In Our Darkest Hour by Ron Wilkinson

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

In Our Darkest Hour is a military historical novel by debut author Ron Wilkinson. The story follows captain Alan Lee R.N. DSO MiD as he guides the heavy cruiser HMS Preston through the first few grueling years of the Second World War. With the help of her intrepid crew, the Preston plays a pivotal role in numerous battles across the Mediterranean theater.

HMS Preston sets out in the spring of 1939, before hostilities began, on a routine mission to the Pacific colonies, followed by a not-so-routine interception off the Atlantic coast of Africa. She goes on to perform several missions to Malta and Alexandria, protecting supplies and troop movements across the Mediterranean. On more than one occasion the ship finds herself in the Indian Ocean, facing exotic dangers on the fringes of the war. Her equipment includes sea planes, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy artillery, all employed expertly by our seasoned captain. For the first few chapters, I was having a great time taking in the extraordinary level of detail in the author’s descriptions. Wilkinson has clearly done his homework on gun calibers, mid-century slang (except for the use of “A-team,” which isn’t attested before the 60s), and wartime logistics. There were a lot of info dumps, but I was eager to see what all this detail was serving. As I kept reading, it became apparent that this was it. There is no plot, no progression. The technical details are the story. This is the novelization of one of those “how to spot classic ships” books your father-in-law has on the back of his toilet. It’s like reading the Wikipedia article about whatever real ship the fictional Preston was based on. And honestly, who hasn’t gone down a Wikipedia rabbit hole a wrote a book about it? You know what? I feel like I’ve lost my train of thought. Let’s start over.

In Our Darkest Hour is a naval terminology simulator by HMS Ron Wilkinson. The story follows captain Alanly R.N. S.O.B. as he guides the Proud Preston through some body of water or other back and forth, again and again, until he’s out of war. There are Italians on several occasions, which can only serve to elevate a book in my opinion.

After her initial action in the Atlantic, HMS Preston sneaks across the Mediterranean to Malta, the besieged Allied naval base deep in the heart of the Italian Navy’s sphere of influence. Afterward she seeks repairs in not-quite-ally-yet America, and charges back into the fray. She aids the British in Egypt who are bracing for Rommel’s inevitable advance, and evacuates troops from Greece after it is overrun by Axis forces. The dramatis personae include Germans, who are constantly amazed at just how gritty and determined those English boys are, and some Italians, who initially show up off the coast of Spain and conscientiously sink themselves. We almost never get a precise date, even though years are zipping by over the course of the Preston’s active service, so it’s never clear when the war will be over or when the crew, and more importantly I, can go home. There are sudden switches of tense and point of view, adding to the dreamy sense of disconnectedness. And through it all Ron Wilkinson is having the time of his life, making pew-pew noises under his breath every time the Manchester aims its double caliber quarter inch millimeter topside firing guns. Not to be confused with the aftwise fifty grade bosun’s cannon, or the… OK, I’ve lost the plot again. Let’s try this from the top, one more time.

In Our Darkest Hour is a model train procedural by Winston Churchill. His Majesty’s story follows registered nurse captain Alan Lee III as he flees deeper and deeper into the psychotic delusion that he is commanding officer of a bathtub flotation device called the Preston. Sometimes he believes himself to be a German U-boat commander, for which he is sentenced to several weeks confinement in New Jersey.

World War Two is the heroic tale of one tiny island nation’s plucky determination to not give up, and against all odds maintain their global naval hegemony and exploitative colonial empire. It’s an underdog story, really. HMS Preston protects the British troops minding their own business in Gibraltar, Malta, Egypt, Athens, Yemen, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Anytime the Italians show up and perform some dastardly crime like sink British ships, the virtuous crew of the Preston correct the balance sheet by sinking some Italian ships instead. Eventually the black and white morality of the story make it stop reading like a war between two geopolitically opposed governments, and more like the tale of the luckless heavy cruiser who just can’t catch a break. After countless cycles of rushing into danger at the hands of rabid Fascists, receiving danger, and fleeing danger, the ship starts to feel like a cheerleader in a slasher movie that’s on its fourteenth sequel. Don’t go into the Aegean after dark, Preston! There are Italians on the loose! This is why you keep getting your fo’c’sle blown off, Preston. When will you learn?

Look, obviously I understand that there are people in this world who want nothing more than to read the ongoing adventures of the thirty-seven inch forecannon that could, and World War Two nostalgia is alive and well on both sides of the pond. If your goal is to find something packaged as narrative fiction that satisfies your craving for technical detail, or if you’re the sort of person whose favorite part of any science fiction set is the greeble, then this is your book. The only caveat is, Ron Wilkinson seems to have run up some serious debts researching this thing (pew pew!), because it costs seven dollars on Kindle. Seven entire dollars. Maybe this is a Father’s Day gift, but otherwise I can’t recommend it until the price comes down. Or if you have Kindle Unlimited, in which case welcome to the loony bin; I’m sorry but it doesn’t get better.

Bonus Content: Life is a Movie by Samman Akbarzada

Since this installment was a little short, I thought I would throw in a legitimate recommendation. Life is a Movie is the story of a woman and her son, brutalized by the Taliban, who struggle to have a better life. Even if it weren’t ludicrously topical right now, this book would have the unusual distinction of being too good to ridicule on this blog. Since I started downloading every piece of trash that Amazon sends my way, I’ve discovered that obscure self-published books have no upper limit of quality, and this is a book that easily deserves a place among traditionally published works on your bookshelf. Seriously, check it out. Life is a Movie by Samman Akbarzada. It’s literally one seventh the price of the book I just read about naval gun turret diameters.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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