The Alexander Inheritance – Eric Flint, Gorg Huff & Paula Goodlett

A modern cruise liner is transported back to the beginning of the “Time of the Diadochi“, after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought over his splintering empire.

The premise is a fine idea, but unfortunately the story suffers from being set in a very messy historical time. Dozens of players are rapidly introduced, leading to just as rapid confusion. While the story does gel somewhat around the characters of Roxane and Euridyce, it is hard for the reader to get to grips with the wider political situation. Where the book shines is when dealing with the culture shock of people from ancient civilisations being suddenly introduced to things like steam engines, refrigeration and modern views on gender equality. There is a wide ranging discussion of slavery which manages to be quite interesting.

This book is part of the wider Assiti Shards Universe, though it can be treated as a singleton.

Devil’s Due (Destroyermen XII) – Taylor Anderson

The Destroyermen series continues. This installment focuses on the African front, as the Alliance, with new friends, prepares to assault the Grik heartland. Kurokawa still remains on Zanzibar, however, and must be dealt with.

The scope of the series is becoming worryingly broad, but Mr. Anderson seems to have decided to focus on one war at a time, as it were. This allows the reader to focus on one campaign without constant and jarring flipping back and forth. The series shows no signs of slowing down, with the stakes remaining high and the action tense and exciting. A page turner.

Blood in the Water (Destroyermen XI) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen11BloodintheWaterFollowing the taking of “Grik City” in Straits of Hell, the Alliance is attempting to both consolidate its foothold on Madagascar and set up for a strike on the Grik heartland. The powerful League of Tripoli is meddling, howerver. On the other front, the Dominion is refusing engagement, but the Allies may be able to bring a new player in to the war on their s
ide.

Despite the fact that this series is now on its eleventh book, it still moves along nicely. Mr. Anderson had not let it bog down into clean-up operations with obvious outcome, and the challenges facing our heroes are as great as ever. This book, like some of the previous installments, is more about setting the stage for future developments and thus doesn’t contain any decisive action, but for fans of the series will still bring satisfaction.

4Rosbochs

United States of Japan – Peter Tieryas

UnitedStatesofJapanThe setting is Southern California. It is the late 1980s in a world where the Axis won World War II.  The occupied Western United States are now the United States of Japan (USJ), and the occupiers rule with an iron fist despite the appearance of a happy and prosperous nation. The secret police tortures and “disappears” people at the least hint of treason against the Divine Emperor. Beniko Ishimura is an underachieving Captain in the Imperial Forces working as a censor for videogames. Ten years earlier, he took part in quelling a major revolt in San Diego, and now those events are coming back to haunt him.

Oh, and there are giant robots. This is seldom a bad thing.

Even without Mr. Tieryas’s explicit admission in the afterword, it is obvious that this book was heavily influenced and inspired by The Man in the High Castle, down to the dissenting material showing an alternate reality that is in fact that of the reader; one where the Allies won and the world is very different. The world-building is excellent, showing a dystopian USJ that is struggling economically and socially while all criticism of the regime is harshly punished. The cruelty of the torture and death inflicted by both USJ agents and dissidents is graphically described to the point of making the reader squirm, but in this world such things are sadly normal.

The story is somewhat opaque in the first half of the book, but things rapidly clarify towards the end, when flashbacks to the San Diego revolt and events in the present converge. Themes of betrayal, loyalty and forgiveness are strongly emphasized in a strong ending.

3½Rosbochs

V-S Day – Allen Steele

V-SDayIn this alternate history novel, Nazi Germany is building Silbervogel, Eugen Sänger‘s proposed “antipodal bomber”, in an attempt to firebomb New York during WWII. Learning about the work from spy efforts, a US team led by Robert Goddard builds a counter-weapon, an American suborbital interceptor.

For a fan of the history of astronautics, this novel is a treat. While in reality Nazi Germany focused its rocketry efforts on the A-4 rocket, better known as the V-2 ballistic missile, it is not a big stretch to imagine how efforts could have gone towards Silbervogel instead. Steele mixes real people and fictional events in a very plausible “what if?” of history.

