Panama Red

Panama Red

One of my stranger memories from DISCON III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention (I detail my experience in this article) was having a thriller novel from an author I had never heard of aggressively foisted upon me in the dealer’s room. The people behind the desk were quite friendly — I don’t mean to impugn their character — but they were certainly insistent that I take it. That book was David Edward’s Panama Red.

David Edward is a retired special agent for the United States Army turned writer. He has written science fiction and more grounded thrillers, of which Panama Red is the latter. His Amazon biography says that he “did have a Twitter account, but then he thought it was stupid so he canceled it,” which if anything makes me like him more.

Panama Red follows Dirk Lasher, a US Army special agent stationed in Panama City in the late 1980s. The title refers to a variant of cocaine spreading through the city, with connections to the smuggling operations of Pablo Escobar in neighboring Colombia. A faulty DEA operation, and increased smuggling activity throw, Lasher into the chaos of the Panamanian cocaine trade, and that’s where the adventure really begins.

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The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers

The most known example of handing out white feathers to those accused of cowardice was during the First World War, when British men who didn’t enlist were handed the plumes by women who supported the war effort. The tradition, however, is older. It has its roots in the eighteenth century.

In 1902, A.E.W. Mason wrote his novel The Four Feathers about a man who does not want to fight but is made to by his compatriots. It is a novel about what war does to the unwilling and the nature of societal pressure.

Harry Feversham never wanted to be in the British Army. This is inconvenient for him, for he is from a military family. He serves unhappily for a time, then resigns his commission. Unfortunately for him, it is a day before the British Army is deployed to Sudan. Three of his friends send him a white feather each, and a fourth comes from his fiancée, who breaks off the engagement. To restore his honor, Harry disguises himself to go to Sudan to prove himself worthy.

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City of Thieves

City of Thieves

The Eastern Front of World War II is justly remembered as an exposition of the worst of humanity. It began with an undeclared invasion, was host to genocide and building-to-building combat in major cities, and ended with the largest mass rape in human history. One may be forgiven for thinking there was no decency in the “Bloodlands”, as historian Timothy Snyder called this stretch of Eastern Europe.

David Benioff shows there was in City of Thieves. It was inspired by tapes of the author’s grandfather, who lived through the awfulness. It is an odd thing for the Eastern Front: a coming-of-age novel with a child as its main character. There is hope, in a sense, if not for the country, then for people generally. It may be hard to swallow at first, given the madness of the surroundings, but surprisingly you come around to it.

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The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut's Windlass

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a hard book to describe. I went into it expecting a steampunk story. That influence is clear, but there is more. Jim Butcher brings elements of high fantasy and naval fiction (albeit transposed into the skies) and perhaps a dash of the post-apocalyptic.

What I can tell you with certainty is that this is an entertaining book.

The world of The Aeronaut’s Windlass (the first volume in the yet-to-be-completed Cinder Spires series) is dominated by massive towers, called spires, in which human beings live. One memorable scene involves a woman seeing the sky for the first time. It is implied that many never do. Something horrible must have happened on the surface, for dangerous creatures will occasionally crawl up the spires through ventilation tunnels.

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Fevre Dream

Fevre Dream

George R.R. Martin is probably known best for not having finished The Winds of Winter yet. This is something of a shame, I think, given the many great stories he wrote even before A Game of Thrones (which I confess to never having read). His short stories are incredible: “Nightflyers,” “A Song for Lya,” “The Way of Cross and Dragon.”

Here we turn to one of Martin’s older works: his 1982 gothic novel Fevre Dream.

Martin has described Fevre Dream as “Bram Stoker meets Mark Twain.” It combines an icon of horror with an icon of antebellum America: vampires and steamboats. It is a book that takes advantage of the vastness of the Mississippi and its attendant rivers, providing an oftentimes eerie isolation to proceedings. Like the spaceships of science fiction, steamboats work well as closed environments for odd things to be afoot.

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Hostile Participants

Hostile Participants

It is not obvious from my name, I am a Filipino-American. My father is white, of Scots-Irish, German, English and French descent. My mother was born in Manila. Since I was young, I was told stories of my ancestors who fought the Japanese. At times, I regret how little I read about the country, given how much I read in absolute terms. So when I was offered Miguel Miranda’s novel Hostile Participants to review, I leaped at the chance.

Hostile Participants is set during the conflict that is referred to on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia (my hometown) as the “Philippine Insurrection.” Filipinos tend to refer to it as a crushed war of independence, an act of flagrant imperialism done in the name of access to Chinese trade and a “civilizing mission.”

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The Centurions

The Centurions

For a book that allegedly helped revive the novel in France, The Centurions is not terribly well-known. Not unlike Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, the book has resonated with modern audiences, many in the armed services of various nations, about the nature of irregular warfare. That book is Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel about French soldiers in Vietnam and then in Algeria, dealing with the travails that come from fighting the wars of a dying empire.

This is not a thriller. It is a contemplative, oftentimes intimate book. There is a very strong emphasis on what these men have done to acculturate themselves to the savage wars of peace that they have been thrown into. Lartéguy is clear about how they are changed by the experience; an interlude between Vietnam and Algeria, in France itself, has all the men struggling to adapt to civilian life. They do what many aimless veterans do: reenlist.

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To Climates Unknown

To Climates Unknown

For want of a ship, a nation was lost.

Such is the point of divergence of Arturo Serrano’s To Climates Unknown: the premature sinking of the Mayflower. Otto von Bismarck said that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” In this world, that civilization, Anglo-America (which includes Canada, much of the Caribbean and Belize), simply never comes to pass.

It is a strange point of divergence, one that a pedant could poke ample holes in. I certainly could; it makes an assumption that usually irritates me, for I am from Virginia. I remember in fourth grade having the saying “Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World” drilled into my head. As such, an overemphasis on Plymouth irks me.

The nitpicker might discount this novel for that oversight. They would be making a grave mistake, for I can say without hyperbole that To Climates Unknown is the best alternate-history novel I have ever read.

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The Anarchist

The Anarchist

Anarchists can be scary. Their philosophy abjures any form of hierarchy. As such, they are seen as bomb throwers and little else.

Today, the anarchist movement is relatively harmless, as few have rallied behind the philosophy to affect social change. That was not always the case. In the late nineteenth century, anarchists were terrorists. Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by a group slandered as anarchist, as was Umberto I of Italy. The assassination of the Italian king was an inspiration to Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president of the United States.

John Smolens dramatizes that fateful assassination in his 2009 novel The Anarchist. It is a book that brings the city of Buffalo, New York — McKinley was felled — to vivid Gilded Age life. You are swept into cramped barges and squalid whorehouses, the sort of place where the lumpenproletariat of America suffered and radicalized. As you experience their agony, you begin to understand how one of them could decide shooting the president was a good idea.

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Rising Sun Victorious

Rising Sun Victorious: The Alternate History of How the Japanese Won the Pacific War

When it comes to alternate histories of the Second World War, there seems to be a strong focus on Nazi Germany. Something which comes out of the focus on it both in nonfiction writings and in popular culture. After all, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones fought them rather than their counterparts in the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese.

Yet the Pacific Front is not without its potential points of divergence, as both editor Peter G. Tsouras and his essayists wrote about in the 2001 collection Rising Sun Victorious. Published as part of what Goodreads users have termed the Greenhill Alternate History Anthologies Series, the ten essays remind readers that battles, like history itself, often turn on the most innocuous pieces of luck.

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