1917: Machines of War
by Brian Falkner
Reviewed by Graham Hepburn
Having thoroughly enjoyed Falkner's young adult novel Shooting Stars, I was intrigued to see what he did with the next instalment in this fascinating Kiwis at War series set in World War I.
Five authors are behind this centennial five-book series; one for each year of the war, which ran from 1914-1918. Falkner had a tough act to follow, too, with Brian Hair's 1916: Dig for Victory exploring attitudes to race through its Maori and Pakeha protagonists.
Here, Falkner looks at the influence on war of technology - primarily planes, as well as tanks and communications - through the eyes of 17-year-old Bob, who assumes his brother's identity so he can join the Flying Corps on the Western Front in France. We're dropped straight into the action as Bob, on his first posting, arrives at the airfield at the same time as a German bombing raid. Initially excited by the prospect of fighting in the war, Bob is soon introduced to the grim realities as he deals with the aftermath of the bombing and suffers horrible burns to his hands.
While in hospital, he meets Manu, the Maori protagonist from Dig for Victory. This is another neat aspect of this series; characters from previous books appear in the other stories, providing continuity and further character development.
Once Bob is discharged from hospital, he rejoins his squadron as an observer/tail gunner sitting back to back with the pilot in a Bristol fighter plane. Eventually, Bob realises his dream, becoming a pilot, but it's a bittersweet achievement as he loses comrades along the way amid death and destruction on an enormous scale.
Falkner has woven a gripping story using a factual basis; it revolves around the actual battles and has real-life characters such as the German ace pilot Manfred Von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron. Although there's a lot of page-turning action, war is not glorified as we follow Bob's changing attitude to battle, an emotional journey that starts with excitement and progresses through revenge, bloodlust, sadness, self-hatred to professional detachment.
Told in the first person, through an impressionable youngster's eyes, this book should appeal to teenagers who couldn't imagine going to war, let alone consider it a great adventure. Boys, particularly, should enjoy the action and be fascinated by the unsophisticated planes and tanks that were considered cutting edge 100 years ago.