4Rosbochs

 

Black Powder War (Temeraire #3) – by Naomi Novik

Temeraire3BlackPowderWarAfter their adventures in China in Throne of Jade, Temeraire, Laurence and the rest of the crew receive orders to travel to Istambul in the Ottoman Empire. Here, they must retrieve three Turkish dragon eggs for further transport to England. Pressed for time, Laurence opts for the overland route through Asia, a long and arduous journey. Needless to say, once in Istambul circumstances have changed. And that is just the beginning of the troubles for our heroes.

While still not quite reaching the level of the first book, Black Powder War is still eminently readable and fun. At this point it seems the macropolitical developments in Europe starts to diverge more markedly from our history, with Temeraire and Laurence acting as agents for a change in social status of dragons in the West.

4Rosbochs

Throne of Jade (Temeraire II) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire2ThroneofJadeThe second book picks up immediately after the events of His Majesty’s Dragon. As it turns out, Temeraire’s egg, which Laurence and his crew captured on a French warship, was meant as a gift from China to Napoleon. Temeraire is a very rare Chinese breed, and now the Chinese want him back. Thus starts a long and arduous journey to Peking on a diplomatic mission to resolve the situation.

While not quite as good as the first book, the second installment keeps up the spirit of high adventure. Temeraire is fleshed out some more as a character, with some interesting influence from a Chinese society where Dragons are treated very differently compared to their situation in Europe.

4Rosbochs

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1) – Naomi Novik

Temeraire1HisMajestysDragonThe year is 1804. Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy and his crew capture a French warship. On board they find a dragon egg; a prize worth a princely sum to the British war effort. The egg hatches and the dragon, whom Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him as his handler. Laurence must leave the Royal Navy to join the Flying Corps, and entirely foreign environment for him.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a delightful novel, full of whooping-out-loud-inducing adventure set in a period of gentlemen, honour and heroic deeds. There’s a Horatio Hornblower vibe over the story, which dares to be high adventure without dwelling too much over the fact that dragons do exist and are simply part of the world. A somewhat storied and mystical part, to be sure, but there is no further explanation required or necessary. Ms. Novik doesn’t bend over backwards to make the existence of these beasts plausible, but simply integrates them into history as we know it, making for some striking images. For example, dragon formations crewed with gunners and boarders striking at convoys in the English channel. The entire organization of dragons in battle as couriers, support aircraft or heavy strike beasts depending on size and ability rapidly starts to seem entirely plausible given the historical background. And so, even though it is full of dragons, the novel doesn’t feel very much like fantasy at all, keeping its thematic roots firmly in the historical novel and alternate history camps.

4½Rosbochs

Straits of Hell (Destroyermen X) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen10StraitsofHellBattle is joined on both of the Alliance’s fronts. In South America, Shinya must hold against the full force of the Dominion counterattack. In Madagascar, Reddy is subject to an avalanche of Grik forces in the newly taken “Grik City”. After the leadership issues in Deadly Shores having now been sorted out, what remains is the daunting task of defeating two numerically superior enemies on their respective home soil.

Even after all the successes in previous books, the Alliance is still in dire straits. This may be the tipping point in the war against the Grik, but just as the Grik may be close to breaking, the Alliance is strained to the extreme, with overstretched supply lines and a shortage of personnel. Mr. Anderson conveys the precariousness of both the tactical situations and the overall strategic picture to great effect. Another solid installment in the series.

4Rosbochs

Deadly Shores (Destroyermen IX) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen9DeadlyShoresAfter the successful relief of the Pete Alden’s Allied Expeditionary Force in India and the start of offensive operations against the Dominion detailed in Storm Surge, the Alliance uses its current strategic momentum to mount a daring raid against the Grik capital on Madagascar. However, muddled leadership and unclear priorities quickly turn what should have been a raid in force into a potential disaster. On the eastern front, Shinya leads the first confrontation with the “home” forces of the Dominion. As the Alliance continues to grow rapidly, cracks are showing in the leadership, which makes the story all the more interesting.

