read set during the Second World War has always been – to me – a bit lacklustre and lacking in originality and imagination. If it’s combat-focused then you usually follow the time-honoured routes of going through the main theatres of the conflict without any focus on the more interesting and less well-known campaigns; and if it’s espionage or political in tone, then inevitably the plot will focus in and around London, and usually only Whitehall and its surroundings. It all tends to blur together to me and become dull and bland as a result; and as such I always assumed that any historical fiction set during the Second World War would have to have a pretty unique and gripping premise to get me interested in reading it. Well, I was fortunate enough to be scrolling through Facebook looking for new horror and sci-fi titles to review when I came across an advert from publisher Arachnid Press, advertising their latest upcoming release – Bloody Orkney by Ken Lussey. The striking cover image immediately caught my eye, with its blood-red sky, Spitfire flying silhouetted in the sky in the background, and a row of sinister-looking rocks looming in the foreground. The title also sounded intriguing, particularly as Orkney is about as far from London as it’s possible to get in the UK; and the back-cover blurb caught my interest with its references to a heavily-defended naval anchorage, an unidentified body found nearby, and powerful and secretive interests that come to threaten the team of military investigators trying to uncover truths they want to remain hidden. It all combined to create something that sounded unique, imaginative and utterly thrilling, and I was grateful to the publisher for sending me a review copy for the blog.
For me personally, as both reader and reviewer, historical thrillers have a pretty high threshold to meet in order to catch my attention and therefore sustain my interest; as they can’t deploy the usual horror or sci-fi scenarios and imagery to immediately lure me into their narrative, they need to have some pretty good hooks. Ken Lussey is clearly aware of the need to immediately grip his audience’s attention, and does so in resounding and memorable fashion, instantly setting in motion multiple plot threads that immediately had me hooked and eager to learn more. In just a few pages, Lussey presents us with a dramatic and unexpected plane crash that leads to the death of its female courier pilot; and the grim discovery of a severed forearm and hand in a rock-filled mesh container, one of many being used to form causeways between Orkney and its surrounding islands. At the same time, Group Captain Bob Sutherland and his team from Military Intelligence 11 – or MI11 – fly into Orkney tasked with reviewing the defences of the naval anchorage for the Royal Navy based in the island chain. One of the lesser known departments of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence (unlike the famous MI5 and MI6) MI11 are tasked with field security, protecting British soldiers and sailors against Axis agents and potential ‘fifth columnists’. What should have been a relatively routine task for Bob and his team – inspecting the RAF, Royal Navy and British Army components of the defences in and around Orkney and the infamous Scapa Flow anchorage – rapidly becomes something very different and incredibly dangerous when it becomes apparent that the base security officer is missing, and his disappearance being covered up; there’s an atmosphere of barely-concealed panic amongst the naval staff for unknown reasons; and on his second day in Orkney, Bob is suddenly sent on an urgent, life-or-death mission to a nearby RAF base that results in an investigation into a crashed aircraft and the sudden appearance of a mysterious, fatal illness. As if that wasn’t enough, Glasgow gangster Frank Gordon, recently released from prison after serving a term for attempted murder, is also lurking around Orkney for unclear reasons and just happens to be Bob’s uncle.
Lussey throws a lot of balls into the air as plot points, and a less assured author might have fumbled catching at least some of them as they’re juggled about; but Lussey is quite astute in his plotting, and manages to develop both a major plot and several minor narratives and effectively blend them together into one cohesive and rather satisfying thriller. At the heart of Blood Orkney is the island chain itself, and Lussey clearly did his research because Orkney almost becomes a character itself; isolated from both civilian society and military authorities, class-ridden and utterly dominated by an all-pervasive and highly influential military presence as a result of the Scapa Flow anchorage and its importance in the early years of the war effort. But the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in 1939, and even aerial attacks later on in the conflict, are far in the past; and the military establishment, overwhelmingly focused on the Royal Navy, is now languishing as the conflict has moved to different theatres and the Orkneys have become something of a back-water posting. Corruption, blackmail and lethal action simmer just under the surface, their influence reaching up to the very top of the chain of command to powerful men who don’t want to be disturbed, and it soon becomes apparent to Bob and his team that there are schemes and plots that are too lucrative to be disturbed by a mere military security team; and when these professionals do start to uncover issues and ask questions, the establishment hits back – hard. It’s an absolutely fascinating series of locations that Lussey deftly develops as the narrative progresses, creating a unique atmosphere of an immensely powerful establishment that has started to go to seed and become riddled with vice, venality and outright exploitation. It’s by far the best element of Bloody Orkney and certainly something that I’d be eager for Lussey to return to in a later novel; I feel like there are many stories left untold in those lonely, mist-shrouded islands.
Fortunately, Orkney itself isn’t the only intriguing character in the novel. Bob is a memorable and engaging protagonist, a former Battle of Britain pilot who suffered a head injury that prevents him from returning to active duty, and has instead thrown himself into his MI11 duties in an attempt to find a way to move on despite his past. Lussey gives him some real depth as the novel progresses, and as Bob is a protagonist across multiple novels where his character has obviously been developed prior, it’s to the authors great credit that he still come across as three-dimensional and fleshed-out within the course of Bloody Orkney itself. There’s a touching and surprisingly emotional sub-plot threaded through the novel when Bob discovers an ‘abandoned’ Mosquito bomber that he effectively commandeers for his investigation, and his struggles to fly it and exorcise some of his demons is another great part of the novel. He’s accompanied throughout his investigations by the mysterious Monique Dubois, an intelligence agent with a chequered past temporarily reassigned from MI6, and the ups and downs of their relationship add some more depth and colour to both characters. They’re supported by the cast drawn from their MI11 team, officers and NCOs drawn from across the three military services, all of whom come across as distinct characters despite their short time on-screen; I was particularly taken with the quiet, reserved and utterly lethal Commando officer Anthony Darlington, who feels like he could have his own spin-off adventures if and when Lussey tires of Bob and Monique. Lussey also adds in some incredibly interesting and simultaneously disquieting parts in the novel about British chemical warfare experiments, both how they were conducted and their purpose as a form of proto-Mutually Assured Destruction; and the proto-Cold War machinations of a nearby Soviet flight squadron who seem likely to be involved in at least one of the schemes bubbling under the surface of Orkney, just to keep the reader on their toes and demonstrate the murky depths of the politics affecting even this distant outpost of the British Empire.
A fast-paced, thrilling and complex historical thriller, Bloody Orkney has completely revived my interest in the historical fiction genre, with author Ken Lussey delivering a masterclass in how to invigorate the stale, trope-ridden setting of the Second World War by setting the narrative in a distant, unfamiliar location he imbues with a chilling and unsettling atmosphere and filling it with multi-faceted, memorable characters who stay with you long after the novel has come to an end. I’ve been greatly entertained by Bloody Orkney and will be seeking out more titles by Ken Lussey from his extensive back catalogue, and I also look forward to seeing what he does in the future with Group Captain Bob Sutherland and his team from Military Intelligence 11.