cover image Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps

Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps

Fergus Fleming, Author Atlantic Monthly Press $26 (416p) ISBN 978-0-87113-778-4

Showing a remarkable ability to mix well-researched history with engaging depictions of the people who made it, Fleming (Barrow's Boys) chronicles the many frigid explorations that brought much of the world its first scientific knowledge of Europe's highest peaks. Fleming remains true to the qualities that made his first book, a study of England's frenzied 19th-century global exploration, so enjoyable. He not only supplies an abundance of information but also punctuates his facts with wit and illustrative stories. Beginning with the first Alpine forays in the early 1700s and continuing through later explorations up until World War II, Fleming outlines the prominent figures who braved the mountains' austere climate in the name of science and, more often, the spirit of vanity. The title refers to the entrenched belief that the Alps' upper reaches were inhabited by a dangerous menagerie of fairy-tale brutes. It was a sentiment that died hard. With characteristic wit, he describes a German physics professor who reconnoitered in the mountains in the 18th century and ""set at rest a question that had haunted people for a long time. Yes, the Alps did contain dragons."" The landscape's ethereal nature surely inspired the imagination, but eventually explorers became more concerned with bettering their knowledge and, among later English climbing rivals, besting each other. The characters Fleming discusses range from Rousseau to the Romantic poets, from genuine innovators to the ""Indefatigable Bourrit,"" who was defeated by the elements on nearly every climb he attempted. Agent, Clarie Alexander at Gillon Aitken Associates. (Jan.) Forecast: Fleming's second book should get same enthusiastic critical reception as his first. Though the mountaineering history niche is increasingly crowded, Fleming's work stands out for its deft combination of humor, fact and Technicolor description, so strong reviews and good word of mouth should propel sales.