Osama-Lavie Tidhar

 osama-bookpic

  A man in a robot suit walking down the road, a sign above his head: Half price tickets. ‘There’s no place like home!’ the man shouted.  He stopped by Joe, handed him a leaflet. ‘There’s no place like home, mate. Get a ticket while they’re going.’

  Joe blinked, his vision blurred.  The tin-man walked away.  He’d already forgotten Joe. ‘No place-‘

  ‘Joe?’

  He blinked and opened his eyes.  Madam Seng stood above him.

  ‘You’ve had a bad dream,’ she said.

 

 

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: October 9, 2012

Joe is a detective, average and nondescript.  Living in Vientiane, Laos, he spends his mornings drinking coffee in a local café and afternoons reading in his disheveled office, quietly shared by him, a desk, and a gaggle of geckos.  He sits and he reads and he smokes, whiling the time away.

 And then the girl appears, the girl in need of a detective.  She wants to find a man, an author, coincidently, the author of the pulp thriller sitting on Joe’s desk.  The man, who writes about a fictional terrorist, a terrorist whose exploits titillate the reader with his exceptional violence.  She wants him to find the unlikely named Mike Longshott, author of the Osama Bin Laden—Vigilante series, and money is no object.  Then she disappears as if she were never there.

Joe—doing what a detective does—takes the case, commencing a journey that will take him across the world and back, from the banlieues of Paris to the heart of London and then New York,  finally across Asia to Afghanistan and a Kabul that has always been and never was.   Harassed and impeded at every turn by a mysterious group determined to keep Longshott’s anonymity intact, Joe’s pursuit of the pulp author slowly transforms into something altogether different, a search for a truth that once discovered, will slowly unravel his understanding of both reality and his place in it.

Reading a novel by Lavie Tidhar can be a lot like trying to wrestle with smoke.  Reality is reality, until it’s not, as if it simply blew away in the wind.  And that’s why if forced to describe Osama in a word, that word would be “surreall”.   Tidhar’s novel starts innocently enough, at first appearances a traditional boilerplate mystery.  Mysterious woman hires “down on his luck” detective to find equally mysterious writer.  Woman looks familiar, but detective can’t quite place where he’s seen her before.  Detective is given an expense account, begins his search and almost immediately finds himself the target of a nefarious cabal determined to stop him—all very much Mystery 101.

  Or is it?

It quickly becomes obvious that Osama is not your traditional mystery, and as time goes on, Joe’s journey devolves into a schizophrenic dream —a locked room mystery where the room is Joe’s reality, and the mystery is the truth of his existence.  You see, reality is malleable in this Tidhar novel, dependant more on the reader’s point of view than any natural laws.

For instance, the world Joe inhabits is one where Osama Bin Laden is merely a character in a novel.  Al Qaeda, 9-11, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global jihad—they never happened.  The World Trade Centre is but an architect’s dream, and the world is relatively peaceful.  Yet many people in Joe’s world have glimpsed another, a world where Longshott’s Bin Laden thrillers aren’t merely figments of a frenzied imagination.  As the case deepens, Joe begins to realize he is one of these select few, drawn to this other world like a moth to flame.  The reader is drawn to Joe in much the same way, as one realizes the mystery of Osama has more to do with Joe and Osama than it does the man Joe is trying to track down.  Osama the fictional character is linked to Joe the real detective—but how?

We’re given clues to their connection as Joe comes into contact with others who share this ephemeral bond, refugees, as they’re called.   Who or what are the refugees? Spectres? Transients from another reality? Figments of Joe’s imagination?  There’s a host of possibilities, left up to the reader to decide.  Perhaps Joe and the other refugees are those whose deaths in our world transported them there by the inhumanity of what happened to them.  Perhaps Joe’s reality is merely a construct of a man on his death-bed, unconsciously trying to make sense of what happened to him.  Perhaps it could even be that Joe’s world is purgatory for those who died so quickly they aren’t even aware of their own passage.  It could also be the story of an alternate universe whose borders on our reality are ill-defined.

