Ideas are cheap. Most people can come up with a thousand concepts for books. The skill is in the execution. In bringing that vision into life, putting the idea into words. And yet there is still a value in a good concept. There are hundreds of well-written, well-executed books that hold no interest to me because the concept is one I don’t care for. The world’s best-written story about the innate eroticism of painting walls is still unlikely to become a bestseller.
Alternate history is no different in this than other genres. For alternate-history books, often the selling point is the concept rather than the writer. Thus a question to be asked when considering writing alternate-history fiction is often less, “Is this a plausible alternate world?” and more, “Is this an interesting alternate world? Can I say something interesting about our society with this setting?” An eye-popping setting or point of departure can immediately attract the eye.
A useful weapon for that, of course, is novelty. There are a lot of alternate-history books working with World War II or the American Civil war, but other areas are less explored. There have not been many alternate-history stories written about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and so, as someone who has written an article about that war, the concept of this book immediately appealed.
John Laband, the writer of this book, is an historian. He has written various nonfiction books about the Anglo-Zulu War and is probably one of the ten people in the world who knows the most about it, and so clearly knows a great deal more about this war than I do. So I will not dare to critique him on plausibility. This is undoubtedly a vigorously researched, historically accurate plausible account of how the war could have gone a bit better for the Zulus and a bit worse for the British.
But, you may ask, how’s the writing? If he’s primarily a nonfiction writer, does he struggle with characters and the plot? Well, no, because he doesn’t include any. This is a fiction book only in that it is about events that didn’t happen, in style it is written as a standard history book. If you gave this to someone without the introduction and afterword, I’m not sure they would even realize it’s alternate history.
Indeed, the first third of the book is just a pure historical account of the opening stages of the Anglo-Zulu War such as Laband has written in his nonfiction. This is entirely up the standard of what you’d expect from an excellent historian.
Then Rorke’s Drift happens and the last two-thirds of the book covers the war in an alternate timeline wherein that battle is a Zulu victory and not a British one. But the style remains the same, Laband sticks to what he knows how to write. We don’t suddenly get narratives from the point of view of soldiers on the ground like you would in, say, a Bernard Cornwell novel. No, we get a detailed but scholarly and large-picture look at troop movements, the actions of politicians and various battles.
One particularly nice touch here is that the books cites sources throughout, but while the early chapters cite real books, in the later ones the books cited are fictional as they refer to battles that never happened in out timeline.
A question that those familiar with the Anglo-Zulu War might ask is, “Well, the Zulus were outgunned anyway, what would a victory at Rorke’s Drift actually change?” I like the answer here, which is very little in reality but a lot in the heads of the British officers who, panicked that the way is open for an attack on Natal, pull back most of their troops to defend Durban. Whereas the battered Zulus have no intention on invading anywhere, but the withdrawal of the British armies stops the flow of defectors to the British from the Zulus and the fact they had two defeats, rather than a defeat and a victory, encourages other South African forces to rise up against the British earlier as they seem weaker.
One of the more interesting things about this book is the portrayal of what an unambiguous defeat means to an army. With a lot of time taking up mentioning the low morale and PTSD of the surviving troops and how they had to be replaced by reinforcements from elsewhere.
But the British do still have huge advantages and this is perhaps where the author’s knowledge counts against him. Because he is very conservative in what he changes. The rest of the war is different, the peace treaty is different, the aftermath is different, but those differences are small and subtle. A one-paragraph summary of South Africa in 1890 of our timeline would probably also be accurate for this book.
The twentieth century might well be hugely different in this scenario, because those little changes will add up. But it’s written by an historian, so the story sticks to the provable immediate consequences. 95 percent of the book is set in 1879 and a brief epilogue only goes as far forward as 1887, eight years after the war, and doesn’t push deep into the chain of effects and try and imagine a different South Africa. There’s no attempt at worldbuilding here, no attempt to create a different society.
In the foreward, Laband mentions how he horrified his historian friends by writing something as ahistorical as a counterfactual novel. But that is a shame, because this is an excellent history book that says as much about the war as Laband’s other books. The thought exercise of how things could have gone differently tells the readers things about the nations involved. But alternate history isn’t seen as a legitimate way to look at history, but rather only as a way to tell stories and so this is instead published as fiction and it seems a poor fit alongside the likes of The Man in The High Castle.
Is this fiction? You can’t judge it by the normal standards of judging fiction. There’s no plot really, no narrative, no characters, no worldbuilding. In terms of execution, it does exactly what it wants to do, very well. It is a relatively interesting and painstakingly plausible account of a military campaign. And that’s all it’s trying to be.
So we come back to the opening point I made. Which is that the concept, the ambition of a project is as important as the execution. If you want to read a dry but historically accurate of how this war started and how it could have ended differently, then you will find no better. If you want a story or worldbuilding, then you will have to look elsewhere, this simply isn’t trying to do that.
This story was originally published by Sea Lion Press, the world’s first publishing house dedicated to alternate history.