I can safely say that New Model Army is like no other book I’ve ever read. I know this because I have no name for the feeling I was left with after I’d finished it. That’s a recommendation, by the way.
A few decades hence, a new kind of fighting force has emerged: organised on democratic principles (Athenian democracy, that is), New Model Armies (NMAs for short) have no command structure, and no specialisms; soldiers communicate with each other in the field via private wikis, and all decisions are put to the vote. A row over the royal succession has led the now-independent Scottish government to hire a New Model Army named Pantegral to fight the English, which the NMA has been doing very successfully. The novel’s narrator (though not, he is at pains to stress, its hero) is Tony Block, a member of Pantegral. Block tells of his exploits in the battles of south-east England, and it gradually becomes clear that he has been captured by the enemy, who have their own plans for him.
Having read that description, you may now have a conception of New Model Army in your mind which is nothing like the actual text. This is a novel in which the story is mediated through the voice in which it is told, and Block is as inclined to talk about his philosophy of democracy, love and war, as he is to describe his involvement in Pantegral’s military campaigns. As a result, we see both Tony’s ideas about war, and the effect those ideas have had on him.
Block is convinced of the NMAs’ superiority (both martial and moral) over conventional ‘feudal’ armies, and, indeed, Pantegral is winning the war in south-east England. But the New Model Army is also fallible – the majority vote isn’t guaranteed to be the ‘correct’ one, and such mistakes have consequences, as Roberts shows. There is no definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side, here, which makes the novel all the stronger.
At a deeper level, we see how being in the NMA has affected Tony psychologically. His narrative voice veers from being highly learned to making daft pop-culture references (the silliest is perhaps a burning building being described as ‘a field of spiky yellow flame: a hologram of Bart’s haircut on a Brobdingnagian scale’ ). This technique is presumably meant to represent the mish-mash of experiences and ideas engendered by the structure of the NMA; but another effect it has to undercut the harsh reality of what’s being described. Tony says that, in the heat of the moment, he can’t afford to think about the damage being caused by all the fighting; his pop-culture frames of reference may be another means by which he de-sensitises himself.
The effect of this on the reader can be quite suffocating, as the emotion coming from the narrative voice is inadequate for the horrors it relates. It’s made all the more suffocating by how little we learn of Block’s life before he became a soldier – there’s little true sense of a life beyond this moment, and hence of a way out of Block’s mindset. His resolve not to think too hard about certain things ebbs and flows tantalisingly throughout the novel – and then New Model Army turns in a direction that requires a different sort of imagining; the implications of the ending are chilling, but also somehow uplifting.
New Model Army is different, in the best sense of that word – it does something I haven’t come across elsewhere, and does it very well. It’s another fascinating read from the singular imagination of Adam Roberts.