Among diplomats and soldiers there is an old saying. He who takes the King's shilling, does the King's bidding. The words are true. Both soldiers and diplomats are often sent to rotten places to perform difficult, dangerous and even stupid missions in the service of their country. Often they are sent out without adequate support or resources. Mike Lunnon Wood's novel King's Shilling is a nearly perfect tale of men asked to do the nearly impossible with next to nothing. It is set in reality.
In 1996 Liberia endured the climax of another useless civil war. On TV, the Liberian Civil war amounted to nothing more than 90 seconds of TV coverage, and only during the collapse. Small potatoes in the Big Picuture. The colony built for former slaves has come apart once again. Three competing warlords fought over the capital Monrovia and its spoils. The Liberian Army was wild card without any loyalty to anyone. The only law came from the barrel of a gun. Former head warlord Charles Taylor's forces duked it out for the right to further loot an already looted country. Their armies consisted of untrained boys, whose primary purpose was finding someone to steal from. Or rape. By age sixteen many of these boys have become combat veterans, their childhood spent in bloodshed. Foreign aid workers were targets, primarily because they have lots of stuff worth stealing. For most Liberians, life consisted of hunting for food and trying to evade the bandits who call themselves soldiers.
It is in this very real and contemporary setting that the novel begins. Western countries care about their citizens and feel a duty to protect them. There were and are hundreds of European and American citizens in Liberia. Many are aid workers who struggled vainly to patch the cracks of a crumbling society. Embassy personnel. Businessmen. All of whom have to be evacuated from a combat zone where everyone just might try to kill them.
The right tool for evacuating people under fire is an aircraft carrier battle group covering a Marine Amphibious Unit. That kind of force can land armor and cover the troops with massive firepower. But the nearest such task force is four days away. The collapse is right now! The only ship nearby is HMS Beaufort, a Type 23 frigate with 150 able seamen. Frigates are general purpose ships, primarily tasked for anti-submarine warfare. Beaufort wasn't built for this job, but she's close. Still, H.M.S. Beaufort is a warship. She carries a lynx helicopter and a 4.5 inch gun, among other things. The ship, her crew and about 20 Royal Marines, and eight United States Marines from the embassy detachment are the only forces in country. This tiny force will have to evacuate over 400 people from a country dominated by psychopaths.
King's Shilling is a novel about the collapse of Liberia by British writer Mike Lunnon Wood. It is very much in the tradition of Tom Clancy, in fact you might call Wood Britain's Clancy. Woods book is darker and more realistic than Clancy's military fantasies. It is written from the British point of view. You can't buy it in America because they seem to think that while Americans welcome a good Brit, it's always as sidekick to a good Yankee hero. A friend of mine picked it up in London and passed it on to me, promising a "good read". He did not lie. I engulfed the book.
The book is fiction, but impeccably researched and sophisticated view of what happens when things fall apart. You can smell the smoke. People you care about die. There is incompetence, intelligence failures as well as bravery and professionalism in arms. The novel's realism and focus on smaller units makes it far more like Harold Coyle than Tom Clancy. The book is not terribly pro-American. It doesn't have to be. It does remind Yanks like me why I'm damned glad the Brits are our friends. If you can buy a copy do so. And bring it back to America. I know a few people who would like to read it.