Just like the setting, the characters inhabiting the world of Osama are as fleeting as their reality.  Osama is a McGuffin of sorts, merely sliding between the pages—the object of Joe’s fascination while he searches for Mike Longshott, much as the Maltese Falcon drove Sam Spade while he looked for Archer’s murderer.  Mike is the link binding the story of Joe with that of Osama.  He’s the facilitator, unintentionally leading Joe to discover the truth of his own existence, and by extension, that of the girl.  He doesn’t recognize her, but she’s clearly familiar with him, as if there were a time and a place where they once knew each other.

And that’s the thing about Tidhar’s characters.  They’re all as ephemeral as the situations in which they’re placed.  There’s a sense of unrealness, an unfinished quality about them.   Joe is the only character of substance, and even that becomes questionable as the novel progresses and both he and the reader begin to question his reality.

The obvious comparison can be made between the works of Philip K Dick and Lavie Tidhar.   At first I thought that might be unfair, as Tidhar has his own voice and style, but after reading Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the similarities in their writing come to the fore.  Tidhar plays with much the same themes regarding reality and one’s perspective, and has clearly been influenced by Dick’s writing.  For instance, there’s a scene in Osama where Joe enters an opium den to confront the proprietor, using the delivery of a film case as part of his ruse.  He quickly falls into a fugue state while the film is shown and finds himself in another London, one that looks much the same, but with subtle differences.  The film acts as a catalyst for his transference between worlds, much as the talisman Mr. Tagomi is meditating with in MITHC when he finds himself transported to an alternate Los Angeles where America won the Second World War.  In another scene, Joe is trying to gain entrance to a private club known as “The Castle”, another less than subtle reference.  While each author clearly has their own voice, Tidhar has clearly produced an homage to a master of the alternate history genre using his own distinctive style.

Osama is not a traditional novel, in that the process is more important than the final product.  There’s no clear resolution to this mystery, and it’s almost as if it’s a very well written thought experiment.  A multitude of solutions are posed, but you’re going to have to settle for whichever one you WANT to be the solution.  In the end, that’s what makes Osama a most satisfying read.

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Fly me to the Moon.

Apollomoonlanding

Between July 16, 1969 and December 7, 1972, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) managed to land six missions on the Moon.  Apollo 13 was, of course, famously aborted when an on-board explosion crippled the vehicle and the astronauts relied on the lunar module as a lifeboat for their return.  With the successful completion of the Apollo 17 mission, manned exploration of the Moon came to an end, but 41 years later authors are still chronicling the missions, speculating about the future of man’s conquest of the moon and writing alternate history based on speculation about lunar missions.

I was born just shortly before the last Apollo mission, so missed the excitement involved with lunar exploration.  As a child I witnessed the Space Shuttle program from inception to eventual retirement and have always held the exploration of space in great regard.  Lately, lunar missions (either real or speculative) have been on my mind, so today’s post is dedicated to three books regarding the Moon, one historical and two speculative.

Rocket Men-Craig NelsonRocketMen

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Viking Press

Publication Date: June 30, 2009

First on the list is Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, a biography of the United States space program, culminating in a description of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon.  From the closing days of the Second World War, Nelson traces the history of manned space flight to NASA’s defining achievement of a man on the Moon.  It’s a fascinating look at the race between the United States and the Soviet Union, one in which the Soviet Union took an early lead and the United States focused their efforts to catch and surpass their cold war foes, eventually culminating in the Apollo program.  I’m only about half way through but find myself captivated by his account of the formation of NASA and their counterparts in the Soviet Union.  I feel confident in recommending Nelson’s biography of the program (after all, I already know how it ends) for anyone who has an interest  in the subject.  Looking around on the internet, Nelson has been criticized for a few technical errors in his account, but, like most of the populace, I’m not a rocket scientist and a few quibbles do not detract from a wonderful account of the early days of space-flight.

