I had very high hopes for Stoney Compton’s ALASKA REPUBLIK after reading his previous book in this series, RUSSIAN AMERIKA, which I reviewed a few days ago. And some of my hopes for ALASKA REPUBLIK were fulfilled — but not all, which is a shame because with a few quick fixes, this book would’ve been outstanding.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
ALASKA REPUBLIK starts out by re-stating what happened at the very end of RUSSIAN AMERIKA: Gerald “Jerry” Yamato, a Republic of California pilot, has been shot down. He and a wounded Russian sergeant major, Rudi Cermanivich, are quickly taken prisoner by three Alaskan natives — Bodecia, her husband Pelagian, and their adult daughter, Magda — who are all members of the Dena Separatist Movement (DSM). Bodecia, being a healer, quickly takes charge of the men while getting them back as fast as possible to safety.
Ah, but safety is so fleeting in a war zone, as Bodecia and Pelagian find out once they send Jerry and Magda off to get help (as Rudi’s broken his leg, he can’t move very quickly). Pelagian gets shot, which leaves Bodecia to first figure out how to keep both remaining men safe and warm, then to get her badly-injured husband and the non-ambulatory Rudi to safety.
But once that happens, there’s war, war, and more war, with the backdrop of some romance between Magda and Jerry, a bit of posturing by the Freekorps (mercenaries, very highly trained), some Russians changing alliances, Japan entering the fray, then there’s the talks of unification between the Tlingit Native Americans and the Dena (Athabascans) in order to form a truly Alaskan democratic republic . . . this novel jumps around a great deal, but it’s fun to read and it’s fun to follow. I enjoyed reading it a great deal, just as I enjoyed the first book.
The problems here were more in the realm of one-level characterization, something you notice on the second re-read (and every subsequent re-read). Simply put: every soldier, man or woman, on the good side is committed, dedicated, focused and never has one moment, even in his head, where he doubts what he’s doing. Or whether he’s doing it for the right reasons. This isn’t so much a problem with Magda, Bodecia or Pelagian — we know why they’re fighting. They want the Czar gone. But the Russians — why are they behaving the way they are with no support forthcoming, and with the Czar not giving ’em any air support worth mentioning?
And at that, Jerry Yamato, while an engaging character, does not really search his soul very much at any time during ALASKA REPUBLIK. He just seems to be along for the ride; he’s a capable soldier, a very good pilot, and he enjoys what he does, but if he wants a life with Magda, he needs to search his soul a bit. (Most people would, changing cultures in this way. Radically. Suddenly. Without any previous warning.) And he doesn’t do it.
What this mostly is, when it’s dealing with Jerry anyway, is the “fish out of water” plotline. And I didn’t see enough double-takes. I didn’t see many of them — in fact, I saw hardly any of them. Which gives Jerry’s perspective an odd dreamlike quality that it truly shouldn’t have — this is an experienced pilot of many flying sorties. He’s a good soldier and infantryman when he’s pressed to it, and he’s not sexist; he can take Magda’s orders, or Bodecia’s, as easily as he takes Pelagian’s or any military officer he runs into during the course of ALASKA REPUBLIK. This makes him a pro soldier all the way. Which is why his reactions did not feel right to me, especially after his own people from California manage to get to him, and he goes up with his fellow pilots to give air support to the Alaskans.
While there was a bit more internal monologue here, especially with regards to Bodecia and General Grisha Grigorievich (my favorite character, returning from RUSSIAN AMERIKA; he’s the head of the Dena Army), there’s still too much storytelling on one level. We get some humor here and there — very welcome, that — and we get some romance, also very welcome. But I kept thinking that this book could be dynamite — and it just . . . didn’t . . . quite . . . happen.
What’s missing mostly are two things: set-up, and introspection. Now, in a novel of war, you don’t need a lot of set-up, but when you introduce at the very last minute a famous picture, without showing the picture being taken, nor showing the reactions of the people in the picture at the time the picture was taken . . . why do it? Because you need set-up there — you need there to be some story there, rather than just putting it in there and letting it fly, especially so late in the story (less than twenty pages from the end). And as for introspection, see what I said before — these characters, some of ’em, are doing things they’ve never done in their entire lives. Yet very few of them have any care for how quickly their lives have changed except for Grisha and his wife, Wing, or perhaps Bodecia. Magda and Jerry see what’s happened as “all of a piece,” which is fine — some people do see the world that way — but everyone seeing the world this way? I highly doubt it.
So what’s here in ALASKA REPUBLIK is good, but it’s not great due to the lack of character depth. And it could’ve been outstanding with just a bit more forethought, just a little bit of introspection from someone, somewhere (Admiral Yamomoto had a whole lot of introspection in World War II, and yet was considered an admirable strategist, someone who was appreciated even by his foes; this means: “Real soldiers can be introspective.”). And for pity’s sake, don’t just throw something in there at the end for the sake of throwing it in there when there was a way to fully integrate it with the plot by simply showing it rather than telling it.
Still, if you like war, and you like alternate histories, and you like realism, and you enjoy some family-friendly romance, you will really like ALASKA REPUBLIK. I believe it can be understood without the first book, RUSSIAN AMERIKA, but it would be greatly enhanced if you read RUSSIAN AMERIKA first.
However, the upshot here is, I expected a lot more out of Stoney Compton’s second book than I did his first, and I didn’t really get it. There is some improvement from the first book to the second — Jerry Yamato is not shown to be incredibly handsome right away (though Magda and Bodecia are, of course, exotically beautiful, the type of women who’d stand out in any crowd), and there was some more internal monologue, though still not enough. But I believe Compton can do better.
I liked ALASKA REPUBLIK despite all these quibbles, and give it a solid B — but this could’ve been an A-plus, and it’s not.
— reviewed by Barb