Saturday, June 19, 2021

Book Review: Shadows of Annihilation, by S.M. Stirling

In the third book of S.M. Stirling’s alternate history of the Great War, Shadows of Annihilation, the shoe is firmly on the other foot. In the latest instalment, our heroes, the intrepid American Black Chamber super-spies Luz O’Malley Arostegui and Ciara Whelan must foil a plot aimed (where else? ) squarely at America. 


In the first two instalments of the trilogy, Arostegui and Whelan operated behind enemy lines. But now they are on home turf and must stop a team composed of Luz’s old enemy, Horst von Drucker, real-life stormtrooper Ernst Rohm, and a band of scraggily Mexican banditos that look like they came from Central Casting.

Here be Spoilers:

The enemy's target is a large industrial complex in the Mexican Protectorate (in this universe, where Teddy Roosevelt won re-election in 1912, the US has occupied Mexico since 1916), operating under the ominous name of the Dakota Project. Since using the so-called “horror gas” on France and England and its attempted use on the US east coast in 1916 in the first book of the series, Theatre of Spies, Imperial Germany has had pretty much Europe to itself. 

The gas has become the nuclear deterrent of its time, with neither side daring to use it on the other for fear of the consequences. However, the US and the Entente’s stocks are based on what has been stolen from the Germans, and they are slowly becoming inert, hence the need for the Dakota Project. 

When Arostegui and Whelan are sent into Mexico to assess the security of the vital project, they initially have no idea that the Germans are in-country and pose a threat to the project. What we get instead, is kind of an alternate-history travelogue, showing in great detail how Mexico has benefitted under America’s benign but firm hand.  It’s the kind of world-building that Stirling excels at. 

Unfortunately, it’s only about halfway through the proceedings that our protagonists realize that something is amiss. As the scattered reports come in, they put two and two together. 

The book's structure relies upon two widely divergent points of view (Drucker vs. Arostegui and Whelan) and only seems to really come together in the final reel. Personally, this makes for a little dry reading at times. 

These criticisms aside, Shadows of Annihilation is a good book. It benefits from solid characterizations and world-building but perhaps could’ve done with more attention to Drucker and company, as they almost seem to become missing in action at times.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary read for followers of the series and a recommended one for fans of the genre.

What's Next

I'll have another work of alternate history to share with you next month.  As a note, I've paid for most of the books that I've reviewed in this space out of my own pocket.  If you're an author and would like me to review your genre work (alternate history only please!) please reach out to me at somersethousepress@gmail.com

 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 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are 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.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Reviewing Season Two of For All Mankind

I’ve just finished watching Season Two of For All Mankind on Apple TV+.  It comes from the fertile mind of Ronald D. Moore. Last year, in season one, Moore and his writers asked the question, “What if the Soviet Union landed on the moon first?”

The second season starts by asking, “What next?” When season two starts it’s the early 1980s, and Ronald Regan is already into his second term as president, having been elected in 1976. Both the United States and the Soviet Union have large south polar lunar bases at Shackleton Crater and the Cold War is at a boil. The two adversaries are staring at each other across the crater.   The continuing tensions over the ice deposits in the bottom of the crater make the Americans decide it's time to send in the Marines.

Things go badly from there.

The world Moore and his writers have crafted is a mixture of the familiar and the tantalizingly off-center. John Lennon is still alive, but the Middle East peace deal brokered by Jimmy Carter never happened because Carter never became president.  Because of the accelerated pace of the space program, technologies such as electric cars and cell phones appear decades earlier than in our timeline, with NASA becoming self-funding off the patents. However, some things remain the same as in our timeline, when the KAL 007 shootdown occurs on schedule in September 1983 with major repercussions.  It’s an entirely believable reality.


Our protagonists have moved on. After the death of their son in the first season, Ed and his wife Karen Baldwin have adopted a Vietnamese girl, Kelly as their daughter.  Gordo Stephens and his wife Tracey have not only broken up but have moved into different orbits. Other characters, such as Ellen, who is left on the moon to give the first season’s valedictory address, also move forward.

In that sense, Season Two takes things onward and upward, culminating in a lunar standoff reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the Soviets blockading the Americans. How this is successfully resolved is a demonstration of excellent storytelling. 

Moore and his writers handle character growth mostly well, except the business involving Karen that seems to move on a predictable trajectory.  Meanwhile Kelly, after some serious reflecting, is definitely being set up for a larger role in Season Three. Ellen, who by the end of Season Two is the head of NASA, also seems to be set up for a greater role next season – that is, if her private life remains private. 

I  enjoyed Season Two. There is a lot more I could talk about here, but I’ll restrain myself. The highlights of the second season are the character arcs of Gordo and Tracey.  Redemption has never been so bittersweet.  Their actions frame the third season, which as of this writing, has already been greenlit. I'm eagerly awaiting more of what the season's final episode pre-credits teaser is promising us.

