A Fatal Tide by Steve Sailah

In brief: Thomas and Snow are the best of mates. When Thomas’s father is found dead in mysterious circumstances, the pair join the army to not only fight in World War I, but find the killer.

The good: The descriptions of the Anzacs at Gallipoli – the fighting, how the soldiers feel – should be required reading for anything even thinking war is cool.

The not-so-good: The momentum slowed a little before the cracking finale.

Why I chose it: Won in a competition from Random House, also joining in a blog tour of reviews.

Year: 2014

Pages: 304 (ARC)

Publisher: Bantam Australia (part of Random House)

Setting: Queensland, Australia; Egypt and Gallipoli

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

I was lucky enough to win an advance copy of A Fatal Tide and also join a blog tour coordinated by Random House to discuss this book. The first thing that intrigued me about A Fatal Tide was the author’s name – hadn’t I heard of Steve Sailah before? It turned out that I was right – Steve is an award-winning journalist. It looks like he’ll be able to add star novelist to his credentials with this book.

The book could be easily categorised as ‘historical mystery’, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of two teenage boys being forced to grow up very quickly as World War I rages amongst them, it’s a story describing in detail life in the trenches during a war and it’s a story about love for your family. It’s also a book that should be read as a lesson as to why war is not a good thing. Sailah doesn’t hold anything back when describing the carnage and fear of the soldiers in addition to the illness and boredom of military life.

The novel begins in Queensland, describing the friendship between two teenage boys in a small country town. Thomas is the son of the local policeman and his best mate Snow is Aboriginal, living outside of town on a mission with his family. When Thomas’s father is found dead, presumably due to his own hand, Snow’s family looks after Thomas and begin to see some anomalies in his death. Snow’s father, Tubbie, is an expert tracker who believes he was murdered, and there’s also some evidence hidden which could be very dangerous to the military (or very dangerous, depending which side you’re on). When the local doctor supports Tubbie’s statement, Thomas knows he has to dig further to find his father’s killer. The mystery goes back to the Boer War, so Thomas and Snow, thinking themselves as their heroes, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, enlist in the Australian Army.

World War I and life at Gallipoli is like nothing the pair could have ever imagined. With Thomas’s former teacher (appropriately nicknamed Teach), and new friend Fish, the boys will turn into men as they become killing machines. This is not an adventure, it’s a nightmare. Plus there’s someone who knows what Thomas and Snow really came to war for, and they are trying to get rid of them – and quickly.

A Fatal Tide has quite a sombre tone at times, but the humour between Thomas and Snow lightens it somewhat. I enjoyed the banter between Snow and Thomas as they pretended to be Holmes and Watson, figuring out the murderer and the mock arguments between the others. What was more devastating though was the double agent role some of their comrades had – it was disgusting to think of soldiers turning on each other to fight their own petty battles in comparison to the bigger picture. I think the duplicity of the war and murder also help A Fatal Tide to stand out in the WWI fiction category. Sailah is blunt and unforgiving at the brutal loss of Snow and Thomas’s innocence – teenage boys one moment, hardened veterans the next. He doesn’t shy away from the effect fighting has on the boys’ minds – Snow occasionally misses a shot while acting as a sniper and Thomas sometimes misses a fatal shot to clip the enemy. At first Thomas thinks there is something wrong not to be an unemotional killing machine, but he accepts Snow’s point and finds himself doing the same thing for his sanity. Sailah also tells of some of the things not commonly thought about when you’re reading/watching war stories – what if you have dysentery and get shot running to the latrine? How does it feel to be continually writing that ‘last letter’ when you haven’t slept for days? What can you hang on to when the world is going to hell? How do you forget?

I also enjoyed the way the murder mystery linked back to the Boer War. This is a war I don’t know much about, especially Australia’s role, and I enjoyed learning about Breaker Morant and Lord Kitchener. I liked how Sailah took a historical ambiguity and made a wonderfully written and powerful story. This book should be required reading for those with an interest in the Anzacs, and those looking for a jolly good read.


My review is part of the blog tour for A Fatal Tide. Please join All the Books I Can Read for their review of this book later this week – you can also check out Book’d Out’s review, which was posted earlier.

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