The 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.
In 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.
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 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.
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.
In the somewhat free-standing sequel to The Sky People, Stirling takes us to a Mars inspired by the work of Burroughs and the “science” of Percival Lowell. The arid and cold planet is nevertheless inhabited by close relatives of humans. Our hero, one of the U.S. team based on Mars, travels to a lost city on an archeological expedition. But the Martian head of the expedition team is more than she seems. Soon people are out for their heads as they are embroiled in the thick of Martian politics.
Stirling is masterful at characterizing alien cultures. Even minor dialogue lines are steeped in a deep imagined tradition. It is a pleasure to read, especially as Stirling’s unobtrusive understated humor pervades the prose. This tale of a Mars that never was but that dreamers really wished for is a great adventure yarn.
This series is set in an alternate history where Mars and Venus were found teeming with life by spaceprobes in the 1960s. A space race ensued to set up bases on the planets. Interestingly, the superpowers spent so much on space that no major wars were fought on Earth after the Korean War. The action starts on Venus in 1988. Marc Vitrac is one of the researchers living there. It is very much a frontier life among the lush and extremely varied flora and fauna. After some initial setup, Marc and a few others set off on a long journey of adventure. They find answers as to why Venus’ life forms seem so similar to Earth ones, and those answers are unsettling. Along the way, they befriend some natives and, in that inevitable manner of colonization, they are assimilated into their adopted land.
Diehard “outdoor Stirling” fans need not worry. There is plenty of camping, hunting and bowmaking. The characters are. as usual with Stirling, engaging and “real”, as is the backdrop. It is easy to see that Stirling had a lot of fun writing this. It’s as if he woke up one morning and decided to throw a whole bunch of elements (dinosaurs, giant mammals, modern humans, neanderthals, giant bugs and on and on) into a pot just to see what would come out. The result is a fun read but not Stirling’s best. The setting is very rich and complex and more could have been fleshed out, if only to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. An appendix discussing background history and societal aspects would have been very welcome.
Stirling concludes the Emberverse trilogy in grand style, but doesn’t really tie up all the loose threads. As with the earlier two books, Stirling loses himself in long descriptions of nature, down to the names of flowers and whatnot. With most authors, such long winded prattling would have led to me discarding the book well before the first hundred pages. But Stirling makes it work. His memorable characters play out their destinies against a rich backdrop of modernity turned medieval after the Change.
The trilogy is a pleasure to read and Stirling’s prose is so delightful I would gladly have read another few hundred pages. If nothing else, several characters are worth longer backstories than they get.
The Protector’s war continues the Emberverse series begun with Dies the Fire. Eight years on from the events of the previous book, the world has somewhat settled after the change. The Protector, the Bearkillers and Clan Mackenzie have all consolidated their positions, and past adventures are turning into legend and myth. A showdown with the Protector must come, but not in this book. That is reserved for the final novel, A Meeting at Corvallis.
I enjoyed this installment very much, but it does suffer from middle of the trilogy syndrome. Just like The Empire Strikes Back, it introduces concepts and characters, setting the stage for the final showdown. If Stirling weren’t so engaging regardless of what he is writing about, the story itself would be a bit boring. But even the sometimes very long descriptions of locales and nature paint rich and gorgeous pictures that are a sheer pleasure to read.
S.M. Stirling stole the island of Nantucket from the present time in the Nantucket series. In Dies the Fire, he postulates that when that event happened, all modern appliances (electronics, engines, etc) stopped working in “our” world. Also, all explosives (yes including gunpowder) burn much more slowly. To top it off, steam engines are vastly less efficient. This leads the characters involved to feel it must have been an outside influence (such as “Alien Space Bats) that created what comes to be called “The Change”. The story does not go into The Change itself more than that however, rather focusing on a group of people having to live in the world post-Change.
As so often with Stirling, I found myself unable to put the book down. He does have a way to make characters pop. The two protagonists, Juniper Mackenzie and Mike Havel, are uncommonly well equipped to handle the change, and draw to them people who also have survivor traits. They seem to have more than their fair share of luck, a theme which crops up here and there. This has led to criticism from some readers, who have said it simply isn’t possible for the protagonists to make out quite so well. I would say that if they hadn’t been so lucky and skillful, they would have died along with 90% of humanity in the year after the Change.
As usual, Stirling has done meticulous research into everything from archery to Wicca. It is a pleasure to watch his characters develop through the story.
John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, inadvertently opens a portal to an alternate timeline in his Oakland, California, basement. He and his old war buddies proceed to conquer this version of the Earth. In the other timeline, Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and the white man never arrived in America. The most advanced civilizations are still technologically in the middle ages. The “Gate” remains open, allowing Rolfe and his new nation to secretly smuggle precious metals to the original timeline (they know where to find it easily by using maps from our timeline) and manufactured goods to the other timeline. The “Gate Secret” is very tightly held.
But all is not well in paradise. A faction fight in the alternate timeline spills over into ours, and two Fish and Game Warden find themselves caught up in the middle, then exiled through the gate. They must now team up with the “good” alternate timeline faction (Rolfe’s granddaughter, for one) to defeat the evil faction.
