Stoney Compton’s RUSSIAN AMERIKA is a well-conceived alternate history. Set in 1987, Alaska is still a Russian protectorate, while the various Native American peoples (most especially the Dena, otherwise known as Athabascans) chafe underneath the Czar’s yoke. And in this universe, the United States is no longer quite so united, instead being split up between the USA, the CSA (Confederate States of America), the First People’s Nation, Texas, the Republic of California, and Deseret (the Mormons, but this time are in Arizona rather than Utah, reasons unknown or untold).
We start RUSSIAN AMERIKA by seeing how independent ship captain Grigoriy “Grisha” Grigorievich deals with Alaska as it now stands. He’s a former member of the Troika Guard, who aren’t — quite — mercenaries, but seem to be more than the usual run of Russian troops, and has retired to run his boat. He’s in his middle years, fortyish, and all he wants at the beginning of RUSSIAN AMERIKA is to eke out his life his way, incidentally wondering why his marriage is failing. Grisha is an appealing character with many strengths who is quickly thrown into chaos through no fault of his due to the machinations of Valeri Komenskiya, an attractive Russian Major who might kindly be called a spy.
Grisha, of course, is a former soldier of distinction, so when he gets away from his Russian captors, this isn’t much of a surprise to the reader — but the circumstances of his particular rescue are seen to be unusual because they come at the hands of the Dena Separatist Movement (DSM), and Grisha has no Native American blood at all as far as he knows. The DSM have had enough of the Czar, and have taken to running off as many soldiers as they can, killing those who don’t take the hint or are known to be especially abusive.
Once in the hands of the DSM, Grisha’s circumstances change again because the DSM needs soldiers with ability and that’s Grisha, hands-down. Plus, the more Grisha does to help the DSM, the more he realizes he’s on the “right side of history” — the DSM want Alaska to be a democratic republic, or at least their corner of it (they’ll worry about the whole of Alaska later), and Grisha is all in favor of this. Plus, there’s the mysterious, exotic female warrior Wing — the first woman who’s ever stirred anything in Grisha beyond mere sexual desire (Grisha’s marriage having been dissolved by his ex-wife’s decree by this time) — along with new friends, new opportunities, and an ever-changing amount of warfare going on to keep him interested, engaged and focused. And all of that is against the backdrop of war, revolution, and the ultimate question: how can you create a democratic republic out of the big, fat mess that the Czar has wrought?
As you might have figured out, I really enjoyed RUSSIAN AMERIKA and appreciated it as an action-adventure story, as a “coming of age” story for Grisha, and as an alternate history. As Eric Flint’s cover quote says, this is an “exciting story of war and revolution,” and it was a great deal of fun to read. I also appreciated the craftsmanship, the well-thought out nature of the split-up North American continent (as some historians have opined in the past, it’s more surprising the United States have stayed united than having dissolved or fractured into many parts, which is why Compton’s conception of several different governments all jockeying for position makes total sense), and even the subtle love story between the oh-so-capable Wing and Grisha, as it helps humanize them nicely.
Now, were there some drawbacks here? A few: I didn’t see a great deal of internal monologue from Grisha, Wing, Nikolai (Grisha’s good friend, who goes through many trials in this book) or anyone else, nor did I see anyone who wasn’t described as unattractive or out of shape among the “positive leads” of RUSSIAN AMERIKA (meaning that a few of the Russian officers, who are obviously bad guys, or the one promyshlennik — an uber-tracker of sorts — who works for the Russians — are ugly or ill-favored, but everyone else seems not only well-proportioned, but handsome or beautiful in the extreme). I viewed these critiques as minor in the scope of this particular book (note that the review for the second book in this series, ALASKA REPUBLIK, will be forthcoming later in the week), but they are present and at times, they were a little distracting.
However, this was a first novel; my hunch is that over time, Compton will realize that readers don’t need to see heroes always being extremely handsome or beautiful in order to root for them, nor that a couple needs to be attracted primarily by looks, either; Compton even has this as a sub-plot of sort if you count the dissolved marriage of Grisha near the front of RUSSIAN AMERIKA, as it’s obvious that looks alone will not save a marriage if there’s no meeting of the minds underneath it all.
I definitely think Stoney Compton is a writer to watch — or as Storm Constantine once put it on behalf of a different writer, “a writer to read” — and recommend RUSSIAN AMERIKA without equivocation.
Grade: B-plus (right on the edge of A-minus, solely due to the minor factors that distracted me), recommended.
— Reviewed by Barb