Book Review: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis (2012)

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
Tor Books, 2012

Rating: B+

The most important aspect of any fiction dealing with war is that the conflict isn’t interesting if the characters of both sides aren’t treated with the utmost care. A handful of archetypal British heroes fighting a group of Nazi cannibals with no depth whatsover is not worth reading; black and white war stories should have died with John Wayne. Ian Tregillis understands this. The characters in The Coldest War, and its predecessor Bitter Seeds, are all very real people, with some flaws and some admirable traits no matter which side of the conflict they are on.

In the case of Klaus, there is a German who was forced into fighting for the Nazis from a very young age after being experimented on and augmented with technology that allows him to pass through walls. Although there is a sadness that he always carries with him, he is well intended despite his upbringing. The other side of the conflict in Bitter Seeds is Raybould Marsh, a proud Brit and intelligence agent. In the time that has passed since the first novel, Marsh’s life has fallen apart and he’s become a borderline alcoholic with severe marital troubles that stem from the loss of a child and the apparent mental disabilities of a second. When the story picks up, Marsh is essentially dragged forceably from the bottle by his country to “battle” the Soviet Union in a re-imagining of the Cold War, teaming up with Klaus and his sister, Greta. Although Greta is a bit lacking in depth, but serves an important purpose in that throughout the novels she uses her ability to see the future to basically be the master of all that is going on. She is a purely terrifying villain throughout.

The “history” part of alternate history has become fuzzy with this novel, as is only natural in a book taking place more than twenty years later in a universe where the British used warlocks to fight superhuman Nazis (and thus ending the war early). It doesn’t really feel like an alternate history novel in the Harry Turtledove sort of way, but is something unique that is brilliantly well-written with some of the most memorable literary characters in recent memory. Although The Coldest War doesn’t have as many amazing single moments as Bitter Seeds, and it takes a bit longer to get rolling, it is a worthy sequel to arguably one of the best science fiction novels of the 21st century.

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2009

Rating: B+

Steampunk for a younger audience seems like an obvious market. Younger readers tend to eat up fantasy and science fiction like no other crowd, and yet the number of young adult novels that are considered steampunk is surprisingly small. On steampunk forums around the internet, requests for recommendations of YA steampunk nearly universally revolve around the Leviathan series and a half-dozen other novels. So why aren’t more writers doing what Westerfeld has done with this series? Maybe it is more difficult to write engaging stories about zeppelins and clockwork than it seems.

Leviathan is essentially a re-telling of World War I in a world in which the British, French, Russians, and Serbs use biologically re-engineered animal creatures as weapons and vessels; the title refers to a large airship made out of a whale, which one cannot even begin to explain thoroughly enough to satisfy anyone but is at least a cool visual. On the other side, the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians use large steam-powered ships and battle machines, which is not nearly as fresh of an idea as genetically modified whale ships but is definitely equally cool.

The main characters fit generic archetypes, but are likable in spite of this. Alek is the fictional young son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who finds himself without a family when they are assassinated. His family’s closest advisors squirrel him away in a walking robot tank and head away to try to find safety. On the other side, Deryn is a young woman who wants to badly to be a pilot that she decides to hide her gender and pretend to be a man so that she can enlist. Both of these stories sound like retreads but they are written in such a way that it feels fresh anyway. It doesn’t hurt that there is something wonderfully feministic and subversive for a woman to sneak her way into a “man’s world” and not only succeed but do better than her male counterparts.

Although written for younger audiences, Leviathan will have a general appeal to older fans of steampunk as well. Nothing is too dumbed down or simplified and it has enough plot to hold interest. It is definitely action oriented, with some kind of major fight or crash or explosion every couple chapters, which will certainly help younger readers keep interest in a book of this length. Although it is definitely the first book in a series and as such is not very friendly to stand alone reading, it is good enough that the idea of continuing on into the series is hardly an unwelcome one.

Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest (2010)

Clementine by Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press, 2010

Rating: C

Following the explosion of popularity that Cherie Priest’s steampunk zombie adventure novel Boneshaker gave her, it was only natural that it wouldn’t be long to see more from Priest and her universe. Clementine is the second release of the Clockwork Century, and the only of the four to date to be released by a company other than Tor Books. It is also only about half as long as the other three entries in the series, making it seem kind of like an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Boneshaker as quick as humanly possible.

