Book Review: “Captain Nemo” by Kevin J. Anderson

Straight from the pages of the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, comes Captain Nemo, the story behind the character, in this new sci-fi/fantasy swashbuckler from Kevin J. Anderson, released last week in paperback from Titan Books.

Author Kevin J. Anderson has become famous for using previously existing cahracters and franchises and making them his own creations, making him the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino in the fantasy adventure genre.l  Here, he never skips a beat, taking all of the best elements from the work of authors like Jules Verne and Daniel Defoe, and modernizing them without losing the style of the original novels.

In a very “meta” move, Anderson has taken the life of author Jules Verne and fictionalized it to the point of making Captain Nemo a real person, the brave and intelligent Andre Nemo, French orphan and childhood friend of Jules Verne.  By doing this, Anderson creates a bridge from reality to fiction.  Beginning when Verne and Nemo are children, it uses the framework of the real Jules Verne’s life, creating a backstory for each one of his stories via the events of Andre Nemo’s life.

Jules is a sheltered child from a middle class family, his father Pierre wants him to go to law school and become a country lawyer just like Pierre is.   Jules, however, would rather go exploring with Nemo, whose shipbuilder father is a lot more lenient when it comes to controlling young Andre’s behavior.  With this freedom, Andre is able to use his intellectual aptitudes for engineering to further his adventures.  His first adventure comes when he creates a bladder helmet that allows him to walk on the bottom of the river that he and Jules live next to, using reeds as a simple breathing apparatus.  It is here, on the bottom of the river at Nantes, that Andre Nemo and Jules Verne forever shape their lives.

In the company of their friend Caroline Arronax, while exploring the bottom of the river, a terrible accident ensues.  Nemo’s father is building a large ship on the river when an explosion rumbles the entire neighborhood.  Still underwater, Nemo realizes what has happened and tries desperately to save his father, who is locked in one of the ship’s many rooms.

Unable to save his father, Nemo finally surfaces while Jules and Caroline watch the ship burn.  Things turn even worse for 13 year-old Andre when he learns that his father was behind on the rent of their small apartment.  Now homeless, the orphaned Andre Nemo gets help from Caroline Arronax, whose father runs a fleet of merchant ships.  He arranges for Nemo to sail with the honorable Captain Grant, who agrees to take the young man under his wing, teach him the lessons of life, and give him a job where he can earn a decent wage.  Jules, jealous of Andre’s prospects for real-life adventure, secretly joins Andre when they ship out, and their first adventure together begins.

While Jules is jealous of Andre’s life, Andre doesn’t have much of a life to be jealous of.  Instead, he has an indominable spirit, and a passion for learning.  Captain Grant takes both boys in as his own sons, teaching them everything he can while making sailors out of them.  Before they can even leave France, Pierre Verne learns of his son’s exploits, and races to snatch him before the ship can leave on its 2 -3 year expedition.  Snatched from adventure, Jules promises his father that from now on, he will only travel to faraway places in his imagination.  Andre, with nowhere else to go, continues on with Captain Grant on the ship Coralie.

While Jules returns to his boring life, Nemo learns the ways of the open sea, and studies engineering with Captain Grant, who shows Nemo the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, inspiring the young man.  As his replacement father figure, Captain Grant serves as a great mentor to Nemo, until the Coralie is attacked by a pirate ship, commanded by the ruthless Captain Noseless, who brutally slaughters everyone on the ship, accidently letting Nemo escape into the open waters where hungry sharks lurk.  Using his engineering skills, Nemo manages to build a raft out of broken pieces of the Coralie, which he uses to sail on until he ends up washed up on a mysterious deserted island.

Nemo manages to turn the rough island into a decent place to live, making his own utensils, and even inventing a large glider so he can more efficiently explore the island.  After years of living in solitude, Nemo’s life is again disrupted by the pirates, who ruin everything he has built on the island.  Miraculously, Nemo is saved by a strange species that comes from the center of the Earth, that seems to hate the pirates even more than Nemo, who manages to escape via a series of underground tunnels in the volcanic island.

Discovering a whole world beneath the Earth’s crust, Nemo travels in the underground passage, visiting a strange new world, until he pops out of a volcanic crater in Greenland, where he is saved by a geological enthusiast who gets him passage back to France.  Received as a hero for his fantastic adventures, Nemo is given a job as an engineer for Napoleon III, the ruler of France at the time, where Nemo fixes the infastructure of France after the bloody French Revolution.

In the time he was gone, Caroline Arronax has reached marrying age, and despite the mutual love between Caroline and Nemo, she is married off to the much older, but experienced and wealthy Captain Hatteras before he leaves on a 2-3 year mission to find sea passage at the North Pole.