Mr. Anderson commendably avoids projecting the rest of the series into a big roll-up of the Grik. New and surprising elements are introduced, and for certain our heroes continue to suffer greatly. On a side note, the author always leaves room for chaotic and unexpected events that show the randomness of the world, as well as colourful touches like the little pet lizard-bird Petey. These elements make the world seem as vast as a real one.

While this is firmly an alternate history and war series, the strong elements of adventure fiction truly make it shine.

4½Rosbochs

 

Storm Surge (Destroyermen VIII) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen8StormSurgeFollowing almost two books of plot fragmentation and scope expansion, Storm Surge brings things to a head. The Alliance industrial machine has hit its stride, supporting a gargantuan war effort across three continents. Following the near disastrous invasion of India in Iron Gray Sea, the Allies are ready to strike back in force. Abel Cook and Dennis Silva go looking for the native population of Borno. Finally, the eastern front is properly opened with the first landings on the Dominion home soil.

It took almost the entirety of the two previous books in the series to build up to the events in Storm  Surge, but the payoff was well worth it. While the epic battle to finally conquer Eastern India and rescue Pete Alden’s embattled Allied Expeditionary Force dominates the proceedings, several less significant actions also vie for the spotlight, in particular Cook and Silva’s unexpected encounter.

Mr. Anderson skillfully weaves the complex story, keeping the pace up without bogging down in minutiae. He also continues to throw large wrenches in the works, not fearing to kill off key characters or serving up tragic setbacks. Many series have run out of steam after this many installments, but Destroyermen seems set to continue being captivating.

4½Rosbochs

Iron Gray Sea (Destroyermen VII) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen7IronGraySeaThe Allied First Fleet attacks Grik-held India, while Captain Reddy and Walker go after a powerful Japanese warship.

Certainly the action in India is riveting stuff, but most of the novel felt more like a setup for future installments. Still a fun read but no grand events. The addition of a new player at the very end will hopefully throw a new wrench in the works. Tipping things off balance just when they seem to be working out is something that Mr. Anderson continues to do well in the series.

4Rosbochs

Firestorm (Destroyermen VI) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen6FirestormThe main story threads continue to multiply. Silva, Princess Becky and Sandra Tucker are shipwrecked and presumed lost. The invasion of Ceylon begins. The invasion of the British Empire held Hawaiian isles by the Dominion is in full swing. On the home front in Baalkpaan, the industrial buildup is really hitting its stride.

The pacing could well have suffered due to the more fragmented story, but Mr. Anderson makes it work. The actions on Ceylon and New Ireland especially are well written. Our heroes also suffer some major setbacks that feel like gut-punches. This is especially gratifying as the a common trap in these series is for things to become just a long but unsurprising slog to victory when the tide seems to be turning. It was nice to get more of secondary characters, especially Silva. They certainly add color.

Mr. Anderson has also finally dispensed with the embedded summary of previous installments. This was weighing heavily on the first few chapters in the last few books and I was glad to see it replaced with brief sections designed to jog the memory of returning readers.

4Rosbochs

Rising Tides (Destroyermen V) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen5RisingTidesThe slower pace of Distant Thunders continues in the first half of Rising Tides. The story itself is divided between the Allied mission to the Empire of New Britain, salvage efforts on the S-19 submarine and a cargo ship full of fighter planes, the Allied offensive against Rangoon, and finally the adventures of the castaway Silva, Princess Rebecca and Sandra Tucker. This makes for a somewhat scattered narrative. However the action soon picks up in the second half with a harrowing climax in the heart of the Empire.

The scope of the overall story arc continues to expand and I was somewhat worried that the whole thing would become too large to retain the focus and excitement of earlier installments. However Mr. Anderson returns as soon as he can to the tight pacing of books one through three. The opening of a second front will also likely keep the story from devolving into a long mop-up ahead of the final victory.

4Rosbochs

Distant Thunders (Destroyermen IV) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen4DistantThundersAfter the epic events of Maelstrom, the series slows down and goes on a slight sidetrack due to the actions of a certain faction of New Britannic Empire.

