Politics, science, intrigue, the supernatural and a murder mystery that seems to be at the heart of it. It sounds like an excellent combo and, yes, at first glance The Sightless City seems to have it all. But while the concept is good, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
It’s the same old story: warring states, races that don’t get along and an evil mega corporation with an evil mastermind who has been the big bad all along. A Moriarty this guy is not, because that would have made him a better villain. The lead character, Marcel Talwar, a former soldier, could be more like Sherlock Holmes, for he is a detective, but the comparison ends there.
The story does have a few very interesting characters, Talwar being one, feral want-to-be-engineer Sylvaine being another. A bunch of side-characters contribute to the story, but their background, like the setting’s, is sparse, jumbled and chaotic. There is enough to keep the story going, but the lack of depth and detail is disappointing. The Sightless City feels like a grand saga that is missing many of the pieces that would make it grand. In the end, it falls flat.
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We alternate historians, and the broader popular culture more generally, rightfully think of Nazi Germany as being an incredibly violent place. You had Jewish shops being smashed on Kristallnacht after the Reichstag was set ablaze. You had bloody street brawls between Nazis and Nationalists and Social Democrats and Communists. You had political dissidents tortured in Dachau. All of this was before they manufactured a fraudulent casus belli at Gleiwitz and sent the tanks rolling into Poland, the blitzkrieg that brought France to heel, the rampage through the Soviet Union and the opening of the death factories for Jews and other “undesirables.”
In our world, such a regime was put down with bombers and tanks and bullets. Few would disagree with the notion that such a heinous regime deserved to be put down. When we alternate historians write about other worlds where the Nazi regime lasts longer, we usually project it as either falling apart into a bloody civil war, its imperial adventures causing the whole regime to unravel (often in a form of aforementioned bloody civil war), or another war between it and the other great powers that ends in something even worse than the war in our world (think the ending to Festung Europa, available from Sea Lion Press).
However, it is widely considered bigoted at least when we call any society inherently violent; in recent decades, the targets of choice are Muslims and African Americans, and calling either inherently violent is rightly tarred as extremely racist. However, we are also generally willing to say that certain governments and methods of governing are inherently violent. Which those are is often a hotly debated concept.
That tensions between society and government, and their respective tolerances for violence, is the core narrative thrust of Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies.
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The very conceit of a German victory in World War II is in and of itself a cliché in our online alternate-history communities. However, mainstream published authors have an annoying tendency (speaking as someone with approaching ten years in the online community) to not realize that fact. It feels like every few years, some mainstream author comes out with a new take on the subject that non-genre critics will fawn over briefly and at which those in my circles will roll their eyes in disdain. I think this is a manifestation of a problem that for many writers, alternate history is but one literary toy to play with rather than a dedicated genre to be explored in its own right. As a result of this, many dilettantes in the genre have little idea of the conventions thereof.
In that light, I was quite satisfied to know that C.J. Sansom had at least dipped his toes in the genre and the subject matter before writing Dominion. In his afterword, he says that he came to the conclusion that Operation Sea Lion was absolutely impossible on his own when doing research for his book. Likewise, he explicitly praises Robert Harris’ Fatherland, which is widely lauded as an alternate-history classic by the community.
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Under the Bright Saharan Sky is Lyssa Medana’s sequel to her fantastic debut novel, Out of the London Mist. We return to the characters of that novel as they go on a new adventure. I finished my review of Out of the London Mist with a wish that these characters would make the Saharan expedition mentioned in the book. To my great pleasure, they do just that in Under the Bright Saharan Sky.
Think of this book as a cross between Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with a dash of steampunk fantasy. A third or so of the book is traveling through Europe en route to the Sahara (with a good bit set in Cairo), and you get a feel of all these different cities. It resembles something of a fantastic Baedeker.
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In my stead as the administrator of the Alternate History Online group on Facebook, whenever I see a question involving the Cold War going nuclear in any way, I post a black-and-white GIF of flowers blooming with the caption “everybody dies.” I concluded when I was on an episode of the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns and Colin Salt that it is hard to make a story where the Cold War goes hot that is dramatically compelling as the devastation would be swift and total.
Enter Brendan Dubois’ Resurrection Day, one of the books that I read as research for that podcast episode. Dubois has the great nightmare of the sixties come to life: the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba (and American missiles in Turkey) ends with the missiles flying, the doomsday machines in both superpowers activating, bathing the world in nuclear hellfire.
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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).
Continue reading “Empires of Sand”
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.
Continue reading “The Times of Scrooge McDuck: The Raider of the Copper Hill”
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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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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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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