Book reviews: Churchill’s First War| The Serpent’s Promise | Scots Who Enlightened the World

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A roundup of the latest book releases

Churchill’s First War by Con Coughlin

(Macmillan, £25) * * * * *

“The peculiar difficulty which attends mountain warfare is that there are no general actions on a great scale, no brilliant successes, no important surrenders, no chance for coups de théâtre. It is just a rough, hard job which must be carried through.” Churchill himself, of course, was never normally stuck for a coup de théâtre. Why, then, has it been so widely forgotten that his first military campaign, and his first book (the same thing, with such a self-confessed self-advertiser) was set not in Southern Africa but Afghanistan? As Con Coughlin reveals in an intriguing and exciting study, the story of Churchill’s tussles with the ancestors of today’s Taliban is one of high adventure – but also of thankless hardship and frustrated strategy. “Whether it was worth it I cannot tell,” wrote Churchill.

The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones

(Little, Brown, £25) * * * * *

If the Satan-Serpent promised knowledge, Steve Jones offers an in its way more overweening scepticism: here we have an immodest proposal for a Bible “Retold as Science”. How did humanity descend? Was sexual reproduction our first fatal “Fall”? What should we make of “Noah’s Flood”? What might we now learn from the age of Methuselah? This is no New Atheist debunking – rather, it sets a gloriously poetic-mythological narrative against a provisional, but rational, science-based story. The result is enthralling, in the best, most bracing way.

Scots Who Enlightened the World by Andrew Ferguson

(Polwarth, £25) * * * *

The Scottish Enlightenment is acknowledged as a turning point in the history of ideas. Ferguson extends it right through the 19th to the 20th century, taking in everything from philosophy and science to poetry and art. The story’s seldom been told as well as in this who’s who of talent and personality – not just a reliable reference-book but a rollicking good read. Alex Salmond’s preface, upbeat but disappointingly brief, doesn’t get to the question of why this golden age should have followed so hard upon the Act of Union.