General Jack and the Battle of the Five Kingdoms is a truly outstanding work of allegorical fiction by David Bush. Kids and adults alike will appreciate this tale of political intrigue featuring some impressive animal characters. This might also be the best-written novel to come our way in years. With that said, we're giving it our highest-ever score (9.6 out of 10).
Anything remotely negative or critical we say from now on is just tough love and us being brutally honest, the same tough love and brutal honesty we give every author and every book. It doesn't detract from the fact that this is definitely one of the best fiction books to come our way, alongside the likes of The Angels of Resistance, Finding Grace, Surviving the Second Tier, Justifiable Deceit, Season of the Swords, and Secrets in the Mirror. This is an elite group of novels.
This novel features a large, diverse cast of anthropomorphic animal characters woven into a epic, complex, yet understandable struggle that pits the haves against the have nots, the rich against the poor, the powerful against the powerless, kingdom against kingdom, and person against person, somehow all crammed into the sixth day of creation (because why not?)
Leading the cast is Miaow who begins the story as a shy, humble, fearful servant of the tyrannical lion king, Roar.
Meow and roar. We see what you did there! Anyway...
Miaow is a tragic protagonist in every sense of the word, beginning with him losing his wife and four cubs to a coyote attack before the main story begins. His cowardice, fearfulness, and overall vulnerability are very apparent early on. We are informed that he fled and hid while his wife and cubs were killed. He is also captured and tortured by hyenas near the beginning of the book before being harshly reprimanded and banished from the king's sight for showing weakness and dishonoring the race.
All the while, on the macro-level, we're introduced to the hierarchical, highly-segregated world of the animals, largely meant to reflect European colonialism and imperialism that was rampant starting in the late 1700s and largely ending once a couple of world wars convinced humanity that maybe petty land grabs weren't worth millions of human lives and ruining your economy over.
The titular character, General Jack, throws a wrench into Miaow's life (and the animal world as a whole) when he makes him presence known, serving almost in a pseudo-Karl Marx/Che Guevara/Thomas Paine-esque role alongside the likes of radical philosophers like George the Fox and Olaf the Wolf (who seem to develop their own Tanaka Memorial/Tanaka Doctrines, by the way).
Together with a freshly-turned and radicalized Miaow, they launch a revolution to overthrow the tyrannical King Roar and supplant him. Along the way, we see the deterioration of old orders as well as old norms, values, and virtues. Even our main protagonist isn't immune to a deterioration of his moral character as he become progressively more bigoted, violent, and fierce—a chilling contrast to his earlier personality and disposition.
This is a world, like our world, in which people are capable of behaving like monsters and demons, and a world—like in Batman—in which a hero might live long enough to see themselves become the villain.
So, as you can can probably tell, this book is pretty heavy-handed with its satire, allegory, and symbolism. You could even say that it hammers you over the head with a Mjolnir-sized mallet.
The author has a ton to say and needs to get it off their chest. You sorta just have to deal with it and accept it for what it is, it's probably the author's magnum opus and life's work after all. They're clearly treating this book like it's everything they want to teach and show the next generation, a manifesto in fiction form. We get that.
However, the aggressively didactic and heavy-handed nature of this book is made very apparent when looking at the maps, which not-so-subtly portray locations in the real world, mainly Eurasia. You can almost feel the author grinning at you, nudging you in the side like, “Get it? Ain't it clever?”
Something bothers us about this book. It's hard to describe, but it seems incredibly pretentious and overwritten.
It's like that one uncle at the family dinner who feels the need to crack a politically-charged joke, then waits a good five seconds with his mouth open waiting for everyone to laugh. Some of us just want to eat. Yes, that's an allusion to style over substance.
Then, you get the sections at the end of the book that basically spill the beans on everything you were supposed to have learned from the book and every major historical inspiration for it. No, it's not like a “Making of” or “About the Author” section, it's a beat-by-beat breakdown of what every major part of the story was supposed to say and/or represent. That's helpful for a teacher or a student, however, a large part of the fun of reading fiction is figuring that stuff out for yourself. Instead, we're practically told at the end of the book that this is this and that is that. We're told how we should've interpreted things instead of interpreting it ourselves.
We get told that one part represents the Battle of Balaclava (there are actual, explicit references to the “charge of the light brigade” while the animals are in battle), another part about Napoleon at the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, and how different types of governments operate and are represented in the novel. Yes, it's extremely impressive, and we were somewhat excited that we caught those references without being explicitly told about them, however, at what point does solid storytelling end and shoehorning-in-ideologies-and-the-entire-colonial-history-of-Europe begin? Like, some people (ok, a lot of people) just don't like being pandered, lectured, and preached to. Some people can sense when their chain is being yanked.
It's sorta like those social media pages with all the cool, cute animals doing all the cool, cute things. You just can't help but click, like, share, and bookmark them because they're so cute and so cool. Yet something about that feels... off. You know the feeling? It's a feeling like you're being tugged on a leash and psychologically manipulated. Those animals aren't the ones seeing and enjoying the social media engagement, their owners are. Those animals aren't the ones making the money from ad revenue, their owners are. However, you clicked, shared, liked, and bookmarked BECAUSE of those animals and FOR those animals. You know you were played, yet you keep going back and being played. It's like an abusive relationship.
With all that said, we finally figured out what bothers us so much about this novel. It seems to lack subtlety. Things like the Union Jack, blitzkrieg, crossing the Rubicon, and the charge of the light brigade are explicitly mentioned, often more than once in case you didn't get it the first time. And, while we're talking about references to Eurasia, how do hyenas on the sixth day of creation know what Russian roulette is?
