Empires of Sand

Empires of Sand

I have often talked of the strange places where I have discovered strange things to partake in, be they YouTube recommendations or Netflix algorithms or /r/FreeEbooks. Here I shall sing of yet another such way: anthologies.

I discovered the work of David Ball through Rogue, an anthology dedicated to the titular archetype edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

(Side note: any anthology edited by those two is bound to be fantastic. Martin, not only a good judge of stories, is also a great writer of anthology introductions.)

What made this anthology so interesting is that it deliberately spans multiple genres. There are fantasy stories and science-fiction stories and historical stories and various permutations thereof. It boasts such great names as Gillian Flynn and Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss, but the one that stood out to me was David Ball and his short story Provenance, involving art theft in the ruins of post-World War II Germany. I devoured it, and then everything else he has written (three novels and another short story in another Martin and Dozois anthology).

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The Times of Scrooge McDuck: The Raider of the Copper Hill

Raider of the Copper Hill

By 1884, the heydays of the cattle trails were coming to an end. As accurately depicted by Ken Don Rosa in the fourth of the original twelve chapters of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, the American West was becoming less wild. Fenced-off farms were taking the place of the great open-range ranches of the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.

In this volume, Scrooge quits the employ of cattle baron Murdo MacKenzie, who would go on to become mayor of Trinidad, Colorado in 1891 and later a member of President Theodore Roosevelt’s National Conservation Commission, to try his luck at silver mining.

There is little silver to be found in Montana, but the ground is rich in copper — just as demand for copper, to make electric wire, skyrockets.

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V-S Day

V-S Day

The Space Race is a fascinating time; it’s one of superpower competition and cutting-edge technology that ended up transforming the world by way of escaping its gravitational pull. Reading about it, and the big personalities that drove it, feels almost like standing there in that crowd in Cape Canaveral, sensing the quaking ground brought on by blazing rocket fuel.

World War II, as us alternate historians know very well, is also a fascinating time. It’s perhaps the purest good-versus-evil in the history of the twentieth century, with heroes and villains that seem out of an ancient epic poem. It was also a time of great technological change, when the dream of flight gave birth to the nightmares of Dresden and Coventry and Tokyo. It was a war of tanks and bombers, of rubber and steel. It was a war where a lab in New Mexico led to entire cities being destroyed in moments.

Given their proximity to one another, it feels almost obvious that one could combine the two. That’s exactly what Allen Steele has done in his novel V-S Day.

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The Devil’s Alternative

The Devil's Alternative

Frederick Forsyth wrote the outstanding Cold War thrillers The Day of the Jackal (1971), which was made into one of the best spy movies of all time (our review here); The Odessa File (1972, our review of the film adaption here) featuring an underground organization of former Nazis; and The Fourth Protocol (1984, our review here), about a Soviet plot to kick Britain out of NATO.

He demonstrates his mastery of the genre again in The Devil’s Alternative.

The story begins in Turkey, where an Ukrainian nationalist recovering in hospital is recruited by Andrew Drake, an Anglo-Ukrainian determined to strike a blow against the Soviet empire. Drake’s machination will set in motion events that bring the superpowers to the brink of war.

He is aided by hardliners in the Politburo, who are pushing for war to avoid making concessions in negotiations to buy wheat from the United States. A fungicide has inadvertently poisoned the Soviet wheat crop. Without imports, millions will starve.

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Hitler’s Peace

Hitler's Peace

Good alternate history sticks close to real history. Philip Kerr forgot that cardinal rule in Hitler’s Peace.

The novel starts off promising enough. Kerr references real-world events, including Heinrich Himmler’s peace overtures to the Western Allies and the German plot to kill Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Teheran Conference in 1943.

But he tries to do too much by featuring not one but two plots against the Big Three and throwing in too many historical characters, including the widowed wife of German security chief Reinhard Heydrich and British intelligence agent Kim Philby, who spied for the Russians, for seemingly no other reason than to mention their names.

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Adventureman is the graphic novel pulp-loving readers were waiting for.

It has grand adventures (obviously), dashing heroes, ghosts, magic, science and interesting villains. It’s a perfect combination of a forgotten past and a remembering present, and never have I ever seen a title “The End and Everything After” that was both so self-explanatory and giving away nothing at the same time.

At least, not until you start reading and the story unfolds.

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Lady Mechanika, Volume 5: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Lady Mechanika, Volume 5: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Lady Mechanika returns for a search into her mysterious past. This time, she finally has a few resounding clues thanks to the help of her close friends and allies, Archibald Lewis and Inspector Singh. As was to be expected, the search is difficult at best and perilous at worst. To top it all off, Mr Lewis finds himself in a spot of mortal trouble.

The chronological sixth volume in the series does not disappoint. The art, which has always been stunning, gets even more beautiful in this one. The new villains are splendid, as are the recurring characters. The story is magnificent and I personally can’t wait to see where it goes next.

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Winter in Madrid

Winter in Madrid

The Spanish Civil War: that allegedly heroic time of brave Republicans and Socialists fighting off dastardly Fascists. It is the time of Homage to Catalonia, of human beings “behaving as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” The time of international brigades and socialists being either inspired or disillusioned, depending on who they encounter. It was Guernica, and it was the proving ground for so many terrible things the Germans and Italians would later unleash upon Europe when the “armistice for twenty years” that Ferdinand Foch had predicted would come to an end.

It is in the shadow of that cruel war that C.J. Sansom sets his novel Winter in Madrid. It concerns a young academic enlisted to serve British intelligence in the early years of World War II to find a British national lost after fighting for the international brigades.

I have seen this book described as a thriller, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. It’s a slower, more deliberate book than your typical Tom Clancy novel, and one that has relatively little focus on the purely military aspects of the war. Winter in Madrid is a character-driven story.

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Dexter & Sinister: Detecting Agents

Dexter & Sinister: Detecting Agents

This story takes place in Hammersmythe, where the rich are rich and those that aren’t struggle to make their way in life. One of the latter is John Sinister, down on his luck and sleeping on his sister’s couch.

Until he is asked by a wealthy family, whose children he used to be friends with, to look into the death of their eldest son. Determined to get to the truth about his friend’s death, John sets out on a chase involving murder, espionage, mechanical marvels and… a talking cat!

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Out of the London Mist

Out of the London Mist

One of the first things that struck me about this book is how apropos its title is: running through the entire novel is an all-consuming sense of dread brought out by what is best described as magical fog. It’s not hard to visualize the characters wrapped in clouds, appearing only in fading silhouettes as they walk through this darkened recreation of Victorian London.

Out of the London Mist, by Lyssa Medana, succeeds in its atmosphere, a steampunk London of the more fantastic variety. It’s a world where all things are permeated by an omnipresent aether, which powers airships. The aether can also be used to power other things, and it is one of those other things that drives the plot of the novel. The characters are an interesting assemblage of people from different parts of this version of London, including nobles and thieves, adventurers and mechanics.

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