Back to the Moon-Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Backtothemoon

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Baen Books

Publication Date: December 27, 2011

Back to the Moon is a nice piece of speculative fiction by Les Johnson and Travis Taylor, who also wrote a neat novel (with John Ringo) about the invasion of Earth by a multitude of Von Neumann machines in the 2008 novel, Von Neumann’s War. Back to the Moon tells the a story of the near future in which the United States has finally refocused the mission of NASA on returning to the Moon.  Using a modified vision of the Constellation Program, the United States has once again embarked on a manned moon mission, but they have competition from the private sector in the form of a Virgin Galactic inspired space-plane/lunar orbiter by the name of Dreamscape.  Gary Childers, president of Space Excursions, is an entrepreneur in the mould of Richard Branson and also interested in bringing the experience of space flight and lunar excursions to the common man (well, those who can afford the fee).  Space Excursions is also interested in beating NASA to the Moon, although they aren’t prepared for a landing.  Meanwhile, China has become the successor of the defunct Soviet Union and is also striving to beat the Americans back to the Moon.

When Childer’s Dreamscape vehicle manages to orbit the Moon in advance of NASA’s efforts, the pilot and civilian crew are astonished to receive a distress signal from a crew of Chinese Taikonauts.  They’ve beaten the Americans to the Moon using stolen technology (ironically, from both NASA and Space Excursions) but flubbed the landing.  Once discovered, it becomes a race against time for NASA to launch a recovery mission before the Chinese succumb to their circumstances.

Now I suppose naysayers could nitpick this novel by calling it a “rah-rah” America first bit of fluff, but I found it a fun, pulpy read.  Taylor knows his stuff, after all, he is an actual rocket scientist, and while I would never describe his work as “literary” in the classical sense, he tells a compelling story in an accessible manner.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains-Ian Sales

Adriftontheseaofrains

Source: Bought copy (Kindle)

Publisher: Whippleshield Books

Publication Date: April, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Rains, is the first in a quartet of proposed novels by U.K. novelist Ian Sales and can be characterized as both speculative fiction and alternate history.  It concerns a group of astronauts who become stranded on a lunar base after a nuclear exchange by the Soviet Union and United States.  Their only hope for rescue is a salvaged Nazi Wunderwaffe, a “torsion-field” generator that can allow them passage through alternate universes, in hope of finding one where the Earth has not been destroyed.  Complicating their situation is the problem of how to get home in the event they find an Earth to return to.

Now in all honesty, I haven’t read this book yet.  It’s on my intent to read list, but having perused the first chapter, I have little doubt that it’s going to be a compelling, although possibly dismal, novel.  Ian Sales appears to have taken a more literary road with regard to his writing style and it shows. His characters are maudlin (granted, you would be too if you’d witnessed the destruction of the Earth and faced a slow death on a desolate rock) and somewhat nihilistic. He’s also managed to win the 2012 BSFA (British Science Fiction Award) for short fiction.

I realize I’m not doing justice to his novella in this brief description, but want to inform you of a talent that has recently come upon my alternate history radar.  I hope to give you a more detailed report once able to spend some time with what appears to be an emerging talent.

 

Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+

Ack-Ack Macaque–Gareth L. Powell

AckAckMacaque“Do you know what you have to do?”

Ack-Ack Macaque grinned, exposing his teeth.

“Same as I always do, right?”  He snapped the reloaded Colt back together and spun the barrel.

“Blow shit up and hurt people.”