The Clockwork Century is only conntected in as far as that they are set in the same world, in the same country, at the same time. All of the books are set during an alternate history steampunk version of the Civil War that has lasted much longer than it did in reality. Beyond the shared universe, there are only vague references to events and people from previous parts of the series, so they essentially stand alone. This is no different in Clementine, which follows an escaped-slave-turned-airship-captain Croggon Hainey as he tracks down his airship the Free Crow in a chase across America. He apparently stole the ship himself but doesn’t see the irony in being upset about the fact that his stolen airship has been stolen from him. The second (and less interesting) plot follows Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy who is hired by the Union Army to stop Hainey from catching up to the airship that has been rebadged Clementine.

Taken on the simplest of terms, Clementine is a perfectly enjoyable steampunk romp of absolutely no substance. It is written capably, is short enough to keep even the most attention deficited readers from getting bored, and is so full of action that it would actually probably serve as a solid introduction to what steampunk is for someone who doesn’t generally read because they find it boring. Reading beyond just explosions and gunfights, however, there are some issues that cause irritation.

Having an escaped slave as the main character is a good opportunity to provide an African-Ameriacn sci-fi/fantasy hero when we have so few in print. Unfortunately, Priest plays to the unfortunate stereotype of Hainey being essentially a crook and a pirate, who is not really that smart and is prone to angry outbursts and violence. Complimenting his less than sterling personality, he is essentially completely apolitical; despite being a freed slave who escaped the south, he has no loyalty to the Union and is happy to pull jobs for either side. The easiest comparison for the character is if you were to take Nathan Fillion’s character Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, take away his Browncoat loyalty, make him a bit dumber, and essentially squash any sense of honor. What you are left with is more or less a collection of racial stereotypes with a gun and a ship.

Fans who are able to read a simple adventure without being irritated by the probably unintentional racial undertones will find an enjoyable steampunk adventure of absolutely no substance. This is a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy a book, but it is a hollow enjoyment. Priest is a good writer, and continues to churn out books in this universe that get strong reviews from the majority of the reviewer community, but this one leaves a bad taste in the mouth despite being entertaining on a superficial level. Clementine hasn’t ruined the series, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

Review: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (2010)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: B+

In an alternate Victorian England where anthropomorphic lizard aliens from outer space are in control of the British monarchy, a young man named Orphan loses the love of his life in the crossfire between an anti-government revolutionary called the Bookman and Les Lizards, the name given to these strange lizard kings. The mystery deepens when, shortly after the death of his beloved, a blind beggar named Gilgamesh who Orphan often confided in disappears as well. The Bookman is essentially the story of this young man’s struggle to track down the Bookman and find a way to get his love back.

Angry Robot always seems to manage to put out books that generate significant interest on the strength of their book covers alone; novels like Beukes’ Zoo City and Dan Abnett’s Triumff would likely have never caught my eye if it weren’t for the absolute quality of the graphic design. Luckily, the strength of their literary output measures up to the perfection of their presentation. Lavie Tidhar is an extraordinarily talented writer, in terms not just of quality of storytelling but in pure prose; the writing in The Bookman is bordering on perfection. Even in the slower parts around the novel’s middle, the prose is consistently flawless and engaging.

It is easy to say that the first ten percent or so of the novel (leading up to the death of Lucy as detailed in the blurb) would be one of the strongest pieces of any science fiction or fantasy novel ever. The build-up of the story is picture perfect, with every word used to its absolute greatest possible output. If you are fortunate enough to have not read the blurb before hand (or in the case of this reviewer, not having read the blurb in long enough that I had no memory of it), the death of Lucy is an absolutely heart-breaking kick in the chest. Although perfection of the level achieved in the early chapters of The Bookman is hard to keep up, the novel as a whole turns out to be a wonderful steampunk adventure.

Victorian London has the tendency to be a bit of a dry setting; it has been done and done before by writers of all stripes since the era was actually current. It seems to be some kind of literary cultural obsession to remember fondly back to days that no one currently around was alive for, but Tidhar does it better than anyone in The Bookman. His lizard-led steampunk re-imagining of Victorian England is the perfect setting for adventure, and luckily a world he revisits in future novels.

There is a lot to say about the strengths of the book that would spoil too much, so to summarize: brilliantly written, strong characters, wonderful world, and an engaging story make for a novel that is absolutely a must-read despite a middle third that could have used a bit more excitement. Although the book uses borrows some other characters from fiction a la The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Bookman is far superior to that graphic novel series in execution. Here, the characters from Moby Dick, the various Sherlock Holmes tales, and otherwise, are used with much more restraint, but it makes the world of The Bookman feel much more its own. Absolutely a classic of the steampunk and alternate history genres.

