Getting a degree in History was one of the most edifying things I’ve done. Even the most boring of classes, taught by the most burned-out professor, gave me insight into something new. My history degree taught me to research, made me a better academic writer, a more critical thinker, and helped me see patterns in human progress.
In fantasy, we often write history. If you look at Tolkien, Martin, Brooks, or other authors in the epic style, they’re largely constructing a fictional history, often with a little inspiration from actual events. Our characters inhabit worlds filled with the ruins of former civilizations, which they explore, contend with, and struggle to understand. History informs us, shapes our cities and prejudices, and in some cases, gets us killed.
Aftermath: the Remnants of War is a journalistic travel-book, but Donovan Webster, is far from your average tourist. His purpose was to explore sites left affected by war. I first heard of the book through Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, and I’m glad I took Carlin’s advice and ordered the book. While Carlin discusses Donovan’s account of the bodies and bones still scattered for miles by the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, I found the discussion on Verdun’s shell-laden forest to be the most compelling. A first hand account of the topic, with the author handling the shells and following them to their eventual demolition, put me to work looking at maps of the two World Wars and the areas still affected by them, usually to the point of being off limits. Webster’s analysis of landmines, where they come from and who deploys them to infect their borders was bone-chilling. It is so easy for us to think of war as a fictional thing, to look at its glories and rewards, but to forget its detrius and the effects it has over the long term. We’ve left the century of the two world wars behind, but still it leaves a lethal legacy as shells work their way to the surface.
In fantasy, we work for realistic accounts of fantastic warfare: dragons swoop from the sky raining fire on infantry; spells are slung like so much artillery across magically-scarred battlefields; but it’s very easy to lose sight of the human aspect of these events. Books like Aftermath help me keep my grounding when I describe large-scale violence, and they help me remember that unlike my pen and paper creations, real war affects flesh and blood people, often for far longer than we ever intended.
I’m highly recommending this book to you. It has great stats to back up the well-written descriptions, and Donovan kept me riveted as he circled the globe. Any student of modern history should read this, as well as any world traveler, if only so you’ll know where to step.