By Charles E.P. Murphy
Over a period of years, quietly, Ireland is conquered. A highly coordinated buyout of financial assets is combined with the kidnapping of family members of high-ranking officials. Once the enemy have finished flying in various soldiers and giving them faux-citizenship, an “internal Irish matter” coup will be arranged. Only by chance did a handful of students figure this out, and Britain is alerted in time to establish and aid a resistance network in preparation for a war.
A war against the invading Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Libyan army.
That’s the premise of the late Mike Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose (named after the Irish poem Dark Rosaleen) and by this point, you’re either clicking out of this review or halfway to buying it on premise alone. Because it’s a bloody mad premise.
This is the result of the time it was originally written, 1995; like Lunnon-Wood’s Long Reach, this is an alternate history now but at the time was a it-could-happen-tomorrow technothriller. As Long Reach’s reviewer Colin Salt has written elsewhere, the 90s were a weird time for that genre. You could no longer use the Soviets as your go-to enemy and Islamic terrorists & China weren’t yet as big a bogeyman. You could easily see a version of this book where communists and their Warsaw pact backers do a coup, but with them out you get the ripped-from-the-headlines PLO, hoping to blackmail their way into getting the Israeli-Palestinian borders redrawn. (Even more of its time, we’re told “Saddam bloody Hussein” offered to be Palestine’s muscle but they felt Saddam was too much bad press)
Machinations occur at the UN and the spirit of Bosnia hangs over things, as the Palestinians feel Britain and America – the rest of the EU is oddly uncaring of a member-state being invaded – will seek a mandate there but be stymied, noting there’s still nothing done in Bosnia. An internment camp is later described during the occupation and that also feels very inspired by a famous photo of such a camp in Bosnia. The Troubles still loom over some of the proceedings.
Other bits from the 90s may feel a little too 90s for some readers. There’s a political grumble that Ireland being too open-bordered and nice in the new EU has left it vulnerable to sinister foreigners coming in, for example. A progressive for its time moment, with an SAS man unbothered by a resistance member’s homosexuality, has the now inadvertently funny phrasing of "no one who ever worked with a gay could doubt their courage." (There’s also a lesbian BDSM affair involving a Palestinian spy which, well, exists.)
Just like Long Reach, this book has extensive work on how the British military operates, loving descriptions of the high-tech weaponry and doctrine (circa ’95), a large and wide-ranging cast from local civilians to high commanders, very crude but very brave soldiers, and a general sense that Lunnon-Wood has been talking to actual soldiers, which he had. The massive cast means nobody gets much depth, but the low-level grunts and field officers feel like people you’d run into.
As with Long Reach, there’s also “Dantean” scenes of bombardment and battlefield wounds, which feel very much like he’s talked to someone. The lavish talk of Sea Dart’s and ALARMs and ‘pinkies’ and Chinooks and the rest, lots of books have that; the Independence Day novelisation had that. It’s another thing entirely when a field officer remembers his dad telling him your hands shake after combat, trying to hide it, and then seeing a Libyan corpse with “its face shot away.
“Suddenly he didn't care anymore. Didn't care who saw his hand shake. He felt sick. His father never warned him about that."
How does all this technical detail and semi-grounding in the realities of fighting men work, however, when the book’s about the PLO conquering Ireland with banks?
It works weirdly. You veer from quite good technothriller combat and grunt-eye-view to pulp-gritty scenes of resistance-on-occupier action, the sort of thing you buy books like this for – patrols entering North Side Dublin and never coming out, mob attacks, reprisal shootings, terror tactics – to the oddity of exactly who this combat is with.
The Palestinians are treated with far more nuance than you’d think from the description and some of the politics (and that it seems everyone of Palestinian heritage worldwide is in on the plot). They’re antagonists and their side is responsible for monstrous deeds, kidnappers kill a dog at one point, but every named Palestinian we meet is either a well-educated man, or a brave fighter, or someone with a sympathetic interaction with the Irish. A character who is an expert ‘Arabist’ gives a potted history of the Israel-Palestine conflict to MI6 (the expert thinks Jewish immigration kicked off in 1945 and it was the silly Americans & not Britain that committed to Jewish states, but never mind that) and it's explicitly a litany of being screwed over. Lunnon-Wood seems to have had great sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people, and the PLO are written as having an understandable reason for action. When the resistance kicks off, several Palestinians are disquieted by how it feels like the Intifada and now they are hated occupiers.