Last week, as I sat on a picnic table during a break at work, a co-worker strolled by and saw the title of my latest read, Ack-Ack Macaque, at which point he derisively exclaimed, “Ack-Ack Macaque?  What the hell is that?”  My reply was oh so very NSFW (not safe for work) and involved a bad pun about sucking “Macaque.”  We both groaned at that lame response and went about our business.  I’m not relating this story just to prove my ability to come up with horrible puns, but that little incident made me think about how we choose the books we choose to read and how sometimes it simply comes down to a good cover or an amusing title.  Frankly, the title Ack-Ack Macaque was what prompted me to read the back cover of Gareth L. Powell’s futuristic novel about a monkey flying ace with attitude.  I’ve always been fascinated with flying and fighter pilots—throw in a monkey and some German ninja parachutists—and you have something I just HAVE to read, even if it turns out to be ridiculous.

And then something funny happened—and I don’t mean, funny “ha-ha.”  Here I was, reading a book with a monkey in a flying cap wielding a couple of six-shooters on the cover and discovering a book that was more William Gibson than Terry Pratchet.  So, a quick synopsis:

Set in the year 2059, Ack-Ack Macaque is in reality three intertwined stories that merge into one narrative by the climax of the novel.  The first story is that of Victoria Valois, a former correspondent recuperating from an accident which resulted in the majority of her brain matter being replaced by a synthetic version known as “gelware.”  She’s come to London to bury her estranged husband, and possibly investigate the unusual events surrounding his death.  Not only was Paul murdered, but during the course of the crime the culprit removed his brain, and with that, his soulcatcher, a piece of hardware implanted in every citizen to create a recording of their personality that lives on for a short time after death.  After coming face to face with the killer—and in the process having her own soulcatcher stolen (kidnapped?)—Victoria discovers that Paul’s death is in some way connected with his employer, Céleste Industries.

The second story involves His Royal Highness, Prince Merovich, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France—the two countries having been merged for a century—who gets tangled up with the illicit activities of his girlfriend Julie.  She’s a rights activist, and with a small cohort of friends, they are about to raid Céleste Industries in the hopes of freeing what they believe to be the first sentient artificial intelligence, that of a pistol packing, spitfire flying, whiskey drinking Macaque by the name of Ack-Ack who is the central character of an on-line virtual reality game.  Merovich is crucial to Julie’s plan, by way of his being the son of Céleste Industries owner, her Grace Alyssa Célestine, herself Regent of the combined commonwealth due to a terrorist act that left the King incapacitated.  Merovich also has a connection to Valois in the shared accident that resulted in her augmentation.

The third story is of what—or rather who–Merovich and Julie find when they infiltrate the facility.  I think by now you may have an idea about who that might be.  Together, they uncover the sinister plot of a cult known as the “Undying” involving androids, the first terraforming probe to Mars and possibly the end of the world through nuclear annihilation, unless Victoria, Merovich, Julie and a seriously pissed off macaque named Ack-Ack can find a way to stop them.

With Ack-Ack Macaque, Powell has proved himself an adept world builder, creating a convincing near future world in which the idea of a sentient monkey is not so far-fetched, which, to my mind is a pretty tall order.  He’s also added Steampunk elements to an alternate history novel that is not necessarily Steampunk, but will appeal to fans of the genre.  The ubiquitous skyliners (modified zeppelins) are there, but updated to be more demonstrative of real world technology.  No steam–all nuclear, and a realistic look at the direction technology can take us.  Artificial intelligence, huge leaps in medical technology, the idea of a back-up consciousness housed in a cranial hard drive, seamlessly blended into the background of a world that could very well be mistaken for our own—just projected another fifty years or so down the road.  The idea of a history in which France and England merged into a larger commonwealth with a shared monarchy does not seem an unrealistic possibility either.

As for the characters, Powell manages to capture Victoria Valois’ frustration and determination in the face of what was a debilitating accident, and her dogged resolve to solve Paul’s murder and bring the culprits to justice.  Merovich is a smart, yet somewhat naïve young man, rashly allowing his girlfriend to lead him into situations that an older man might think twice about, but with the wisdom to recognize when the situation calls for a more serious approach, likely the result of his experience in the incident that maimed Valois.  Julie comes across as a true believer with her own rigid moral code, willing to risk her own safety to free an independent intelligence that may only exist on a flash drive, while Ack-Ack—well, let’s just say he’s got a mean disposition and a very good reason to want to blow some shit up.