Review: Reich TV by Jeff Pearce (2010)

Reich TV by Jeff Pearce
Gallivant Books, 2010

Rating: A

Alternate history is a crowded and often quite useless genre. How much can we really learn from aliens from the future giving gamma rays to the Viet Cong? It may have entertainment value, but the best in alternate history takes a bigger approach than this. Classics like Philip K. Dick’s Hugo award winning novel The Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America spring to mind. Jeff Pearce’s Reich TV isn’t quite The Man in the High Castle, but it is just as good as The Plot Against America, if not better.

Unlike any of the alternate histories I had read prior to Reich TV, Pearce’s novel uses real life public figures as his main characters rather than his own creations. In one aspect, it makes the characterization process easier; you don’t have to create them yourself. On the other, though, it adds a lot of required research to a genre that by definition requires more in-depth study than any other genre of fiction. In the case of Reich TV, this use of real people is brilliantly executed. This is an outstandingly well-researched piece of speculative fiction.

At its core, Reich TV is a story about the way technology changes everything. Just in case it isn’t already obvious from the title and cover, Reich TV is set during World War II. The biggest technology advances of the century have come to be earlier than in reality, and this leads to a much larger influence of media on the scheme of things, on the ebb and flow of the conflict. Essayist and novelist George Orwell is a journalist from England, in Germany investigating the circumstances surrounding some mysterious deaths. The Marx Brothers are performing a weekly variety show in London being transmitted in Berlin that causes enough controversy to put their lives in danger. Dylan Thomas is their producer, who tears himself away from booze and women just long enough to focus on a new obsession: stopping the Nazis.

There are times in Reich TV where the pace could have been just a bit faster, especially around the middle third. It starts out very strong, and the story is attention grabbing very quickly. There’s a bit of a slowing around the middle, but it was still very enjoyable. Pearce writes wonderfully—so well that it is actually quite a surprise this wasn’t published by a more traditional, larger publishing company.

The strongest aspect of Reich TV is the characterization. Pearce’s portrayal of all of these seemingly larger than life figures is picture perfect. In reading the novel, one could entirely believe that Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, and Groucho Marx were exactly as Pearce wrote them and participated in the events as written. Pearce did an excellent job of immersing this reader in the world, and completely squelching any disbelief that someone might have had reading another alternate history book.

Of particular interest, aside from the great novel itself, is the section at the end when Pearce explains how much of the novel is based on reality, and how much his own creation. The inclusion of this several pages of explanation really managed to deepen my appreciation for the novel and how it was written. It was certainly no small task, and not something everyone could do. Reich TV is a pretty special book. Pearce is a brilliant and talented writer, as well as being spectacularly diverse: he has a couple other novels out that are in completely different sub-genres of speculative fiction, but they intrigue nonetheless. Reich TV is definitely a must read for anyone with an interest in alternate history.

Indie SF/F Names to Know: Jeff Pearce

Since independent publishing became so easy thanks to websites like Smashwords and Amazon, the ebook community has been inundated with an endless pile of novels. There aren’t any hard statistics to back up this claim, but I believe that it is fair to say that more than 95% of what is published through this medium is garbage that would never have seen the light of day through traditional publishing means. There are definitely a fair few writers who have either published independently or started their own small press publishers however that are extraordinarily talented and worth taking a look at. One of them is Jeff Pearce.

Pearce started his own book publishing company, Gallivant Books, and has published books in a handful of genres. What is perhaps most remarkable about Jeff Pearce, aside from his pure writing ability that includes quality prose, dialogue, and plotting, is the diversity of stories he tackles. In The Karma Booth, which has been reviewed by Frida over at Adarna SF, Pearce tackles horror in an effort that, if the opinions of those I’ve seen can be taken as gospel, is as strong as anything published by any of the big speculative fiction houses. Reich TV, which follows George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and the Marx Brothers in the middle of World War II, is one of the strongest alternate history novels ever written, second perhaps only to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Pearce has also published the first of a series in what is best described as literary superhero fiction with Bianca: The Silver Age.

There are a handful of writers in independent speculative fiction who are in the same ballpark as Jeff Pearce in terms of quality of writing, but none who manage to dabble so perfectly in such a diverse array of genres. He is an extraordinary writer of science fiction, thriller, horror, and super hero action, and it is kind of a head scratcher as to why he isn’t writing for Tor or something as big. Pearce is definitely a name to know. Read about his various works at Gallivant Books, and read some reviews of his novels at Adarna SF.