To have a sympathetic or at least human occupier, you also need a heavy. In Talking Pictures TV’s repeats of Secret Army right now, you can see this is played by the relatively more civilised Luftwaffe officer Brandt, who will still arrest parents on suspicion to intimidate them, versus the monstrous Gestapo officer Kessler, who just sends the entire family to a labour camp. Here, the same dynamic is played with the Libyans as the heavies. All the great atrocities are committed by the Libyans losing the plot. One flaw is that the Libyans don’t really have any named baddies outside of the sneering drunken General Saad, who isn’t seen often enough to be a true villain. Another flaw is the Libyans are often morons and easy to splatter by the superior Anglo-American forces – and also true of the Guatemalans in Long Reach (where there was also no real villain figure). However, in Long Reach, the well-trained high-tech Brits are greatly outnumbered and far from home, so they’re still the underdogs needing resupply. But that’s not unknown in technothrillers and action tales.
There is, however, another way this book is quite strange, one that is specific to it. It’s a book about the invasion of Ireland, and occupiers in Ireland, and Irish people being interned, but you may have noticed I keep talking about Britain’s response. That’s because Dark Rose is set in Ireland and has a lot of Irish characters, but the bulk of the cast and the bulk of the work done is by Britain and its chum America. Ireland’s resistance network is set up and outfitted by Britain, and the SAS help recruit the main players, and the rallying of Irish embassies to form the backbone of a government-in-exile is done by Britain, and the free forces are primarily British ‘volunteers’ of Celtic background. This last part is quite a clever concept, an entire force of foreign soldiers merged in with the Irish Defence Force but officially classed as all-volunteers, even the officers, serving the government-in-exile to create a myth of the Irish ‘coming home’ over Britain saving them. But the Brits (and Yanks) are still quite clearly the ones saving them.
This undermines it somewhat. An occupation thriller should be focused on the country that’s being occupied and the local rebels. Secret Army, for example, is set in Belgium and about a Belgian escape line; they work with London but aren’t controlled by them, and they are the main characters. Here, the resistance are supporting characters in their own occupation. If this book was promoted as “Britain Saves Ireland”, that’d be one thing but the current blurb refers to “the fierce resolve of their Celtic opponents”, “take their country back”, with British power presented as an allied action. The descriptions of local resistance are notably shorter than the descriptions of RAF planes and Royal Navy Type 42’s.
It’s also weird that the revolution, the Troubles, and the long British occupation rarely come up, and even more rarely in comparison to this new invasion. The scenes of troops on the street and violence and internment cannot help but invoke images of Northern Ireland, images that were very recent when the story is written. The Libyan atrocities and the heroic resistance smack a bit of how republican propaganda would treat Northern Ireland, but nobody Irish brings it up and no British character thinks of it either. It feels like Lunnon-Wood didn’t think of it, because the Troubles have the British Army, who are good, against terrorists, who are bad, and this is about something else.
Lunnon-Wood clearly loved Ireland and there’s all sorts of romantic descriptions of the nature of Ireland and the Celtic people – after a while, that does beg the question of how Irish people who aren’t ethnically Celtic (especially if they had dark skin) felt about all this talk of Celts throwing out foreign enemies – and loving descriptions of hard-but-fair farmers, the rural villages, the colleges, and the traditional lore. We’re told “historians” believe Ireland preserved Greco-Roman civilisation in Europe. This is the work of a man who visits somewhere and loves it and knows people there. All that makes it stranger that the bulk of the action is done by Britain.
At times too, it also feels a bit like a teenaged anime fan talking about Japan. One of the key ideas of the fight back is that Ireland needs a symbol, something to rally people, something that can represent the nation to the world. And so, the government –in–exile temporarily reinstate the monarchy, crowning a random nineteen-year-old girl at Tara as the High Queen. And it works! (The book is very adamant that the naysayers in the tabloids are Wrong and Queen Maeve is a natural symbol, and also she’s well fit) This is a far, far stranger idea than “the PLO conquers Ireland”. I can’t see an Irish technothriller writer from 1995 ever deciding that the republic will rally behind an obviously made-up monarchy that the British have a hand in. An expy of President Mary Robinson shows up in the book, and as she was massively popular at the time then why not have her smuggled out of the country? But the High Queen plot drips in Celtic romanticism, and that romanticism would be why.
So, in the end, Dark Rose is an extremely uneven, extremely strange book. All the grounded bits make the weird bits stand out like they’ve been laser-painted by hypercompetent SAS men and you’re an Irish-repainted Harrier jet. But while it’s not as good as Long Reach, I read it far quicker – I ran through Dark Rose in a five-day blaze, having to see what the hell was going on. There is nothing else like it. It has a certain ‘something’ to it.
And I suspect that if you’re the sort of person that will enjoy this book, my description of Queen Maeve just made you want to read it even more.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.