Actually, there’s more to Ack-Ack Macaque than just a grumpy monkey.  Here’s a character that has to contend with the knowledge that everything he’s ever accomplished, the people he has cared for, are simply part of a computer simulation.  In other words—he has to deal with knowing his life has been a lie.  In learning the truth, he’s also been set free to pursue bloody vengeance against those who treated him as a toy.

If there’s any complaint to be had with Ack-Ack Macaque, it’s that we don’t really get to see the villain fully fleshed out.  It’s evident early on in the novel who their common foe is, but without a narrative from the villain’s point of view, I found myself wanting to understand their motivation a little better.  The opponent is mentioned many times and the protagonists deal with the villain’s minions on several occasions, but when the reader finally meets the antagonist, it’s so brief they feel like a plot device rather than an important character.  Having said that, this lack of motivational description doesn’t detract from the novels best features, namely a bunch of wounded characters (literally and figuratively) pressed together by circumstance to accomplish the same goal.  You know—saving the world.

A-

Gareth L. Powell is the author of Ack-Ack Macaque and its forthcoming sequel Hive Monkey.  He maintains a website at www.garethlpowell.com and both Gareth and Ack-Ack Macaque can be found on twitter, engaging in hilarious conversations.

The Bookman–Lavie Tidhar

“A myth,” he said. “Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths.  They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif.  Don’t dismiss myth, boy.  And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman.”  ~Gilgamesh

Orphan is his namesake, living one step from the streets of what in any other age would be called Victorian England, but with the coming of Les Lezards and the subsequent fall of the house of Hannover, mad King George (the lizard) has the throne.  It is an age of wind and steam, man and automaton, order and anarchy, the last embodied in the form of a terrorist named, “The Bookman.”

When Orphan’s paramour Lucy is killed in one of the Bookman’s attacks, Orphan is devastated, but after an encounter with inspector Adler (Irene) and the Byron simulacrum, he learns that death may not be all there is, and that what small hope there is of recovering his beloved lies in running the Bookman to ground.  Barring that…vengeance.

There are many forces at play in his majesty’s empire: Prime Minister Moriarty and the Lizards; Mycroft Holmes’ shadow government floating high above London in their black airships; the Turk, an automaton among automatons who yearn for the translation, a device that they hope will make them equal to their fellows of flesh and blood; and of course, Orphan.  All believe the Bookman (or his death) holds the answer to their various problems and that Orphan is a tool to be wielded in that pursuit.

Yet when Orphan finally finds the Bookman, he is offered a choice.  Help his nemesis to stop Les Lezards from launching a device into space that may be mankind’s salvation (or doom) and Lucy shall be returned, hale and unharmed.  Don’t help, and Lucy is lost forever.  Really not much of a choice for a young man in love.

From the heart of Britannia to the depths of the Caribs, Orphan journeys on his mission, beset by danger and double dealings, culminating in one final meeting with the Bookman, which will either see Lucy returned to him or  the destruction of that which the Bookman covets the most.

The Bookman is everything one would want out of a Steampunk novel, blending both science fiction and fantasy, historical and fictional personages, all with a twist on the original source materials.  Irene Adler is now an agent of Scotland Yard, Moriarty is Prime Minister, and Jules Verne is both author and adventurer.  Lord Byron is a simulacrum, Karl Marx a revolutionary, and then there’s  Orphan, who has a greater role to play in the Empire than ever he could guess. 

