Sunday, 12 July 2015


The A to Z of THE AFRIKA REICH ended on a note of VANILLA & VIOLENCE, so it’s time to revisit these subjects.

Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla, something the SS planned to profit from if they took control of the island. To be clear: this is more than my imagination; it’s in the real documents. So vanilla is a motif that runs through the book, indeed the Jewish uprising that haunts the backstory is called the ‘Mered Ha-Vanil’: the Vanilla Rebellion.

Originally there was much more about vanilla, including scenes set around its cultivation and processing. But as happened repeatedly while writing Madagaskar, I had to lose things to keep the word length manageable. It’s already a long novel at 160,000 words (40K longer than the original). As fascinating as vanilla production is, it wasn’t central to the plot, so was edited out. If you want to learn more about the subject I recommend one of my research books: Vanilla: A Cultural History by Patricia Rain.

When you read Madagaskar, you’ll discover it’s less violent than Afrika Reich. One of the important things I wanted to do with the new book was to take it in a different direction, this included giving it a different tone. Before the first book was even published, I decided I wanted the sequel to be less frenetic and less violent. There’s no complex rational behind this: it was an intuitive choice. As it happens it was also a fortuitous one, a synergy between my instinct, my publishers and readers. Many of the latter worried that Afrika Reich was too violent, and my publisher (and especially publicist) fretted about the commercial implications for the same reason. One major retailer refused to stock the book because of the violence... something I found strange given you could buy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the same shop, the rape scene in which is worse than anything in Afrika Reich.

However, before you worry that Burton has become a conscientious objector with a penchant for vegan quiche or that Hochburg is now a born-again pacifist, there’s still plenty of bang for your buck... it’s just less explicit and bloody (though interestingly, the body count is higher). In terms of cinema classification, I’d say it has dropped from an 18 to a 15; R to PG-13 for US readers.

V is also for V (i.e. 5)

Although I wanted a different tone, it was also important that there were continuities between the books. One of the more subtle examples is structural. Like the first book, Madagaskar has seven points of view: the story is told from the perspective of six characters and an alternative history narrator. Both books are also divided into four parts each starting with an epigraph; the style of epigraphs is identical, i.e. one proverb, one quote from Hitler, one general Nazi quote, one made-up quote from/about Hochburg. Originally I wanted the first part of the new book to be Part V to suggest the continuation of a wider trilogy, and as a nod to The Empire Strikes Back, aka Episode V. My editors on both sides of the Atlantic vetoed the idea, saying it would be confusing for new readers.

Nevertheless, I always liked the Episode V reference. Not only is Empire one of the best examples of a middle part of a trilogy, it’s also different in tone and plot to its predecessor (see above). And when I was struggling with the ending of Madagaskar I read something that Irvin Kershner, Empire’s director, mused upon. To paraphrase: he said that his film didn’t have a narrative climax because so many strands remained unresolved, so to give Empire a resolution he needed an emotional climax. They were wise words. And that’s exactly what I’ve done with my book.


  1. As it turns out, I may not have convinced all readers that this book is less violent as I saw some comments on a US library site describing the book as a 'gore-fest'! I have to admit I'm baffled by this. Did she actually read the book? (call it many things, but 'gore-fest is not one of them). Or does it merely indicate a different tolerance for violence? I'm going to be curious to see what others think...

  2. I am reading it at the moment and noticed the masterly tonal shift with the comparatively little direct violence. The threat of violence is ever-present, of course (what can you expect from Nazi's), but its certainly not a 'gore-fest'.

    1. Christopher - thanks for your comment.

      I'm glad you like the tonal shift and can see there's less violence. I have to admit I found the 'gore-fest' comment bewildering. But then I noticed a lot of the pre-publication reviews of MADAGASKAR (all of them on a US library service site - ie by librarians who got preview copies) seemed to be rehashing comments about the first book. These reviews were also rather generic, which led me to wonder if the reviewers had actually read the new book or were merely synthesising things they'd read elsewhere to make it look as if they'd read it. Who knows...

      It will certainly be interesting to see what people think once the book is more widely available.

  3. PMSL.

    Like the irony of US readers finding it too violent! America: land of the free... and wars, zero gun control, mass shootings, a massive military industrial complex, not to mention two businesses, Hollywood and the porn industry, that spread ultra-violent entertainment worldwide.And these are the fricking people complaining about violence!!!

    1. Anon - yes, I also couldn't help but see the irony of American readers complaining about the violence! It certainly seems to be more of an issue in America than elsewhere. No idea why that is.