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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The Witch-Crafting Handbook

The Witch-Crafting Handbook

Helena Garcia, known for her extraordinary creations on that fabled British baking show (almost) everybody watches, has published a new book. The Witch-Crafting Handbook is a compilation of beautiful illustrations, crafts and recipes. The latter are rather varied, as they range from skincare to haircare to beverages (most alcoholic) to baking.

Not only is this book varied; it has a distinctive witchy supernatural vintage flair to it, a little like we have come to know from Christine McConnell, for reference.

Although I will admit that I’m not much of a baker, I do feel that, reading through the recipes, most are not for novices in the kitchen. Indeed, many are quite material- or ingredient-heavy. If all goes well, you will get something fabulous out of it, but don’t expect anything quick and easy.

Even if you don’t end up baking anything, it is still a wonderful coffee-table book, or a fine inspirational addition to your personal library, if you’re into this kind of thing.

See for yourself if it’s your proverbial jam. We have a whole flip-through for you, so you can easily figure out if you want to spend money on a copy.

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The Moscow Option

The Moscow Option

While it can be fun to read alternate-history fiction, from time to time I do like to dip my toe into the more academic side of the genre and read through some of the more detailed counterfactual scenarios devised by those writing in that area, especially those titles that are structured more like historical texts. Some excellent examples that I’ve reviewed for the Sea Lion Press blog include Napoleon Victorious, by Peter G. Tsouras, and The Hitler Options, a collection of essays focused around differing scenarios that might have occurred in the Second World War.

For this review I’ve been reading another book in that style, courtesy of redoubtable publishers Frontline Books, who have once again favored us readers by heavily-discounting another tranche of their counterfactual titles. The first of that set is The Moscow Option, from none other than David Downing, legendary author of John Russel espionage series (Zoo Station, Stettin Station, etc.), set before and during the Second World War. This appears to be a title that he first had published in the mid-1970s and which was rereleased by Frontline Books in the distant past of 2001, and now converted to ebook format.

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The Bridge at Andau

The Bridge at Andau

If James Michener is remembered for anything these days, it is for his epic historical novels that regularly pass the thousand-page mark. He was an historical writer in a grand tradition, one that has suffered from the declining attention spans of the digital age.

But he was also capable of writing leaner books that were just as gripping as his generational sagas. Caravans, his novel about Afghanistan, is one. Another is The Bridge at Andau, which is somewhat hard to categorize.

I found this book in the nonfiction history section of my local library, but the interior note with the publication information says it is a work of historical fiction. It is, puzzlingly, both.

Michener was a journalist covering the events around which the book is based; he was standing there at the titular bridge at one point. He interviewed a great many survivors of the events he covers, and the book is in large part based on their testimonies. Many of his sequences involve anonymized versions of real people, or composites thereof.

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The Iron Dream

The Iron Dream

Within published alternate-history fiction of decades gone by, there seemed to be only a few genres that would make use of an alternate-history setting. The most common being the thrillers like SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) and Fatherland (Robert Harris, 1992) as well as epic like the multi-volume Worldwar and Southern Victory series by Harry Turtledove. These were pretty well-defined by the 1990s, but before this there was a lot more experimentation with the format like we see again today.

One such experimentation was Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail (1973), which presented itself as a history textbook from another world and is a format that we are all the more familiar with nowadays than readers were when it was first released.

Another such fictional document narrative is The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad — but here the document is not a history textbook, but rather a science-fantasy novel and an accompanying scholarly analysis. The metafictional science fantasy adventure within The Iron Dream is Lords of the Swatstika, by Adolf Hitler.

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Last Flight of the Arrow

The Last Flight of the Arrow

The Avro Arrow is one of those incredible what-if stories to come out of the Cold War. A Canadian-built fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Arrow was a plane ahead of its time in the 1950s, not to mention the pride of Canada. And, like the British TSR-2 in the following decade, cut down before its time in circumstances that remain controversial and mysterious decades later.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Canadian author Daniel Wyatt reimagined the fate of this famous aircraft for his 1990 alternate-history technothriller novel The Last Flight of the Arrow. Taking place across the late 1950s, Last Flight of the Arrow puts the fighter straight into the Cold War standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union.

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The Hitler Options

The Hitler Options: Alternate Decisions of World War II

In my review of Peter Tsouras’ Napoleon Victorious, I briefly discussed the idea that the alternate-history genre can roughly be split into two broad “spheres” that nestle comfortably at either end of the genre and only occasionally overlap.

The first is best described as “traditional” fiction, i.e. those novels and anthologies that are focused on plot and atmosphere and character development.

The second sphere consists of what authors, editors and often readers seem to prefer labeling as “counterfactual” titles: far more formal and rigid essay-style counterfactual publications that focus exclusively on cause-and-effect explorations of a change or changes in a historical scenario.

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