Sometimes though, it felt as though the writing had a tendency to meander.  I spent a lot of time reading of Orphan wandering the streets of London moping about his lost love when (for my part) I’d rather just see the story advance.  It’s not really wasted narrative, but sometimes slowed the story to a crawl.  Tidhar also has a habit of skipping forward in the narrative and writing scenes in retrospective.  There is a moment near the end of the novel where Moriarty and Orphan come face to face…and next you know Orphan is on the run with no real explanation of what happened.  When it does get explained, what seems like it should be a pivotal moment simply comes across as trite.

There is also surprisingly little interaction with the lizards during the course of the novel, but the one time we meet one, it is a pirate named Wyvern, and he is entirely unforgettable.  More lizards please!

As for the Bookman and Les Lezards, when their background is finally revealed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what was at first a fantasy novel had somehow morphed into science fiction with fantastical elements. 

The Bookman does leave a little too much unfinished by the end of the novel, but also leaves the reader (at least this one) with a desire to read more of Orphan’s exploits and to explore the Universe Lavie Tidhar has created.  Luckily for us, it is the first of a series of three, continuing with Camera Obscura  and the forthcoming The Great Game.  All in all, The Bookman is a wonderful novel and what minor flaws I’ve mentioned are just that– minor.

Lavie Tidhar maintains his own blog if ever you’d like to check out what’s new in his world.

Crusade: book two of the Destroyermen Series

Crusade: Taylor Anderson (Roc Books, 2008; 395pp.)

Crusade is the  sophomore novel in the Destroyermen series by Taylor Anderson and a welcome addition to the story he began back in 2008.  Equal parts naval fiction in the vein of Douglas Reeman, and alternate history in the vein of Harry Turtledove, Anderson has created a unique World where evolution took a right turn and chose Saurians to become the dominant species on the planet.
 
Before we begin, a little recap.  Into the Storm recounts the story of the men of  U.S.S. Walker, a worn out World War One era destroyer of the Pacific fleet, fleeing the onslaught of Japanese forces shortly after the start of World War Two.  Harassed by a Japanese Battlecruiser, she and her sister ship Mahan sail into a strange squall in an attempt to escape certain destruction, only to find themselves transported to what would be described as an alternate Universe, one where human society never evolved.  No modern cities, no modern technology, and no humans.  However, they are not alone.
 
In a land much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost WorldAnderson’s characters contend with deadly sea creatures that make any foray into the water a certain death, and once on shore, the danger comes in the form of many species of dinosaur.  During the course of their search for human inhabitants, they come across a massive sailing vessel, home to a species of creature that resembles a walking, talking Lemur, engaged in mortal combat with what appear to be British warships of the sailing age.  However, these are no English privateers they fight, but rather the saurian counterpart to the “Lemurians”, a species of sentient dinosaur modelled on the velociraptor known as the “Grik”, and exhibiting their same ferocity.  It seems the Lemurians have fought a holding action against the Grik for millenia, and both societies have benefitted from previous encounters with humankind.  The Grik have taken technology in the form of fighting ships, and the Lemurians in the form of “sacred” navigational charts and the language of their priestly sect … namely, Latin.
 
 Needless to say, the humans of the story are forced by circumstances and ideology to side with the Lemurians versus their common enemy while they resupply and repair their damaged vessels and decide on what to do next.  In the meantime, the  Americans train their Lemurian counterparts in the art of war, and attempt to advance the Lemurian’s technology to the point where their inferior numbers might be able to hold their own against the Grik hordes and maybe even go on the offensive.
 
In the second volume the Americans have managed, through a lot of ingenuity and a little luck, to put Walker back in a fighting trim and assure themselves a dedicated source of fuel.  They’re well on their way to fortifying the Lemurians against the inevitable Grik invasion and creating a fighting force of home-grown (Lemurian) troops, when a new threat arises.  The Amagi, a Japanese battlecruiser, has also been caught up in the transition, and Amagi’s captain has allied his forces with the Grik.  It’s an alliance of convenience  to be sure, but tips the scales in the favour of the Grik.  With the help of the Japanese, a massive  invasion force is coming, with the expressed purpose of wiping out the Lemurian race.  In a sequence of events that parallels the early stages of the war in Pacific, it’s up to the Americans and their two tiny destroyers to fight a holding action until the Lemurians can be ready for the inevitable fight.
 
