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.

In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (The Lords of Creation II) – S.M. Stirling

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.

The Sky People (The Lords of Creation I) – S.M. Stirling

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.

A Meeting at Corvallis (Emberverse III) – S.M. Stirling

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 (Emberverse II) – S.M. Stirling

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.

Dies the Fire (Emberverse I) – S.M. Stirling

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.

Conquistador – S.M. Stirling

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.

The Peshawar Lancers – S.M. Stirling

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

The Nantucket Series – S.M. Stirling

This alternate history series consists of:

  • Island in the Sea of Time
  • Against the Tide of Years
  • On the Oceans of Eternity

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.

Chronospace – Allen Steele

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.

Rude Astronauts – Allen Steele

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 Tranquillity Alternative – Allen Steele

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.

Pyramid Scheme (Pyramid #1) – Eric Flint & Dave Freer

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!

Space – James A. Michener

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.

The Eden Trilogy – Harry Harrison

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:

  • West of Eden
  • Winter in Eden
  • Return to Eden

Fatherland – Robert Harris

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.

 

The Lost Regiment Series – William R. Forstchen

I have read the first three books in the series:

  • Rally Cry
  • Union Forever
  • Terrible Swift Sword

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.

1812: The Rivers of War – Eric Flint

Another alternate history story from Flint and technically an Assiti Shards novel even if removed from the main thrust of that series. This one, the first of a new series, rewrites the War of 1812. Instead of being wounded in the groin at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Sam Houston is only grazed in the arm. And so he can participate in the defense of Washington against a British raid. Flint spins an interesting tale of how influential (American) Indians, whites and blacks begin to form strong bonds and plan for the future. It helps if you know some of the history, but even if you don’t, Flint is pretty good at filling in the blanks.

I enjoyed the book mildly, but it is by no means perfect. Flint has a great sense of humor and the book is a page turner. However, he is a bit too in love with his characters, and the smugness with which he describes them is often grating. Having said that, if you liked 1632 and so forth you might enjoy this.

 

 

1634: The Galileo Affair – Eric Flint & Andrew Dennis

The first of many sequels to 1632 and 1633, this book focuses more on the theological-political impact of the Ring of Fire. The newly formed United States of Europe sends a delegation to Venice. This leads, more or less on purpose, to links with the Vatican and involvement in the trial of Galileo. It is a decent read reading, but there is much less action than in 1632 and 1633.  Overall, this book is nowhere near as much fun as the first two.

 

Grantville Gazette II – Eric Flint (Editor)

This is the dead tree edition of the second volume filled with “user generated content” in the Assiti Shards Universe. It continues Flint’s experiment with not only opening his universe, but letting other writers actually add to the stories and developing landscape in a major way. Flint does not set strict guidelines, allowing other writers to take his own creation in totally unexpected directions.

The book is a mixed bag. Some of the stories are cute, some are more serious. The novelette about setting up a medical school that fills a large part of the compilation is engaging but fails to pull out all the stops and ends up rather flat. The non-fiction is mostly interesting. None of the content is bad but there isn’t really anything that stands out as particularly good either. It’s interesting if you’re into the other books, but cannot be read as a standalone.