Posts Tagged alternate history
Sorry about the long hiatus, folks. I was getting one of my books to bed, and that took some time…now, since A LITTLE ELFY IN BIG TROUBLE has been turned in, I can get back to reviewing.
VALOUR AND VANITY is the fourth book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories featuring Lady Jane and David, Lord Vincent — a married pair of glamourists (read: magicians) living and working in the Regency era. (Please see SBR’s previous reviews for SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, GLAMOUR IN GLASS, and WITHOUT A SUMMER for further details.)
VALOUR AND VANITY starts off with Jane and Vincent being on a trip with Jane’s family — particularly Jane’s newlywed sister and brother-in-law. They’ve been enjoying themselves on a family mini-tour of Europe, but Jane and Vincent need to go take care of some glamourist business…as they’re nobles, and as Vincent knows Lord Byron (yes, that Byron), they’ve decided to go to the island of Murano (in Italy, now considered part of Venice) as he’s staying there. But their real purpose in Murano is to consult with the legendary glassmakers of that island.
Note that Jane is a full partner in this marriage. It’s viewed as a loving eccentricity by most, as Vincent does not like to be away from Jane for very long. But Jane’s gifts are just as strong as Vincent’s…and that’s going to be needed.
Let’s put it this way. The trip to Murano does not go off without a hitch. Instead, Jane and Vincent are robbed. Lord Byron isn’t around and his “housekeeper” (actually his mistress) doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And the man who “restores” their belongings and puts them up in style isn’t all that he seems.
So they’ve been robbed. Some of their wealth has been temporarily restored, which they take at face value. And they find a glassmaker — one “recommended” by the same shady figure who “rescued” them– and start in with the work they need to do. And they create some glamour in glass, something that may aid soldiers and others during daylight in hiding themselves rather than something for art’s sake.
Then the shady character disappears, with their belongings…most especially the enchanted glass Vincent and Jane just spent so much time creating. And the law shows up.
You’d think this would be a good thing, but it isn’t. While the law does say this shady figure was not the nobleman he was pretending to be, the law doesn’t seem to believe Jane and Vincent. Further, the shady guy managed to get the “replacement funds” Jane and Vincent had written for…which means their bank account is empty. They’re left impoverished, without resources, and have no allies.
So what’s to do?
If you’ve read the previous three books in this series, you know Jane and Vincent will not go down without a fight. Of course they’re going to find a way out of this mess. They will find allies — some quite unexpected, some expected (as Byron eventually shows and wants in on the action) — and they will do whatever they must to set the record straight.
(Note that I would not normally give away so much of the plot in a review, but Ms. Kowal’s site (and the book’s own front matter) says that VALOUR AND VANITY is much like what would happen “if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.”)
Anyway, while there’s plenty of plot — it’s a heist novel, after all! — the main things I adored about VALOUR AND VANITY were the quieter touches. Jane and Vincent get along very well in all circumstances, both personally and professionally, and that’s great to see. I admired their indomitable spirits, and believed that together they truly are stronger than apart.
Of course, Jane and Vincent cannot see themselves from the outside. But we can. And we know they are heroes…even though they, themselves, definitely don’t.
Bottom line? VALOUR AND VANITY couples realistic romance with genuine action, excellent historicity, entirely believable magic and genuine pathos for a perfect read.
–reviewed by Barb
**For readers of romance: I’ve been asked to give “heat levels,” and I’m going to try to remember to do that. The “heat level” here is very mild…they’re married, and we know they enjoy marital relations. But those relations, beyond a kiss or two, are not shown.
Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s KINDRED RITES is the second book in a series about young Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson, a magic practitioner from an alternate, frontier version of Michigan. (The first book, NIGHT CALLS, was reviewed here).**
Because Allie is quite far out of the common way when it comes to magic due to her enormous power, she’s been apprenticed to her Aunt Marta and sent off to learn magic. However, she’s still close to her family and visits often — which is one of the reasons KINDRED RITES starts off with Allie back home, dealing with a poltergeist and wondering why she can’t seem to catch a break.
Even Allie, you see, sometimes wants to be normal. And normality, for 19th Century Michigan, whether it contains magic or not, means getting to know your neighbors as they may make the difference between life and death on the frontier. (It’s not all about politeness; it’s more about practicality.) So when an intriguing young man named Erik Hudson talks with her at a local dance, she takes notice . . . even though it’s not necessarily for the way she thinks at first.
See, Allie is way too young to date or court. And she knows it. But because she’s tall for her age, and accomplished, too, young men have started to sniff around her. Providing they’re polite about it — and Erik is oh, so achingly polite — all she can do is grit her teeth and bear it.