I enjoyed “Conquistador”. It is adventure pure and simple. The action scenes are masterful. The setting, as well as the social, economic and ecological discussions are both entertaining and intriguing. However, I do think that Stirling could have delivered a better plot. The ending is rather abrupt, and some of the moral issues prominent in the first half of the book (is the whole idea of conquering a new world and setting yourselves up as a benevolent dictatorship really a good thing?) are conveniently dropped by the wayside at the end. And then there are the characters. Likeable as they may be, our heroes are a little too perfectly intelligent, likeable and generally extremely fit and good looking. While I am a sucker for happy endings, I still found it a little bit too happy and perfect and neatly tied up, even though the very last page does open the door for sequels.
This singleton is set in the year 2025, but not in our future. The premise is that a shower of comets hit Earth in the 1860’s, pushing civilization to the brink of extinction both by the impacts themselves and related general cooling. The British Empire relocated its seat to Delhi, and the story takes place in what is India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in our timeline. The Empire is ruled by the Angrezi Raj, or King-Emperor.
This is classic swords and horses adventure. Very gripping, with some great characters. The middle of the book was a little “unfocused”, and Stirling could have added dates to the section headings, since there is a bit of jumping backwards and forwards. The end is one long drawn-out cliffhanger after another. As usual, Stirling proves that he knows his history, weapons and tactics. A real page turner and recommended for for high adventure buffs
This anthology features short stories set in Stirling’s Draka universe. Twelve authors contribute. There are some real gems here, but you probably won’t appreciate them if you haven’t read the Draka series first.
The island of Nantucket and the Coast Guard barque Eagle are mysteriously sent back in time to around 1000 BC. Being too small a society for self-sufficience, the inhabitants (including many seasonal visitors) must go out in the world and survive using technology and cunning. Epic adventure, well researched and well written.
Note: Stirling’s Emberverse series is connected to the Nantucket series since the event that sends Nantucket back in time also triggers the “Change” in Emberverse.
In this novel, UFOs are actually time traveling craft from our future. A study group goes back in time to witness the crash of the Hindenburg. “Unfortunately”, the airship lands safely. They have altered the past.
As time-travel stories go, this is a pretty good one. Steele avoids getting stuck in the scientific debate and concentrates on delivering a good yarn instead.
This is a collection of short stories and articles. Steele’s has a journalistic style and tends to describe the actual “normal people” protagonists of an event as opposed to the powers that be. He is seldom grandiose, but his stories tend to be very crisp and relatable. The articles are from Steele’s time as a science reporter in Florida.
The premise of this alternate history novel is that the USA established a permanent presence on the Moon in the 1960s, even basing nuclear missiles there. History has caught up, though, and an expedition is sent to hand over the moon base to a European corporation, as well as deactivate the missiles. A mini technothriller with some excellent good science fiction elements. Very entertaining and a real page turner.
A mysterious pyramid appears in the University of Chicago Library. It starts “snatching” people at random. Almost all return within a few hours, dead or nearly so. Then a larger group is snatched. They end up in a mythical version of ancient Greece.
This romp through Greek myth (with a brief detour in Egyptian myth) by a haphazardly composed gang of modern humans is a great deal of fun. The concept is very clever and thankfully the authors don’t take the whole thing too seriously. Heroics, adventures and awful puns!
The king of the one word title (Mexico! Hawaii! Centennial! Iberia!) tries his hand at the space program, and does it well. This dramatization of the (mainly US) space program from its origins in Peenemunde in 1944 to post Apollo era, with some fictional tangents, is extremely well researched. If you are even vaguely interested in the space program, you will enjoy it.
What if dinosaurs had not become extinct, but instead evolved sentience? These sentient dinosaurs have also developed biotech to a certain extent, using non-sentient dinosaur species for various purposes. In the trilogy, the dinosaur civilization founds a colony in America and comes into contact with Stone Age humans. This whole thing could rapidly have descended into sillyness but it is mildly entertaining and thought provoking. The three novels are:
In this classic alternate history novel, Germany won the Second World War. The premise is very interesting, of course, but it is only the background as Harris weaves an interesting tale of crime in an alternate Berlin of the nineteen sixties. It provides interesting insights about what can happen when a totalitarian society on a war footing must in the end “settle down” and become a nation at peace. And then there is that deep, dark, covered-up secret that nobody wants to talk about: The Holocaust.
This novelette is about an immortal mankind that grows out of the Roman Empire. Very intriguing. The story is centered around a murder mystery, and Hamilton skillfully intertwines the case with a slow revelation about this society so unlike our own. The main theme is the meaning of life, and the value of it. Well worth a read.
In this alternate history steampunk novel, Charles Babbage‘s “Difference Engine” (a mechanical computer) was actually built. Set in Victorian England, it nicely portrays the period. Apart from that, it is pretty boring and bland.
An American Civil War regiment gets transported to a world where a savage species comes around every few years and collects tribute in the form of human flesh. This series trods a well-worn path of military sci-fi (a prime example is Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries), Fortschen does decently well. The first book is not bad, but by the time I got to the end of book three, I discovered that the story was not really going anywhere anymore. There is better stuff than this out there.