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.

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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.