Allie’s aware that she’s different in this regard from her frivolous, yet fun friend Idelia, a girl who’s looking forward to marriage already, and enjoys pitting one pubescent boy after another against each other. Being different from her normal, non-magical friend makes Allie feel sad.
But Allie doesn’t have time for sadness. Despite her extreme youth, she’s already quite competent at midwifery and other healing skills, and is sometimes sent to deal with problems when Aunt Marta is not available. Note that Marta is not being negligent — it’s just that if there’s two births at once, it’s obvious that Marta must attend one while Allie must attend the other. As this is how apprenticeships of all sorts worked in the 19th Century, as teenagers were expected to be responsible (even as young as thirteen) while learning a saleable craft, this detail adds an additional level of verisimilitude.
But getting sent out by herself means Allie’s exposed to far more dangers . . . including kidnapping, which happens at the moment she least expects it. And even though she’s already known to Azrael, the Angel of Death, something that’s unheard of for a thirteen-year-old magic user, Azrael can only advise her if asked.
Will Allie be able to defeat the kidnappers and return home? Or won’t she? And what will she learn about herself along the way? All of those questions, plus many more besides, will be answered. But as usual in the books of Ms. Kimbriel, they’ll raise even more, intriguing questions.
Allie is a compelling character, who does what farm girls from that time period did (card wool, quilt, gather herbs, cook) along with her study of magic. Her world feels real, her studies feel real, and her exasperation at Idelia over Idelia’s mooning over boys feels real, too.
Furthermore, Allie’s world contains many dangers. Her talents aren’t so prodigious that she can’t be endangered — it’s precisely because she’s so talented that she is endangered. And because she’s more self-aware than most thirteen-year-olds, she’s aware of this, too . . . which heightens the tension of Allie’s efforts to survive after being kidnapped.
Bottom line? This is one of the best historical dark fantasies I’ve ever read. I deeply enjoyed Allie’s second tale, and plan to re-read it many, many times over the years to come.
One final thought: If you’ve not read any of Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s books yet, what’s stopping you?
— reviewed by Barb
With the execution of George Washington in the Tower of London, the American rebellion has seemingly faded to nothing more than a few leftover stragglers. The Loyalists and British troops have control of nearly all of the Atlantic seaboard and the rebels have scattered westward, been imprisoned in Jamaica, or dead.
All hope is lost.
Or is it?
The spirit of rebellion and liberty lives on in Robert Conroy’s latest alternate history venture, Liberty: 1784. With a strong cast of characters from American history melded in with fictional leads, the novel sweeps you off your feet as you are uprooted from the traditional sense and slapped back into the harsh reality of a land of failed freedom.
Will Drake is a prisoner of war on board a derelict ship, the Suffolk, and is certain that he is to die soon. Half-starved, he and the few survivors on the grounded ship have been forced to hide the bodies of their deceased fellow prisoners in order to have enough food to simply survive. Will is the beneficiary for one thing, however. The British, while knowing that he was an officer in the Continental Army, do not realize that he was a spy. For that he is fortunate. He couldn’t even begin to imagine just how mush harsher his treatment would be if anyone knew the truth.
Just as he has given up all hope, however, the Suffolk begins to break apart and sink. Will is lucky and manages to grab a piece of driftwood as he makes his escape, managing to hide from any pursuers as he is swept away from the doomed derelict and further along the coast. He gets wind of a place where the spirit of the revolution lives on, a town called Liberty, and, with the help of a free man named Homer, begins to make his escape.
Meanwhile, our second intrepid hero (heroine, actually), Sarah Benton, is awaiting punishment for daring to say something negative about King George III. Locked in a jail cell with her cousin Faith, she is awaiting her punishment: a day in the stocks. However, the disgusting Sheriff Braxton (a man who would play a more villainous role in the book later) offers her a way out: pleasure him, and not be forced to spend the day in stocks. Sarah is horrified by the prospect, so Braxton taunts her more by showing her that her younger cousin is doing so in the other room with his three deputies. Sarah, a widow from the rebellion, says no again, so Braxton locks her in the stocks. Her uncle and aunt, with whom she lives with, decide that it is high-time to get out of Massachusetts and that they all need to escape to the land of the free: a mythical place called Liberty.