After seeing an Englishman’s designs for a hot air balloon, Nemo sees a way to improve the design, and tells the balloon’s creator how he can make it work after many failed tests.  Upon meeting Nemo, the Englishman Ferguson agrees with Nemo, gladly accepting his plans, but without any real hope of implementing them, since the British exploration committee that was funding his work has cut him off.  In steps Caroline Arronax, now Hatteras, who has been running her father’s merchant shipping company, and agrees to fund the expedition to traverse dangerous and unexplored inland Africa, if she can come along.  So Nemo, Caroline, and Ferguson set out for Africa, but Jules decides to stay behind, stuck in law school and fearing what may happen to them on the trip.

In Africa, Nemo manages to save some civilians who are being rounded up and killed by Arab slavers, but he ends up sacrificing himself and staying behind to save Caroline and Ferguson.  After making a successful escape and returning to France, Nemo tells Jules of his amazing adventure.

Facing a wall in his writing, Jules takes the advice of the great French author Alexander Dumas, and uses Nemo’s trip for his first publishable story, Five Weeks in a Balloon, a fictionalized account of Nemo and Caroline’s adventures in the hot air balloon over Africa.  Finding his first taste of success, Jules is bitter it had to come off the heels of one of Nemo’s grand adventures.

As a valued French engineer, Andre Nemo is in great demand at the start of the Crimean War, where he volunteers his services to defend his country.  After surviving a charge with the British Light Brigade, Nemo is put under the command of the supposedly friendly Turkish Caliph Robur.  In a game of deceit, Robur manages to take Nemo captive along with a band of other engineers and scientists, who he puts to work as slaves to build an underwater vessel.  Using his engineering skills and going from a design he once saw in a book with Captain Grant, Nemo takes the lead on building the world’s first submarine.  Held captive for 7 long years, Nemo becomes a father and a husband after having a wife assigned to him as a reward.

When the underwater vessel, Nemo’s Nautilus, is complete, he learns from Auda that she is a spy for her politically connected father, and that Robur has treachery planned.  Using his wit and determination, Nemo manages to overcome Robur and escape slavery with his crew, now loyal to him, as he patrols the high seas in his submarine.

After the loss of his wife and son, Nemo is distraught, and takes to hunting down ammunition and war ships, destroying them as part of his personal war on war itself.  When he learns that Paris is under seige by the Prussians, he returns to France, using the stealth nature of his submarine, and rescues Caroline from her office as it burns.

Caroline and Nemo finally get the chance to be together after so many years, despite Jules Verne’s feelings for her, he is now married with a child of his own, yet he still cannot help but feel jealous of his adventurous friend, despite the fact that he goes on to reach great fame and fortune for his many fantastic science fiction stories, it only feeds his jealousy that he had to rely on Nemo’s life to inspire his fiction.  However, when Nemo shows up at just the right time, his friend welcomes him a final time, finally able to rise above their pasts.

It is an interesting exercise, to incorporate a man’s written fiction into the events of his life, and what makes it work is that it’s based on Jules Verne’s life, if you read an  autobiography of him, this work of fiction closely follows the actual events of his life, lending a sense of truth to every page, no matter how fantastical the events of the plot become.   It also provides the framework to incorporate all of  Verne’s works into a cohesive plot, and author Anderson does this nicely.

The style of prose is very much in the vein of classic Jules Verne and other adventure books of the period, without being stilted or feeling forced.  The plot snakes along at a quick pace, packing a lifetime of action and adventure into a single book.  The connection it creates to the real history of Jules Verne is seamless and believable, I imagine some people might even be fooled into believing this as a true biography of Verne.  Really though, it is the biography of arguably his most famous and beloved character, which speaks for Anderson’s ability to get inside the characters and bring a sense of realism to them.

Titan Books is releasing this paperback re-release with new artwork, a hand-painted image of an underwater suit like the ones Nemo and his crew use in the book.  The paiting is very evocative of the classic illustrations that graced the works of Jules Verne.  In the end, this book is like a greatest hits of the adventure genre, and like the films of Quentin Tarantino, this is a great example of post post-modern literature.  Where audiences thought there was no stone left unturned, Kevin J. Anderson has flipped all the stones back over and made them into something interesting and fresh.

While many people may think swashbucklers are a thing of the past, Anderson has shown us there is something yet to be explored in the genre, and for that matter, every genre.  Captain Nemo: Adventures of a Dark Genius comes with my highest recommendation, especially fans of classic adventure literature, Jules Verne, and post post-modern art.  Kevin J. Anderson has shown us there is always something more to  say, as long as you know how to say it.


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