Wednesday 18 November 2020

Book Review: Dark Valley, Piers Brendon

NB: This is one of my occasional archival posts, regarding a book I read and reviewed years ago, but haven't posted here, that I thought might be of interest.

A small departure here in that this not strictly a book about WWII, as such, but the dark decade of the 1930s, that prepared the way. I won't go into any detail regarding the contents. There are lots of decent reviews and synopses to be found online. I simply want to add my voice to the general chorus of acclaim this book has deservedly garnered.  

Like William Shirer's Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich this is sweeping, compelling history that really draws you in. The kind of thing that'll threaten to end your fiction reading. Why read fiction when real world events are so massively interesting? The 1930s are a particularly fascinating decade, with totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist, gaining a worldwide foothold unparalleled before or since.

As others elsewhere have observed, Brendon has an excellent writing style, and is truly masterful at weaving together complex narrative and small anecdotal details. What a period the first half of the C20th was, and - leaving aside WWI - what a period the 1930s were. With Stalin, Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, the Hawkish Japanese military, the latter already at war in China, and more besides, all sandwiched between the cataclysms of two world wars! 

I borrowed this from a friend many years ago, and liked it so much I had to get my own copy after reading his, in a repeat of what had already happened with the aforementioned Shirer book.

The material relating to Japan is, I find, particularly fascinating, as so much historical literature on this period and the two world wars is so Euro-centric. Also the militarism of Japan differed markedly from that of Russia, Germany and Italy, in that it was much more broad based, rather than focussing on a charismatic figurehead. Indeed, the Japanese emperor seems to have been carried along on a martial current that flowed through a whole class (primarily the officer class), ultimately more or less saturating the whole culture.

One specific episode amongst the many in this brilliant book that really struck me - haunted me even, for a little while after reading it - was the horror of Magnitogorsk, in Stalinist Russia. The name of the city alone sounds both awesome and terrifying! A hint of what was happening can be inferred from the fact it was declared a closed city, i.e. off limits to foreigners, in 1937. But I won't say why here. Buy this superb book and read about it yourself.


  1. Based on this post and a little bit of extra research, I purchased this on Kindle today. One chapter in and I'm enjoying it immensely. Thank you!

    1. Great! Glad to hear you're enjoying it. And thanks for the positive feedback on my review. All the best, Seb.