The pacing of the book is excellent, and the historical notes all hit perfectly. I’d read other works of the author and have generally been left wanting, but this time Conroy absolutely knocks it out of the park. I can’t recall any time when an alternate history author actually executes George Washington and forces the others of the American Revolution to the forefront. Conroy mixes a tremendous historical event and a fantastic fictional novel into one, and plays to his strengths, which are the relations between the characters. He hits hard with combat scenes, something that I was personally pleased by. Too often do I find that alt-history writers gloss over the horrors of combat so that they can write more about the potential “What If?”. Conroy tells the “What If?”, and also forces the reader to look at the ugly underbelly of the Revolution, and the other reasons which drove a bunch of colonial farmers into open rebellion against the greatest nation in the world.
I loved this book. I can’t really say anything more than that. This one hit all the right buttons for me, and I didn’t even find myself nit-picking historical details that the author missed (and I didn’t find any glaring mistakes). The writing was tight and concise, and there were very few scenes which seemed to drag. The book is available for pre-order now, with it officially going on sale March 4, 2014. If you like the works of Eric Flint or Harry Turtledove, then you will definitely enjoy Robert Conroy’s Liberty:1784.
A must buy.
—Reviewed by Jason
Dave Freer’s THE STEAM MOLE is the sequel to CUTTLEFISH (reviewed here). Many of the same characters are present, including Tim Barnabas, Clara Calland, and her mother Mary (a chemist with a doctorate who has a formula that will literally change the world), but the setting has changed; instead of them all being cooped up on the coal-powered Cuttlefish, they’re now in Western Australia (called “Westralia”).
At the end of CUTTLEFISH, Dr. Calland and her daughter were dropped off to make some sort of deal for Dr. Calland’s formula. However, the Imperial English government still wants that formula for itself and will do anything — literally anything it possibly can — to stop Dr. Calland from giving that formula to Westralia.
This is the main reason Dr. Calland lies near death at the start of THE STEAM MOLE, originally diagnosed with a case of the flu. Yet there’s something badly wrong here, something Clara knows even if no one else does, but of course no one’s willing to listen to her as she’s still a teenager.
This is why she goes looking for her buddy (and love interest) Tim, thinking he’s stayed with the Cuttlefish as he is, after all, a crewman there. But the Cuttlefish crew has split up, mostly because they need money in order to ply their trade as they used up all of their fuel and just about every other possible thing as well just getting Clara and her mother to Westralia.
Tim has gone off to work on a steam mole (used for excavation), as the way it’s powered is sensible to anyone who’s worked on a coal-powered submarine. But the Westralians aren’t exactly friendly to anyone with a black skin, which Tim finds out in a big hurry; worse, the crew he’s with contains none of his friends and shipmates, which is why things escalate out of control in a hurry.
While Tim is able to escape from his racist temporary crewmates, it’s not without cost as he’s forced to endure the Westralian desert and cross during the day — a big no-no in Westralia due to how hot and humid the climate has become due to “the Big Melt.” And because Tim’s without much in the way of supplies, most especially water, this quickly complicates things.
Clara, of course, doesn’t know any of this when she sets out to find Tim. But she figures it out quickly (partly because she’s smart, partly because she has nowhere else to turn), and goes in search of Tim.
Meanwhile, Dr. Calland’s condition improves, but she’s still not in any shape to hand over the formula. This is why the royal Duke who heads the British Imperial Empire’s secret service decides that there’s only one way left to get a handle on Dr. Calland and stopping her from giving her precious formula to Westralia– and that’s by bringing her ex-husband, Clara’s father, to Westralia as a bargaining chip.
So there’s a lot of stuff going on — first, Clara and Tim are both alone and must show initiative and fortitude if they’re ever to be together again, much less stay alive in the process. Second, Dr. Calland has to figure out what to do with her formula, especially as she’s unwilling to deal with the Duke’s men (who are akin to terrorists in her view, though the word is never used). Third, Clara and Tim must figure out what to do about Clara’s father, as Clara has absolutely no intention of leaving her father in the Duke’s hands once she finds out about it.
All involved must make alliances quickly. This means they must depend on their wits, as well as their past association with the Cuttlefish and its crew, to make sure that the good guys win and the bad guys definitely lose.
In other words, THE STEAM MOLE, like CUTTLEFISH before it, is a very strong action-adventure novel with just a hint of realistic romance between Clara and Tim. Both are strong-willed, energetic people who are self-reliant and smart. They have just enough differences to prove intriguing and know how to work alone or together, which is a big plus for any couple — much less a couple of mid-teens like Tim and Clara.
