Review of Empires of the Sky

Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World by Alexander Rose

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the Skies is a masterclass in how to write good history. Engaging from the outset, Alexander Rose has a unique ability to weave a broad and engrossing tale by combining a vibrant background with a compelling story.
Empires of the Sky focusses on the German Zeppelin company and the lives of the founder Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin and his successor Dr Hugo Eckener. The author provides a satisfying context by exploring the earliest days and subsequent development of flight as well as contrasting lighter-than-air with heavier-than-air flight.

Rose delivers a multi-dimensional story of bold entrepreneurial and engineer exploits, as well as the political machinations and the military value of dirigibles and aeroplanes. Drawing in equally compelling, and wholly relevant, tangential biographies of Juan Trippe of Pan Am and the Wright Brothers, he takes us on a journey to another time full of promise, disappointment, disaster and triumph.

The searing imprint of the image of the Hindenburg crashing in Lakehurst in 1937 is the enduring picture of the pinnacle of the Zeppelin experiment. Still, the author broadens this and indeed paints a series of images through evocative and engaging prose of the engineering majesty of the airship. He brilliantly recreates early short trips through Württemberg and into Switzerland, to the perilous journey to relieve German forces in Africa in the First World War, to the pioneering round the world flight of the Graf Zeppelin. Equal measures of engineering, science, politics, business and intrigue create a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Empires is not a short book. If you are a Kindle reader, you may glance down and realise that a days reading – although engrossing – has merely moved you through a few more percent of the book. But this is hardly a criticism. Not once did I ever feel that the book was dragging, too long or spent too much time on a particular episode. Nor did it feel as though it was moving slower or faster at any point. The structure, pace, and prose are superbly balanced and methodically delivered. The research is extensive and well synthesised. The approach to the characters and the history itself lacks obvious bias. The fact that tangential episodes can be combined so well with the central story is another testament to the author’s skill.

Although inline images (on my Kindle they are appended to the end) wouldn’t have detracted or necessarily enhanced the reading experience, the prose stood well on its own.

Graf Zeppelin over Rio de Janeiro

This is one of the longer reads I have indulged in over the past few months. Although I was aware I was spending a lot of time with it, I am so delighted to have done so and truly savoured it throughout.
So if you haven’t sensed it yet, I enjoyed this book and heartily recommend it. Anyone fond of listening to (or reading) Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History would especially find this an engaging read. The depth, and unique ability to present an extensive well-contextualised longer work of historical insight marks Empires of the Sky as exemplary work.



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