So, what’s not to like?  Anderson has drafted a great tale of ingenuity against adversity, and goes to great lengths to examine the problems (and their solutions) incurred by the protagonists of the story.  For instance, in this new world, there are only a couple of hundred humans, of which six or so are female.   Integration with the local society becomes an issue, especially in the face of a lack of female comfort, and there’s a stirring scene in which the sailors deal with one of their own who breaks the rules of civilized society.
 
And then there’s the problems associated with technology.  The destroyers are hundreds of years in advance of any local technology, but suffer from the problems of resupply and repair.   How are they to be fueled and resupplied with ammunition once it’s been expended?  In a world where basic metallurgy is in its infancy and the combustion engine isn’t even a thought on the horizon, their solutions are ingenious, and at times…a little unbelievable.  However, Anderson makes it work. 
 
One note of disappointment in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable book.  The Japanese characters (by the end of this book) have not been fully fleshed out, and remain caricatures, much like any of the Nazi thugs in an Indiana Jones movie.  Hopefully he will expand on their story in the third volume, entitled Maelstrom.  All in all, Anderson has written a page turner and taken his place amongst the greats in the genre of alternate history. 
 
As mentioned in my earlier post on his first novel, there’s a great interview with Taylor Anderson about the Destroyermen series on Peter Hodge’s website.  Maelstrom is out in paperback April 6, 2010.
 
 

Into the Storm: Book one of the Destroyermen Series

Destroyermen-Book-1-Into-the-Storm-Taylor-Anderson-

History is a funny thing. 

Sometimes momentous changes pivot around the simplest of events.  What if Alexander the Great hadn’t contracted a fever in 323 B.C.?  Or for that matter, if Adolf Hitler had died from the wounds he received as a lowly corporal in World War One.  How would the world have changed?  For the better?  Or worse?  Would Alexander have consolidated his empire, had children and continued his dynasty?  Would Hitler’s early death have saved the world from a second World War, or pave the way for an even more horrifying figure?

 Over the years, alternate History fiction writers have attempted to explore such questions and posit how things might be different if history had gone down the path not taken.  They generally showcase their ideas within the framework of a world very much like ours, but with subtle differences that eventually change things dramatically in a process much like the butterfly effect.

“Into the Storm” is the first of the new “Destroyermen” series by Taylor Anderson, chronicling the exploits of a group of U.S. servicemen aboard the fictional U.S.S. Walker, a World War One era destroyer caught up in the opening moments of the war in the Pacific.  Hounded by the Japanese Navy, Walker and her sistership, Mahan, are seconds from total destruction when they sail into an eerie squall line in an attempt to shake off their pursuers.  Once inside, they suffer from an “effect”, much akin to the plot-line of the movie “The Final Countdown.”  When they finally come out of the storm, the Ocean is quiet, and their pursuers are not to be found.

The captain and crew of Walker cannot account for their miraculous deliverance, and within minutes realize that they’re no longer where they were.  The Ocean’s are filled with fish akin to Piranha, and in short order they discover a group of Japanese sailors harried by what appears to be a Pliosaur!  Slowly they realize that much like Dorothy, they’re not in Kansas anymore, and this new world is a wondrous yet dangerous place.

Soon they must not only contend with their surroundings, but an age old war fought between the dominant species of this brave new world…neither of which is human…

“Into the Storm” is a well paced and intellectually satisfying tale of exploration and war which never leaves the reader bored.  To read an interview with Taylor Anderson by Peter Hodges, you can always look here, and here.  And of course, there are two sequels, “Crusade“, and “Maelstrom”, both out in hardcover.