My first experience with S.M. Stirling may very well be my last. If you are looking for a novel in which you get to experience the author’s fantasies and have the privilege of the author explaining to your the MANY topics he researched to write the book, this might be the book for you.
Ignore the canned synopses you will find scattered across the internet. Despite it’s claims, this is not what I would define an alternate history novel. Abandon any hope of a novel that features a larger than life Teddy Roosevelt and his exploits in some alternate time line. The story focuses on Luz, a female spy of the alternate history version of the Black Chamber, the forerunner of the NSA. She is tasked with getting close to a German Agent under the guise of a Mexican revolutionary fighter of who’s identity she has stolen. In a series of serendipitous events, her life is saved by a stranger and she stumble upon a secret that is far greater than anyone anticipated. On her wits alone, she crafts a mission to save the United States from the most diabolical attack they have ever faced.
This is what I would define lazy alternate history. This may stem from my own understanding this type of the concept. It is my expectation that alternate history takes some events of history, changes the outcome and explores what might natural occur as a result. (As an aside, I would suggest you watch The Man in High Castle for a great example. Maybe even read the book. I can’t vouch for the original source material). In this novel the author allegedly uses Teddy Roosevelt serving a second term before WWII as the catalyst for the story. Honestly, I am not a student of American History. Maybe these events and the fictionalized Black Chamber would have been natural outcomes but more realistically, this was a massive stretch in an attempt to make the novel seem more interesting.
I Think I was supposed to be Impressed
There was detail in this book. A LOT of detail. From concepts ranging from electrical engineering, spy techniques, language, history, submarines, rockets and weapons. The author did a considerable amount of research on these topics. How do I know this. The author goes out of his way have the characters spout off lots of facts and details related to each of these (and more) topics. My son loves a book series called My Weird School . One character loves to show off the fact that she read the dictionary. She does this by constantly using big words that no one else understands. This is basically what the author has done. Instead of using the research to craft detailed descriptions or show realistic working of weapons, submarines etc., we get a pages devoted to detail and technical specifications. It wasn’t impressive, it was irritating. To make is worse, the protagonist often speaks in Spanish, without any translation provided. My apologies for being fluent in only one language. This was a major irritant throughout the book.
On top of the author’s indulgences, I found the novel contained a troubling love story that underlies the second half of the novel. It is suggested very early that the main female character is a lesbian or bi-sexual. This is not an issue. I only point this out because it is relevant. It is how the romance evolves that I found disconcerting. At one point in the novel, Luz and Ciara, the love interest/serendipitous partner have a discussion about H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine . In an apparent attempt to show he is aware of the representations of women in literature, the characters briefly discuss the trope of the Nubile Savage in The Time Machine . While the character shows some apparent awareness, the character proceeds to use a mix of “skilled but naïve” and “born sexy yesterday” tropes. Ciara is a rather brilliant and beautiful woman who is both naïve about the world as well as her as of yet unexplored sexuality. I could not help but feel uncomfortable though the novel as it felt that it was the innocence and naïveté (about life and her sexuality) that the main character found attractive and appealing. The characters pointed out how H.G. Wells created a love interest that was a “pet with a bosom” while at the same time creating a love interest that was a pet with a bosom that can also do tricks. While the love interest does well for herself in the end, a love story that resolves around an older experienced character falling for a naïve, younger character falling, largely because of those specific characteristics, is questionable in my mind. On top of what I wrote above, the romance was forged during intensely stressful circumstances in which the naïve character had to largely rely on the older experienced character. Regardless of your take, I find love stories that rely on the inequality of the parties to be troublesome.
Despite the attempt to market the book as something it is not, the story is written like an action adventure novel. This is not a problem if you are being honest about what you are writing. A James Rollins novel may not make it to Oprah’s book club, but James Rollins never pretends he is writing anything but action adventure. While the story has the trappings of research, social consciousness and attention to detail, it nothing more than a façade covering an adequately written novel with a questionable plot and a misleading premise. Had the author not tried so hard to convince the reader that this story was something it was not, I would have likely been much kinder in my review.