This show demonstrates how a believable alternate history can be constructed. If you’ve not watched it yet, you’re missing out. Highly recommended.

What’s Next?


Next month, I will have a review of Shadows of Annihilation, the third book (so far) in S.M. Stirling’s alternate history of the Great War, which continues the adventures of American Black Chamber super-spies Luz O’Malley Arostegui and Ciara Whelan. 

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 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are 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.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Book Review: Winds of Wrath, by Taylor Anderson

Well, it had to come, didn’t it? In this post, I'll be looking at the 15th and final instalment of Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series, Winds of Wrath.  For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Destroyermen follows the adventures of captain Matthew Reddy and the crew of the USS Walker, an elderly American destroyer thrust from the Second World War in the Pacific to a parallel world where they are suddenly fighting a different but just as deadly war.

Note: Spoilers Ahead:

Winds of Wrath finds the ancient enemy of Reddy's Lemurian allies, the Grik, has been all but defeated in Africa. However, one holdout Grik general, Esshk,  remains with his army, and he has a lot of fight left in him.  

Much of the action has shifted west to the Caribbean and the showdown with the fascist League of Tripoli and their allies, the Holy Dominion. On the land, General Shinya's Allied army is driving towards the Dominion’s capital of New Granada. Meanwhile, the hastily-assembled Allied fleet under Reddy is about to meet the League’s task force of modern battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.

The ensuing action on land, sea, and air is fast and furious. Author Taylor packs a lot of action into this, the final volume, and is perhaps his work as a storyteller here is among his best as he puts it on display as he invites us to become almost an active participant.  It’s Taylor’s habit to knock off a couple of main characters in each book; expect a lot more of that here. And be warned: there are a couple of shocks coming. This is especially hard because the author spent the series developing their character arcs and we've become invested with them, so when it happens – umph!

I also like how Anderson has engaged in a bit more world-building here, which frankly, I wish he would’ve done earlier.  We find, for example, that this world in the grips of an ice age, which is behind the League’s drive for Lebensraum.

Like all good things, the series has to end, as Taylor points out in his afterward. I understand that there may be some dissatisfaction with how the book and series ended. Honestly, without giving away the ending, I think is this ending the most logical outcome, given the weight of forces deployed against the Allies. I can’t really imagine Reddy and company charging into the Mediterranean for one final war of liberation. It just isn’t possible and wouldn’t ring true from a storytelling standpoint. That being said, can we expect further adventures in this world?  We just might, according to Taylor. 

I hope so.  Winds of Wrath is an enjoyable, fitting conclusion to the Destroyermen series. Highly Recommended.

What’s Next?

I apologize for missing the last month. I’m currently watching the second season of For All Mankind, now airing on Apple TV+. It picks up a decade after the first season with a fully established Jamestown lunar colony, Ronald Reagan in the White House four years early, and Cold War tensions at an all-time high. 

 I am loving it and will have a more in-depth review for you later.

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 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are 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.  


Take care of yourselves.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Book Review: From the Ashes: An Alternate History Novel, by Sandra Saidak

Here we have another novel, From the Ashes: An Alternate History Novel, by Sandra Saidak, where the Nazis have won the Second World War.  Not only have they taken over Europe, but they have also taken over the world (I wonder what their former Japanese allies would have to say to that).

I’ll come right out and admit it: I don’t like this book very much. I really tried to like it, but there were too many things that got in the way. And that’s too bad because there are some positive points about this novel.

Author Saidak builds from an imaginative standpoint based on the historical fact that had the Nazis won, they had planned to establish museums in the perverse memory of the cultures they obliterated.  It is in one of these museums dedicated to the memory of the Jews,  that a group of young university students of the Reich’s elite gather to explore the shards of Jewish culture.

Okay, so far, so good.

But suddenly, things get out of hand. Both for the characters and the novel they inhabit. Suddenly our chief protagonist Adolf Goebbels (an imaginative name) gets mixed up in a revolution against the Nazis.  Quickly, perhaps too quickly, not only does Adolf become a Rabbi, but he also becomes a leader of the revolution.  Surely, the Ministry of Enforced Irony is working overtime here.

The writing and plot are a lot like that:  forced, plodding, and pedantic. Where the author could use a light touch, she instead hits with a sledgehammer. And where she should be showing, building out a world that has been under the Nazi jackboot for generations, she tells. Showing is the mark of a good storyteller, where all of the physical senses are engaged by showing what the protagonist’s reactions and feelings are to their environment.  Telling is simply that: telling. Unfortunately, in this instance, Saidiak does too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

In summation, a good premise, poorly executed. 

What's Next?

Next month, I'll have another review for you.

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 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are 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.  


Take care of yourselves.