Prisoners of Geography

Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall

Geopolitics – it’s one of those words that just sounds complicated. In Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall proves that it’s nothing of the sort by taking ten maps and clearly, simply showing how each of those countries or regions has been fundamentally affected by their geography. From Russia’s eternal search for a warm water port to the growing sovereignty disputes over the thawing Arctic’s natural resources, we’re introduced to the myriad ways that mountains, rivers, borders and oceans have shaped the development of the world as we see it today.

With the exception of maybe Australasia, this is basically a (very) potted history of all the major global regions, sometimes focusing on single countries like Russia or China, other times looking at wider regions such as India and Pakistan or Korea and Japan, and otherwise covering whole regions like the Middle East or Africa. The specifics and level of historical detail obviously vary as a result, but all the way through there’s a wonderful sense of clarity as Marshall talks about politics, military history, trade routes, transportation and all manner of other factors. It all seems so simple after he’s explained it – obviously Russia has always wanted to protect itself from invasion from the vulnerable North European Plain. Well of course South America’s nation states have struggled to build strong trade connections because of the difficult terrain and lack of long, deep rivers.

What shines through this book is just how knowledgeable and well-informed Marshall really is. The occasional anecdote adds flavour without ever coming across braggingly, and it’s clear that the book is the distillation of a lifetime spent reporting on and analysing global affairs – this is a man who genuinely knows his stuff. Sure, it’s written from a Western, and European, standpoint, but overall this feels balanced and objective, intended as one way of looking at the world and the events that take place in and on it. With that in mind it’s absolutely successful.

Other books offer considerably more detail, or drill down into specific countries, regions or periods of time, but that’s not what this is trying to do. Like many of the best non-fiction books this offers a focused, concise and precise viewpoint that opens the reader’s eyes and points us in the right direction, leaving us to go off and explore at tangents based on what we’ve particularly enjoyed. Reading this book is like getting instant clarity – if it’s occasionally a little difficult to keep track of the countries, borders and features being discussed that’s probably more of a reflection on the reader’s knowledge than the author’s skill. It’s great general knowledge for pub quizzes and the like, if nothing else.

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