Synopsis: 1919. On the desolate battlefields of northern France, the guns of the Great War are silent. Special battalions now face the dangerous task of gathering up the dead for mass burial. Captain Mackenzie, a survivor of the war, cannot yet bring himself to go home. First he must see that his fallen comrades are recovered and laid to rest. His task is upended when a gruesome discovery is made beneath the ruins of a German strongpoint. Amy Vanneck’s fiancé is one soldier lost amongst many, but she cannot accept that his body may never be found. She heads to France, determined to discover what became of the man she loved. It soon becomes clear that what Mackenzie has uncovered is a war crime of inhuman savagery. As the dark truth leaches out, both he and Amy are drawn into the hunt for a psychopath, one for whom the atrocity at Two Storm Wood is not an end, but a beginning.
Set months after the Armistice, Two Storm Wood delves into a period of history that is often overlooked in World War One stories; the reclamation of the dead and missing amongst the empty trenches and battlefields. As a child in history lessons, we never spent too much time on the immediate aftermath of World War One; focusing instead on the Treaty of Versailles and the eventual rise of National Socialism in Germany that led to World War Two. The idea that British troops and the Chinese Labour Corps stayed behind to recover bodies, locate unexploded mines and fill in trenches seems so obvious in hindsight, but I had no idea that it happened until I read this novel.
Using this forgotten part of history as a backdrop to his thriller, author Philip Gray explores the uneasy transition back to peace times; both for the soldiers who survived and were indelibly marked by the horrors of war and those that were waiting for them to return home. His lead characters find themselves haunted by the war by the very virtue of remaining in the ruins of Northern France, raking through the remains to find those who have been lost. Through his evocative prose, Gray manages to convey the otherworldly eeriness of these empty trenches and bombed-out battlefields as his characters find themselves held hostage by the memories of the events there. I was in awe with just how vivid some of the descriptions of these post-War environments were.
While the bloodshed of World War One casts a gloomy shadow over the entire book, it is the shocking atrocities that take place within Two Storm Wood and subsequent murders after the fact that gives the novel its distinctive tone. The murder mystery element of the book is extremely effective, although I did think some aspects of the ‘big twist’ were telegraphed a little too early. Unfortunately, it’s one of those situations where too little pre-warning would have resulted in an unfulfilling reveal and too much gives the game away too early. That said, it was still extremely satisfying when the clues came together and the final act began to form. Even though I guessed some aspects of the mystery, the novel is far from predictable; although I do feel it would have been more effective if a certain early chapter had been removed, or placed much later on in the story.
Two Storm Wood’s protagonist is Amy Vanneck, the determined fiancée of the missing Edward Haslam, who travels to France to locate his body and find closure. Driven by guilt and grief, Vanneck’s arduous journey amongst the ruins of World War One throws her into the middle of a murderous conspiracy involving the slaughter of thirteen men, making her question whether the man she fell in love with could be responsible. Gray’s narrative focuses on how war and extreme violence can change people, leaving a stain on the individual no matter how innocent they once were. Through the eyes of Amy, we see the brutal aftermath of the conflict; both on the land itself and those men who survived – be it physical or mental scars.
The brutalities of the First World War seem so far removed from us over a hundred years later that I find reading historical fiction like this helps remember just how terrible it was for those soldiers. While the murders are fictional, Gray laces his story with realism in regards to the experiences of the soldiers; exploring the darker underbelly of warfare with opium, cocaine and prostitutes. These men, many of whom were just boys, were completely shaken to their core and Gray’s novel explores those ideas whilst also crafting a thrilling adventure. It reminded me a lot of the Charley’s War graphic novels I’d read a few years ago; an uncomfortable mix of entertainment and education as to just how dreadful conditions were for those soldiers back.
Rich with atmosphere and possessing a dark beauty, Two Storm Wood is a haunting historical thriller that explores the horrors of war from a different perspective. Intensely cinematic and emotionally-driven, it would make for a brilliant mini-series or movie one day, perhaps with Keira Knightley or Daisy Ridley as Amy Vanneck – someone with that juxtaposing mix of elegance, strength and vulnerability. Appealing to both fans of historical fiction and murder mysteries, Two Storm Wood is a powerful tribute to those who risked their lives after the war had ended and a staggeringly good read.
Score – ★★★★
Two Storm Wood is available in hardback format from Amazon and all good book stores or as a digital eBook via Amazon Kindle. It is also available as an Audible audiobook, and can be downloaded free as part of its trial promotion.