But the best part of THE STEAM MOLE lies in the characterization of Dr. Calland, Clara’s mother. Forced by circumstances to be apart from her daughter for a long period of time, Dr. Calland refuses to pine away despite her brush with death. Instead, she more or less adopts one of the local young women, Linda Darlington, and encourages Linda to learn about math and science. And because of Dr. Calland’s shining example (women really can do math and science), this young woman learns that it’s not only OK to be smart, it’s actually a wonderful thing — a life-affirming thing, to be exact.
This all goes to show that one person — one individual — in the right time and place can make a huge difference, which is a variation on the same theme introduced in CUTTLEFISH. This is an extremely empowering message amidst all of the action and adventure going on, yet it doesn’t slow the tale down whatsoever.
That’s a really difficult thing to do, but Freer pulls it off with aplomb.
Overall, the balance here is excellent. The action and adventure click right along. The prose reads well and easily. The world is solidly built and makes perfect sense (as it should; Freer himself is a scientist, though his field is ichthyology), while the characters include many you can fully root for along with a few fully hissable villains . . . really, what’s not to like about THE STEAM MOLE?
In fact, the only bad thing about THE STEAM MOLE is that no sequels are planned as of this time, partly because Pyr only contracted with Freer for two novels. My hope is that these two novels will sell well enough that Freer will wish to write another one, as there are obviously many more stories waiting to be told in this universe — most especially from the viewpoints of Clara, Tim, and Dr. Calland’s protegée, Linda.
— reviewed by Barb
Dave Freer’s CUTTLEFISH is an excellent story. Set in an alternate 1976 where the British Empire never fell and that’s still dependent on coal as its main energy source, CUTTLEFISH features the stories of two teens — cabin boy Tim Barnabas, and passenger Clara Calland — and a rollicking action-adventure plot that never lets up.
In this world, submarines have been made illegal because they are able to go where other naval conveyances cannot. This is important because Tim is one of the “underpeople,” as he comes from London’s now-flooded streets. (London, in this conception, has become the new Venice, complete with canals, due to what Freer calls “the Big Melt” — otherwise known as climate change due to the overuse of coal.) The underpeople believe in democracy, something the autocratic British Empire would rather stamp out, and have created a thriving business by trading in things the British Empire would rather leave alone. They use the illegal subs as a way to trade.
Of course, Tim is a bright young lad with no future in London’s tunnels. He needs an occupation, soonest, which is why his mother gets Tim a berth on the Cuttlefish in the first place. Tim is quick-witted and learns to love the sea, but doesn’t really care much for the other cabin boys as he finds them either too rambunctious or too juvenile, take your pick.
Clara is on the Cuttlefish because her mother, an English scientist, has figured out a new scientific process. Every country in the world wants this process, but Clara’s mother refuses to allow it to be turned into a weapon; that’s why she’s turned to the underpeople and their submarines, hoping to find a way to either the United States or Western Australia as these two countries are the least likely to use her scientific discovery to make war.
But Clara is still a teen, and she’s both bored and lonely due to a lack of intellectual stimulation. Her father, an Irishman, is in prison after being branded a revolutionary, while her mother is severely distracted due to running for their lives. However, because Clara is younger and bounces back much more quickly than her mother, she needs to find at least one friend on the sub. This is why she initially talks with Tim — he’s her age, he’s known privation, and as he’s mulatto, she feels she has something in common with him due to the fact that she’s half-Irish. (Note that the term “mulatto” is not used. Tim just sees himself as a Londoner, same as any other.)
During the course of CUTTLEFISH, there are many adventures in store for Tim, Clara, and of course for Mrs. Calland. Some of these adventures you may not expect, but all of them flow naturally from the story and are sensible in context, something realized once the book is over (after you’re able to catch your breath).
And before you ask, of course a romance is in store for Clara and Tim. But this is a gentle, G-rated romance that builds out of Clara and Tim getting to know each other as people first, then members of the opposite sex, second. As this feels quite true-to-life under the circumstances — and as it’s always subordinate to the action and adventure that can’t help but go on all around Clara, her mother, and Tim — it makes perfect sense.
Best of all, the sub is filled with all sorts of people, which is unusual in any form of fiction nowadays as it seems too many authors in all genres want everyone to get along. Some of the people on the Cuttlefish are good, some are not-so-good, and a few are out-and-out blackguards, which helps ground the story nicely and makes the story far more plausible on an emotional level. (Trust me — Freer already had the other levels covered.)
Overall, CUTTLEFISH is an excellent action-adventure yarn with just a tad of romance that’s suitable for all ages. It’s meticulously researched, well-thought-out, and reads quickly. Buy this one for anyone on your list who likes naval adventure with a touch of romance, as this is a novel that should appeal to more than “just” the SF/F audience.
— reviewed by Barb