Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

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This novella is an urban fantasy police procedural released by Subterranean Press in May of 2019. It is part of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series and runs 169 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The setting is Trier, Germany’s oldest city. A dog walker finds a man dead of noble rot, a fungus used in wine production, and circumstances are enough out of the ordinary that local authorities call the Abteilung KDA, a branch of the German Federal Criminal Police that handles supernatural issues. Investigator Tobias Winter, called in from holiday, plans to get there, deal with the problem, and get out with the minimum of paperwork. He teams up with local police representative Vanessa Sommer, and their investigation quickly links the victim with the Stracker vineyards, a pair of river goddesses and a middle-aged men’s social club. There seem to be a lot of issues left unresolved over the last couple of centuries. Can Winter and Sommer make sense of it all?

Good points: This should please fans of police procedurals. The characters are well rounded and have backstories, and the plot is intricate enough that it takes some investigating to find out what old ghosts everyone is hiding. There are a couple of plot twists that change the direction of the investigation, keeping interest up, and the mystery has a satisfactory conclusion. The German setting is different for an urban fantasy, though Aaronovitch admits to making up the vineyard, and the writing style is entertaining. There are some wry ironies lurking in there.

Not so good points: This doesn’t develop a lot of suspense, and the action line is fairly flat until a bump at the end. I didn’t get a strong impression of what the countryside looks like. Also, as the investigation takes shape, it’s fairly clear what is going on, if not who they’re looking for–so somewhat predictable. It’s a good book to curl up with on a rainy day, but not a really exciting read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It falls into the horror genre and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Helen York is an English expatriate and down on her luck, so she is happy to take a position as governess when her friend Bärchen offers it. The position is to teach Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter, who stays at a beautiful castle overlooking a lake in Germany. Although beautiful, the place is clearly neglected, with dust everywhere and small bones scattered through the rooms. Peter’s nursemaid Mimi is young and looks attractive as a potential lover, but she allows Peter to wander at will. Helen finds him in the cellar trying to open the crypt door. The cellar is crusted with salt and smells like a meat larder, but she is happy to find a good store of wine as well. Can she ignore those seductive smells from the cellar? What are those things floating in the lake? And why does everyone at the castle have bad teeth?

Good points: The narrative here is third person from Helen’s point of view, and very well crafted. Helen’s responses and her conversations with Bärchen and the other servants quickly reveal her playgirl character and unsuitability for the job as governess. There’s a foreboding as Helen gradually discovers the strangeness of the castle, and the story rises to a horrific climax that was hard to forecast. There’s enough description of the setting to make it creepy, and a lot of sensory imagery as the scents from the cellar start to get to Helen.

Not so good points: This doesn’t quite hang together. It appears the family isn’t really human, and that they go through a life cycle from larvae to humanoid to sea serpent. So, I gather the crypt is where they hang corpses for the larvae to feed on, but how the scents accomplish this is a huge stretch. If you can create hallucinations, there are easier ways to get people into the lake.

Two and a half stars for the failure to make good sense.

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