The Great Eastern

Written by Howard Rodman
Review by Mary Fisk

I have never read anything quite like The Great Eastern – an addictive, steampunk fantasy that blends 19th-century fact with characters from 19th-century fiction.

The history books tell us that the celebrated engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, designer of the iron-hulled Great Eastern, the largest ship then afloat, died in 1859 after suffering a stroke. In this alternate reality, Brunel has in fact been drugged and kidnapped by the man who goes by the name of Captain Nemo in order to bring his skills to bear to modify Nemo’s submarine into a weapon he can use in his stealth war against the imperial ambitions of Britain and America.

Eventually they come up against Brunel’s own ship – the once-mighty Great Eastern – reduced to a telegraph cable-layer (the telegraph that Nemo intends to destroy, as an instrument of Empire). It also pitches them against the sea-captain hired to protect the cable from the onslaughts that have repeatedly severed it mid-ocean – the obsessed John Ahab, who is determined that the “Leviathan” will not get the better of him again.

Rodman’s Ahab is a magnificent, and terrifying, creation, who speaks of himself in the third person with Biblical cadences. The Cambridge- and Sandhurst-educated Nemo is just as ruthless. Between them is the rationalist Brunel, proud of his submarine creation, but horrified at Nemo’s ultimate plans.

The attack on the telegraph would be the equivalent of a strike on the global internet network today, and Nemo’s undeclared war on the instruments of empire has strong modern resonances.

The Great Eastern is a challenging read, with its dense, sometimes meandering narrative, unconventional voices and multiple viewpoints, and the reader really needs to be familiar with the fictional worlds of Herman Melville and Jules Verne to get to grips with the characterisation of Ahab and Nemo – but it is a challenge worth taking on.