While I was initially hesitant about the story decision, I found it ultimately to be a good thing. Adding the wrinkle of both the New Britannic Empire and the power struggles therein makes for a more interesting arc. Meanwhile, the humor and action are still present, making this book yet another worthwhile installment.

4Rosbochs

Crusade (Destroyermen II) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen2CrusadeAfter the events of Into the Storm, the humans of Walker and their Lemurian allies prepare their defenses for the inevitable Grik onslaught. Initial optimism is tempered by the realization that the threat is much greater than they initially thought.

While Into the Storm was somewhat tentative, the series hits its stride in this book. A real page turner. Mr. Anderson also gives freer rein to the often comical idiosyncrasies of his characters, adding a note of absurdist humor to the narrative.

4Rosbochs

Into the Storm (Destroyermen I) – Taylor Anderson

Destroyermen1IntotheStormIn March of 1942, during the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the obsolete American destroyer U.S.S. Walker is taking a beating. While attempting to escape into a squall, she and her crew are transported to a parallel Earth. In this world, there are no humans. Sentient lemurs and raptors are locked in an age-old struggle.

The premise is interesting, and the execution competent, if not tremendously original.  The story is well told and enjoyable, but I did sometimes find myself wanting more of the World War II action. One thing that disappointed me was that things were a bit too neat and easy. Two alien races meeting for the first time and quickly ally without more than trifling misunderstandings is stretching things a bit too far.

3½Rosbochs

The Six Directions of Space – Alastair Reynolds

TheSixDirectionsofSpaceIt is one thousand years since the founding of the Mongol Empire, and it now spans both the Earth and a vast galactic empire. A secret agent is sent to a remote sector to investigate problems with the interstellar transit system used by humanity; a system left behind by an ancient race.

The setting is interesting and the twist is well executed. An entertaining novella.

3Rosbochs

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

TheManintheHighCastleGermany and Japan have won World War II and now control most of the world between them. The former United States are split between them, with the backward Rocky Mountain States situated between a Japanese puppet state in Western North America and a German puppet state in Eastern North America; acting as a buffer zone of sorts. Fifteen years after the war ended, the two superpowers are engaged in a cold war, with Germany expanding into space and Japan falling behind. The book follows several characters in events far from the core of politics, including a German secret agent, a Japanese trade official and a woman seeking audience with the author of an intriguing novel. The novel is about an alternate history where Germany and Japan lose the war, thus more closely resembling our own.

Mr. Dick cleverly implements the device of using characters very peripheral to the main thrust of history. These see historical events without the sureness or clarity of a history book, and color them with their own perceptions, each flawed in its own way. There are long passages of reflection on the nature of manufactured objects, of their “historicity”; in other words their connection with historical events. How does history reflect on the present through its relics? The discussions on race and the open use of race to profile people and cultures gives a glimpse of the way things might perhaps have been if the Axis had won the war. The social mores depicted unfortunately date the book somewhat, especially the depiction of Juliana’s ready subservience to a new man in her life. However it remains a classic for good reason.

3½Rosbochs

Pyramid Power (Pyramid II) – Eric Flint & David Freer

PyramidPowerThe sequel to Pyramid Scheme takes place shortly after the first book. Our heroes are adapting to life on Earth, or back on Earth as the case may be, when agents from the newly constituted Pyramid Security Agency (PSA) decide to start operations in the mythworlds. Needless to say, things quickly go awry. The PSA embodies all the worst about hastily created government agencies, and is a clear reference to the Homeland Security Agency as a kneejerk reaction to 9/11. Our heroes find themselves not back in mythical Greece or Egypt, but in the Norse world of myth, populated by such classics as Thor, Odin and Loki.

Just like the previous book, this one is written with tongue quite firmly in cheek. Awful puns and funny situations are de rigueur. Sadly the story itself is somewhat muddled, and I had a hard time following the twists and turns, many of which took place off-screen and were then presented as faits accomplis.

