Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ironcastle (J.H. Rosny & Philip Jose Farmer, 1922/1976)

my copy, photographed on my dining room table.
Having received this book in the mail on Friday, as of Monday evening I've finished it, and that's having been too busy over the weekend to get a whole lot of reading in.  I picked this book up on an impulse - Christopher Paul Carey tied it into his novella Exiles of Kho, tempting my curiosity.  It was $2 used on Amazon, so why the hell not? I was also intrigued by the history of the novel itself; written in France by J.H. Rosny in 1922, and then loosely translated into English, with embellishments, by Philip Jose Farmer in 1976 - how often do you see a thing like that, where the point is not to create a literal, faithful translation but to use the act of translation as a springboard? That's some Borgesian action, right there.

The novel opens with the titular Hareton Ironcastle, enjoying the luxuries of the Baltimore Gun Club (of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon fame) when he receives mail from his friend Darnley, who is currently on expedition in a very unusual corner of Africa, the forbidding and heretofore totally-unexplored Gondoroko region, where he has discovered many strange and unusual plants and animals, which he invites Ironcastle to join him in studying.

In the course of their journey into the heart of Gondorokoland, Ironcastle, his daughter Muriel, and their companions Philippe, Sir George, and Guthrie encounter ape-men, hideous dwarfs, proud cannibals, and that's before things even start to get strange: flies the size of sparrows, three-eyed hairy toads and crocodiles, cave lions, singing purple fact, all the vegetation in Gondorokoland is particularly unusual...

J.H. Rosny keeps getting compared to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to my eyes, the comparison is not an apt one.  Ironcastle reminded me much more strongly of the writings of Jules Verne than of Burroughs, and not always in a good way.  The character of Ironcastle here struck me as being very in the vein of Verne's Professor Arronax, being a seemingly-endless font of throwaway comments expressing a phenomenal range of scientific expertise.

The narrative flow also reminded me more of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than of At The Earth's Core in that it felt to me like the story moved at a very stately, almost sedate pace, occasionally coming to a seeming stand-still as the characters stood around remarking on the trees or animal life of Gondorokoland.  Whereas Verne seemed eager to share everything he'd read on the subject of ichthyology in long character monologues (and I say this as someone who loves 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and went through a period where I was rereading it annually), in Ironcastle everything just seems to bog down and flounder around until the next thing happens to the protagonists.

And that's another thing! The protagonists just felt very passive here; maybe that's a French thing.  There were a few sequences in which the characters took hold of the rudder and guided themselves through the sea of fate, but they felt few and far between compared to times where the characters seemed to stand around and say, "Well, Lord, we place ourselves into Your hands now," which is not what I want from an adventure novel.

I know I haven't really focused on the positives in this review, and focusing on the positive is something I really want to do with this blog; I'm here to share my enjoyment of what I'm reading wherever I can.

So let me say this: while I have issues with the narrative flow and the characterizations on display here, I cannot fault the imagination in display from both Rosny and Farmer.  The creatures are at once alien and familiar, and the "vegetable kingdom" of Gondoroko delivers a level of quiet, unspoken menace not normally seen in plants.

All in all, I found Ironcastle suited me better more as an exercise in world-building than it did as a rousing novel of page-turning adventure.  I think I expected more of the characters than I actually got, but I'm interested enough to be willing to read more of Rosny's writing in the future.  As for Hareton Ironcastle himelf, his adventures were continued by Christopher Paul Carey and Win Scott Eckert in the short story "Iron & Bronze," which first appeared in one of the Tales of the Shadowmen anthology volumes.


  1. Bill, thanks for the thoughtful review! Interested readers can also pick up my and Christopher Paul Carey's collaboration short story if Ironcastle, "Iron and Bronze," as a standalone ebook:

  2. There are a number of Rosny books available in translation from Black Coat Press (