Top positive review
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Fitting companion to the other three volumes
on September 11, 2013
I'm sure I'm not the only grown-up reviewer who discovered John Christopher's books through the comic-strip adaptation of "The White Mountains" (and its sequels) in Boys' Life magazine in the early 1980s. My subscription to Boys' Life started in late 1981 when I was eight years old and they were already seven months into the story (each month was considered a "chapter," not necessarily matching up with the actual books' chapters), so I went to a local library to track down the earlier issues. Finally sometime in 1982 or 1983 I read the actual books. I've always remembered them because the story sticks with you for so many reasons. I occasionally pull them off the shelf for a re-read from time to time even 30+ years later.
I was unaware of this prequel until several years after it was published, and I never got around to reading it until it became available for the Kindle in September 2013. I received an Amazon promotional e-mail mentioning the upcoming release and promptly pre-ordered it, downloaded it on the day of its release, and read it in the space of a few hours.
My first word is to those who have not read these books. DO NOT START WITH THIS BOOK. READ THE ORIGINAL THREE FIRST. Otherwise you're setting yourself up for spoilers. Even though I hadn't read this book, I knew the general outline of the story from information revealed in "The City of Gold and Lead" (the second book of the original trilogy). If you read this book first, all that is destroyed. It would be kind of like a new movie viewer starting the Star Wars movies with "The Phantom Menace" (Episode I) and watching them in "internal chronological order" instead of in the order they were released. The famous "I am your father" cliffhanger in "Empire Strikes Back" would be utterly non-suspenseful. Part of what makes the original three books such classics is the experience of the characters' discovery, coupled with your seeing the world through their eyes, as you read. If you start with the prequel, you ruin that.
Aside from that, I enjoyed this book and I recommend it to anyone who's read the first three novels, though I also don't deem it essential. It reveals a few little nuggets that explain a couple of aspects of the original trilogy, but not having those details is no big deal. What you get out of it may depend on how you read it. You could read it as the simple story of an alien invasion and you'd probably enjoy the story, but you'd miss the deeper themes that run throughout John Christopher's work if that's all you found.
To me, the most interesting comment I have about this book is that prior to beginning it, I had just finished reading "The Third Kingdom" by Terry Goodkind. Goodkind's book is part of an ongoing "epic fantasy" saga aimed at adult readers, whereas "When the Tripods Came" is supposed to be "young-adult fiction." Yet John Christopher's book was the better of the two. It had a more compelling plot, moved along without plodding filler, and didn't talk down to the reader. Perhaps this is more a case of speaking well of John Christopher than of speaking poorly of Terry Goodkind, and I do think one interesting aspect of Christopher's books is that an adult can probably read them and enjoy them on a very different level than a kid can. I know for me, going back and re-reading "The White Mountains" now that I'm 40 was an interesting experience compared to when I first read it at age 8 because nowadays all the references to places and things in Europe are a lot clearer to me than they were then. I guess it's a credit to an author when a "young-adult" book is a satisfying read for an adult.
I'm only giving four stars because the book leaves a few loose ends unresolved. It's unclear to what extent these characters' (admittedly limited) knowledge of the Tripods and their invasion gets handed down to future generations of free men, and it's unclear how many years pass between this story and the original trilogy. A review that is excerpted on the back cover of my copies of "The City of Gold and Lead" and "The Pool of Fire" says the original trilogy is set "a century hence," meaning around 2070 since the original books came out in the late 1960s. John Christopher's preface to the Kindle edition of "When the Tripods Came," however, refers to Will, Henry, Beanpole, and Fritz fighting against a "centuries-old tyranny." I guess it's really not very important to the storyline, and "When the Tripods Came" helps establish how the Tripods essentially locked mankind into a state of suspended evolution (technology went backwards) such that the ensuing years don't matter much anyway.
My final thought....at one point in this book, the protagonist Laurie muses about how mankind's technology has driven inexorably forward and then the Tripods abruptly stopped that. It resonated with me a bit in the sense that we no longer have moon rockets, Concorde has been grounded with no replacement, kids these days don't want to learn to drive because they want to sit at home playing with mobile phones.... Maybe the Tripods aren't needed to stymie progress.