2½Rosbochs

11/22/63 – Stephen King

11-22-63In a small town in Maine, High School teacher Jake Epping is asked by his acquaintance, diner owner Al, to come to the diner. When he arrives, Al has aged years and has gone from healthy to terminally ill in cancer. It turns out that Al has found a sort of time portal in his pantry. The portal leads to 1958. Al’s plan was to live in the past until 1963, and then kill Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Al believes this would change history in important ways, preventing the Vietnam war and other horrors. Unfortunately Al contracts cancer and cannot complete his mission. Is the past pushing back against those who try to change history? Al returns back to 2011. Things have changed, but not enough, and when the portal is used again, the past resets to how things were. Before dying, Al dragoons Jake into completing the mission. He cannot just kill Oswald a few years before the assassination attempt, however. He must be sure that the man is acting alone, and not part of one of the many purported conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Thus starts Jake’s adventure in the past, where many things are different, yet many things are the same.

Mr. King’s research into the late fifties and early sixties is extensive and meticulous. The fact that people smoked constantly and everywhere is an obvious factoid, but the differences go much deeper. From food prices to idioms to the fact that bathrooms in the American south were still segregated, it is fascinating to discover how very unfamiliar current Americans would be with society and its mores in “The Land of Ago”.  Jake’s quest takes him on many side tracks as he must become an inhabitant of the era. He makes friends and even falls in love, but he cannot reveal his true purpose. He must be careful lest his use of modern idiom mark him as strange. He must also keep his focus on the objective through five years of “ordinary” life peppered with research and the intermittent stalking of Oswald.

King’s mastery of style, pacing and character building shines in the prose. Despite its considerable length (eight hundred and forty-nine pages for those who still read on paper) it is not a slog to read through. Even trivial adventures become interesting when written so well. I did feel, however, that the book had perhaps been unnecessarily padded, or more accurately insufficiently cut to size. While many events serve to build the character of Jake, they might have been excised without hurting the story, and perhaps things would have moved forward a bit faster. Having said that, the many vignettes of life in the past are fascinating, often funny and as often horrifying to more modern sensibilities.

Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed that King chose to reveal some part of the “inner workings” of the time travel mechanism. While as a science fiction fan, I typically want to find out about such things, perhaps in this case it would have been better if it had simply stayed a magical mystery without explanation. I did not feel that it really added to the story, and the point made through the reveal had already been made.

4Rosbochs

Time Spike – Eric Flint & Marilyn Kosmatka

This singleton Assiti Shards novel sees a maximum security prison in southern Illinois get sent back in time, dragging along with it large group of Cherokees from the 19th Century, conquistadors from the 16th century, and Mounds people from prehistoric times.

The idea of dragging a prison back in time is interesting. What do you do with the convicts? How do you keep guarding them? Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only bright point in this novel apart from the action scenes and the fact that it is an easy read and the vaguely interesting historical tidbits. Most characters are so two dimensional and cookie cutter that I had a very hard time remembering who was who. The portrayal of men and women falling in love more or less instantly was naive and plain silly, the argument being that since they had to survive, they’d better pair up.

The subplot with the “present day” scientists was completely superfluous, and seemed to be there mostly to tie in with possible sequels and bring needless exposition. Again, the instant love trope reared its ugly head here.

In the Presence of Mine Enemies – Harry Turtledove

In this alternate history novel, the year is circa 2001. The Nazis won the Second World War, then conquered America a generation later. Jews are hiding in the midst of the Third Reich.

So, what’s the book actually about? As far as I could figure out, not very much. I kept wondering when something would actually happen. Unfortunately I reached the end and nothing had, unless you count interminable games of bridge while the characters wonder who is having unfaithful thoughts.

Turtledove had a great idea for the premise, but this novel is mind numbingly dull. The portrayal of everyday life under the shadow of the Germanic Empire is fascinating for about ten pages, and the hints of change intriguing, but the rest is one long yawner.

The Guns of the South – Harry Turtledove

Time-traveling South African white supremacists go back to the American Civil War and equip the confederates with AK-47’s. Well, it’s a cool idea. Unfortunately, Turtledove gets lost in the details, so to speak. Too many protagonists, and not enough focus. This is a fun little book, but it could have been so much more.