Remember that movie Crash? The one that won a ton of Academy Awards and Oscars including the Academy Award for Best Picture with an Oscar-bait cast and Academy Award-bait plot (i.e. RACISM IS BAD). We almost had that same feeling... this feeling like it was set up to be a book that checks boxes. It almost feels... too plotted to the point of being forced and contrived. There's something about this book that doesn't entirely feel 100% natural or organic. Something about it doesn't sit or flow 100% right. It's like everything was put in several neat, tidy boxes that were perfectly 12x12x12 and labeled. Meanwhile, everything on a long list of buzz topics was checked off.
But we digress. We digress because this book is worth digressing for. It's great. It's excellent. It's impressive. It's amazing. It's all of that. Don't get it twisted. It might be the best book of the past year in the same way that Citizen Kane is the best film of all time or in the same way that Crash is the best film of 2004. There's a lot of context to the weighted word “best.”
Is “the best” the one that brings you the most joy and entertainment? Or is “the best” the one that does the most things and does them well? It's the whole Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes debate. You have one guy who does the basics, makes high-percentage passes, and always seems to win, and another guy who does these extraordinary, mind-blowing things—scrambling all over the dang place, doing flips and spins, throwing underhanded, throwing side-armed, throwing 70 yards with a flick of a wrist—that make you think, “Man, maybe he should win.”
It looks cool. It looks different. It catches your eye. It looks impressive, but does it really work? There's a difference between a really good circus and a really good Shakespeare play. This book reads a lot like a really good circus (or Patrick Mahomes) attempting to be King Lear. You can accept it and run with it, but you can't help but be a bit troubled by it. It's like cognitive dissonance. It upsets your senses like a compass encased in concrete and dropped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a layer of lava poured over it, then teleported into the Bermuda Triangle on the opposite side of the world.
It's rather easy to accept and cope with the heavy-handedness because the writing is so eloquent, sophisticated, and beautiful.
This might be the best-written book we have ever read, fiction or non-fiction, regardless of genre. The writing is borderline immaculate. It's difficult to describe, but it's almost like prose written in a sing-songy, poetic manner. Does it get cloying, gimmicky, and a bit self-indulgent after a while? Heck yeah.
However, there's no denying its beauty, splendor, and artistic value.
You constantly have descriptions and phrases like feline lines, frustrations and temptations, wriggling rattlesnakes, dastardly despot and demon dogs, heart of abscess, hear the hairy clouds, step on eggshells to deal with the chickens, and build a stage to entice lady luck that make use of a number of literary techniques you'd normally expect to see in songs or poems: rhymes, alliteration, anaphora, personification, double entendre etc. The toolbox that the author draws upon is deep.
How about this line:
“They are what they are. The blood of cruel killers flows in their veins. They can't help it; they can't change.”
Oh, why don't you just shoehorn-in a semi-colon to show the world how well you write!? A period, comma, or em-dash would've been beneath Mr. Bush; he just couldn't resist, and neither could we.
Anyway... Wow! Not only does this line read like a line from an epic poem, it actually says a lot about the character's views on their race/species as well as the hope for future generations to change. The pessimism oozes from the page. We're forced to ask ourselves: is he right?
Our ancestors fought each other, tortured each other, killed each other. Wars have been fought. Genocide has occurred. Does that mean that we'll always hurt each other and fight each other? Is it just part of the human condition? Something tied to our nature? Something unavoidable?
Another major theme in this book is the circular, cyclical nature of power and violence, perpetuating and violating its vivacious, voracious, voluptuous volition (or something like that). In layman's terms: kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, there is war and there is peace.
Insert mid-60s folk song joke here.
This theme isn't something new or particularly unique to this book, however, the author adds some flavor to this pot roast with eloquent language and some appealing characters. Miaow, as we've mentioned, seems to undergo the Walter White-arc. Where as Walter White in Breaking Bad was intended to supplant the crime lord Gustavo Fring, Miaow seems hell-bent to supplant King Roar. We've seen this in Animal Farm and, in real-life, with people like Robespierre and Napoleon, or Saddam Hussein and IS*L—you rid yourself of one monster only to create another.
There's also a lot said in this book about how human nature tends to be self-serving and how destructive that can be. When people only care about themselves and their kind, tribalism results and society is more divided and worse-off for it. It's a pretty straight-forward and somewhat cheesy message, but there's some truth there. We just read a book called Start with Collaboration that coincidentally talked a lot about this very thing.
So, how does General Jack compare to other 9.6/10 novels we've read—the best of the best? Is it as emotionally-engaging as Finding Grace? No. Although there are some moments in here that might hit you hard. Are the stakes as engaging as The Angels of Resistance? No. Is it as exciting to read as Surviving the Second Tier? No. Are the core characters as realistic and believable as in Secrets in the Mirror? No. Is the writing more impressive and jaw-dropping than all of those? Yes! Does it accomplish a lot? Yes!
We've talked a ton about this one book. We haven't even touched on the second-wife/pseudo-prophetess/Madame Mao/Nancy-Reagan/Josephine-like character, Sabine. We haven't even talked about the kamikaze chickens, how this fits into Christian creationism (somehow and for some reason), or how “the myth [of Miaow] became a malicious lie.”
Check it out on Amazon!
P.S. Apparently, the author is a truly amazing person who helps cancer patients and is published in international medical journals (which explains how and why he writes so well). Apparently, this masterpiece is his DEBUT NOVEL!
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