The Cunning Man

The Cunning Man

It’s often overlooked in speculative fiction that “urban fantasy” refers to an urbanized society rather than a strictly urban area. It is, in fact, quite possible for a novel in this genre to exist in a less dense location, like the expanses of the American West.

That is what D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey have done in The Cunning Man, published by Baen Books in 2019.

The stock market has imploded. The economy has crashed. It is the dark depths of the Great Depression in Utah, and miners and mine owners are locked in deep struggle, the former to survive as people, the latter to wring more dollars out of the former.

Into this volatile situation come two people, father and son, with a sincere desire to help, an earnest faith in God as they understand Him, and well-honed abilities in the workings of a wide variety of folk magic.

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Rise of the Catalyst

Rise of the Catalyst

Leading a team specialized in putting magical objects — often cursed, always troublesome — back where they belong, Arwen Arnoult is tasked with taking back a particularly troublesome mask from a vaguely defined ancient civilization in Rise of the Catalyst.

This may sound like a dime-in-a-dozen adventure story, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Victorianesque world Honor Raconteur’s characters inhabit might not be well defined, but it is full of magical and mystical wonders and a wide cast of characters you get to know better as the book progresses.

It’s the kind of adventure you want to keep reading. You can’t help but wonder what mishap lays around the next bend, and you can’t help but root for the team as they travel through all sorts of terrains and encounters to accomplish their goal. I especially liked how the powers of the mages weren’t completely revealed from the get-go, but that you discover bit by bit just what they can do.

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Just the Plague

Just the Plague

I am fond of saying to my friends, especially liberal ones, that the state is not neutral. Any government is fundamentally a “legitimate monopoly on violence,” to use the political-science definition of the word; a blunt instrument of death on those it believes are breaking the social order. Given the country’s history, it makes sense that a Russian writer could elaborate on that point during a period of great upheaval. That writer is Lyudmila Ulitskaya and the novel is Just the Plague.

Just the Plague was written in the 1980s as a movie script, and was rewritten in 2020 as a response to pressing contemporary events. (I should note that Natasha Rapoport claims to have worked with Ulitskaya on the original screenplay. Ulitskaya has not addressed the accusation.) It concerns an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but the parallel with our times is clear.

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In Memoriam: Eric Flint

Eric Flint

We at Never Was join many others in the alternate-history community in mourning the passing of Eric Flint.

Flint was the mastermind behind the sprawling 1632 series of time-travel alternate-history novels, in which the small town of Grantville, West Virginia is taken from the year 2000 and dropped into the middle of Thuringia, Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. This series grew to involve a great many writers in its novels and anthologies, as well as opening up contributions to the public via the Grantville Gazette.

Flint pioneered a collaborative model of science-fiction writing, helped make Baen Books what it is today, helped create the Baen Free Library, and wrote many other books in various genres with a number of co-authors.

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Let the Mountains Be My Grave

Let the Mountains Be My Grave

A number of countries in Europe define their World War II histories by their resistance fighters. Partisans have been made into heroes since the end of the war, in movies and in novels. In Let the Mountains Be My Grave, Francesca Tacchi (xe/xem) puts not one, but two unique twists on this familiar narrative.

The main character, Veleno, is a partisan in 1944 Italy, fighting the Germans as the Allies move north up the peninsula. Veleno is not aided solely by worldly means; he is in the possession of a locket sacred to Angitia, a goddess of various peoples of central Italy before the Romans conquered the region. His hatred of the occupiers of his homeland is so profound that he has vowed to kill as many Germans as he can before he dies, a fate he feels is inevitable and imminent.

The second element that makes Let the Mountains Be My Grave unique: its central romance is between two men.

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Donald Trump’s presidency saw a renewed interest in the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, now almost half a century ago.

In 2017, we got the excellent Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, starring Liam Neeson as the associate FBI director who fed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein the story behind the Watergate burglary. They nicknamed him “Deep Throat”.

The four-hour documentary Watergate — Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President was released a year later.

Slate produced a podcast about the Watergate scandal in 2020, called Slow Burn. It was so successful that they continued it with a season about Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Gaslit is partly based on that podcast. The makers of Slow Burn restored Martha Mitchell’s role in the history of Watergate. Gaslit puts her front and center with a stellar performance by Julia Roberts.

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The Republic of Virginia

The Republic of Virginia

I have, with the exception of my four years at the College of William & Mary, been a lifelong resident of northern Virginia, which is a fancy way of referring to the suburban sprawl of Washington DC on the southern banks of the Potomac. We joke that this region is “occupied Virginia,” and Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor in 2017, called us “not real Virginians.”

As such, my interaction with the rest of the state can be slight. I was interested, then, to see that Charles Bateman had written an alternate-history novel, The Republic of Virginia: Brothers and Battlelines of 1861, focusing on the state.

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In the Trenches

In the Trenches

War is a force that gives us meaning, and its allure can be intoxicating even as the slugfest devolves into slaughter. It usually kills plenty of men, but women are swept up in it too. In China there is the story of Hua Mulan, in England that of Sweet Polly Oliver, in France Joan of Arc, and in America Mollie Bean.

Here we shall discuss the story of Tatiana Dubinskaya, a woman who dressed as a man to fight in the tsar’s army in World War I. She wrote a semi-autobiographical novel In the Trenches, recently translated into English by Julia Lemberskiy.

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Dirty Lines

Dirty Lines

I previewed Dirty Lines as the Netherlands’ answer to Sex Education in my review of Amsterdam Vice, which I compared to The Deuce. Having watched all six episodes of the series (sadly, there are only six), I can confirm it’s just as wholesome.

Sex Education is about teenagers at a modern-day British high school. The main character of Dirty Lines, played by Joy Delima, is a sexology student at the University of Amsterdam in the late 1980s. The Dutch show is a little grittier (it’s 1980s Amsterdam) and a little more mature, but in terms of topics and humor it has a lot in common with Sex Education. Both are on Netflix.

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Monumental Propaganda

Modern Propaganda

Joseph Stalin was synonymous with the Soviet Union until he wasn’t. When Nikita Khrushchev, in 1956, formally denounced the vozhd, the man who had led his country through the nightmare of Barbarossa and emerged victorious, it came as a shock. The red banner flew from Vladivostok to Erfurt, from Murmansk to Tirana. World communism seemed inevitable. But Khrushchev knew Stalin had also hurt the Soviet Union in many ways.

Vladimir Voinovich’s 2000 novel Monumental Propaganda, named after Lenin’s doctrine of monumental art, whose remnants dot the former Soviet Union, addresses that shock. In particular, it revolves around a statue of Stalin in a fictional Russian city that is brought into being by Aglaya Stepanovna Renkina, a local party apparatchik who is intensely devoted to the leader. (She survived Barbarossa) She is stunned when the statue is removed in the wake of de-Stalinization and spends the next several decades trying to cope with that loss. In her nostalgic delirium, she finagles her way into getting the statue established in her living room.

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