CAPTAIN NEMO by Kevin J. Anderson
Titan Books, 2011, 400 pages, 978-0857683427, Trade Paperback, $12.95
Over the last year or two, I’ve read several books that re-imagined the lives of historical figures. Captain Nemo, however, is the first I’ve read that does so in a largely realistic way (which is to say, it doesn’t involve things like time travel, but it does involve things like dinosaurs. So, you can see I’m using the word “realistic” rather loosely…. Actually, very loosely…), and the first I’ve read that consciously attempts to recreate a particular style of storytelling.
Captain Nemo does this for Jules Verne by creating a world where Nemo–the dark anti-hero of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island–is not just a character, but a childhood friend of Verne’s who becomes the basis for all of his imaginative works.
The character portrayals are what kept me moving through this novel. Each of the main three protagonists–Andre Nemo, Jules Verne, and Caroline Arronax–is so uniquely characterized that it made their interactions interesting and, at times, explosive. Beside which, the dichotomy between Nemo and Verne is what makes the story work. They are two sides of a coin–both drawn to adventure, but one suited to becoming actively involved with it, and the other to merely imagining and describing it.
Caroline, meanwhile, is a thoroughly modern female character, aware of her repressed situation yet determined to undermine social convention. In fact, she uses her position to do just that rather than allowing it to dictate the course of her life. Moreover, she was extremely loyal to what she truly wanted in life rather than being easily susceptible to circumstances or peer pressure. Caroline was quite admirable, and I enjoyed reading about her.
What tested my patience while reading Captain Nemo was the pace of the story. I’m lead to understand that the writing style is an effort to mimic the work of Jules Verne and, as a concept, I find the experiment laudable. As a reader, however, I found the style tedious to follow for the first two-thirds of the novel. It’s simply another example of over-description with very little in-depth exploration of characters or concepts. I’m not interested in a blow-by-blow narration of events. I want something beyond that–something that pulls me into the story and allows me to become invested. This, perhaps, is why the last third of the novel moved much more quickly. By this point, Nemo’s personality is becoming darker, and his motivations have a much more personal bent. With these character elements at the forefront rather than step-by-step action shots, the story shot forward.
For the majority of the novel, the characters don’t remain in contact with one another. They are together at the beginning and at the end, but, through the middle, one or all of them are busy dealing with their own lives. To some degree, I found this frustrating even though I understand the reasons behind it. Still, to have all of the main characters separated, and to spend a lot of the time following Jules Verne, who was only barely likeable at times because of his self-pitying attitude, sometimes made the story feel slower. Then again, it made the moments when the characters met again all the more exciting.
Breaking up the characters also makes it clearer that this story is more a tale of Verne’s journey in life and how Nemo’s experiences affected that. Yet the fun is mostly Nemo’s. There’s definitely plenty of action and derring-do where he’s concerned. The charm of the story, really, is in watching him overcome obstacles and impossible situations. Not everything he does is believable, but that’s entirely the point. He’s a problem-solving genius who happens to be dark and dashing on top of it, and that’s why we want to read about him.
I believe this will certainly be an entertaining novel for those who have read Verne in the past–inside knowledge of the works mentioned throughout the story will no doubt make it more entertaining–or for those who enjoy classic adventure tales.
Thank you to Titan Books for providing a review copy of this novel.