Sunday, September 26, 2021

Book Review: Daggers in Darkness, by S.M. Stirling

It’s been five years since we last met American super-spies Luz O’Malley Arostegui and Ciara Whelan, in
the previous installment of S.M. Stirling’s  Black Chamber series, Shadows of Annihilation.  

In the meantime, the world has settled into an uneasy three-way peace. On one side: the Oceanic Alliance of the United States; the British Empire now led out of New Delhi; and the rump government of Overseas France, headquartered in Algiers. On the second side, the European Central Powers, led by the German Empire.  On the third side, the Japanese Empire. Each party is armed with the ultimate weapon, the “horror gas,” which brought Germany to the brink of victory in 1916.  

So it is where we find ourselves when Daggers in Darkness opens. The novel begins a new trilogy in the larger series, set in the aftermath of the Great War. In this timeline, Teddy Roosevelt won the 1912 election and remains president into the current year of 1922.  He has presided over a massive peacetime expansion of the U.S. economy and military and a restructuring of society.

Agents Arostegui and Whelan, now very much in the family way, are brought out of semi-retirement to investigate a sudden flood of Chinese antiques into the United States that are being used to finance the construction of a horror gas plant somewhere in Central Asia, by persons unknown.  This threatens to upset the delicate Mexican standoff between the three Great Power blocks. 

We join our heroes as they go on this hazardous mission, adopting the cover of a family-owed firm of antique traders. They first travel deep into San Francisco’s Chinatown, and then across the Pacific by airship to Shanghai, with family and friends in tow.  In the process, we benefit from Sterling’s world-building prowess; where we are perhaps overindulged a little on the sumptuous detail. There are no missteps in terms of technology or societal progress in this alternate world. Stirling is also quite possibly the grandmaster of the literary stall, a plot device by which the action is slowed down to make a point. In this case, it’s five pages dedicated to a parade in San Francisco, relatively early in the novel, which is the backdrop to a quiet but significant development.

The action rolls along in San Francisco and later in Shanghai, so fans of blood and thunder won’t be disappointed here. There is a lot of richly described action to go around.  Weaved around this are more literary and pop-culture references that will put a stupid grin on your face when you catch them. Daggers in Darkness is a  careful read that richly rewards the careful reader. 

Daggers in Darkness, the first in a new trilogy from a master storyteller, merely whets our appetites for what is to come. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of the adventures of Agents Arostegui and Whelan and everyone else from the Black Chamber.

Highly Recommended for both fans of the series and of the genre.

What's Next?

Next month, I'll have another piece of alternate history to review and discuss...

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 (both free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.

Until then, please take care of  yourselves.