Archive | February, 2021

Look To The West (Series Review)

27 Feb

Look To The West (Series Review)

-Tom Anderson

(Series Listing)

Alternate history, like future wars, is a genre that lends itself very well to essay-writing, in which the author writes a manuscript that reads like a history book, rather than a more standard action and adventure novel.  There are no characters, in any true sense; the author details vast sweeps of history – and conflicts – and while he may compose fictional diaries and war reports, the characters are not of any great importance.  The important issue is the sweep of (alternate) history itself.

Short essays are very common, but book-length manuscripts are relatively rare and almost always, prior to the internet, published by specialist presses.  This is, perhaps, unsurprising.  Books like For Want of a Nail, Invasion, Gettysburg and Disaster at D-Day have relatively small readerships, certainly when compared to novels written by well-known authors that combine historical scholarship with entertainment (Harry Turtledove, SM Stirling), novels that appeal to a far wider readership that isn’t particularly concerned with realism and won’t throw the book away in disgust if the Germans deploy Panther tanks in 1940.  Put bluntly, book-length essay-manuscripts are very hard sells.  It is difficult to convince editors and publishers that they’ll see a return on their investment.

The internet, and indie publishing, has changed all that by reducing the publishing costs to the bare minimum.  That has given birth to a whole new range of specialist presses, including Sealion Press, which focuses on alternate history books and publications of interest to the AH community.  Some of their productions are novels, but others are essentially book-length manuscripts like For Want of a Nail, on a much greater scale.  The Look to the West series is one of the best of them.  (Disclaimer; I know and have worked with both Anderson himself and several other people involved in Sealion Press.)

History diverges from its planned course, according to Anderson, when Prince Frederick, King George II’s firstborn son (whom, in the olde Hanoverian tradition, was detested by his father) made the mistake of sniggering when his father tripped during his coronation.  Instead of dying relatively young, Prince Frederick was exiled to the Americas in the same year George Washington was born.  Angry and ambitious, Prince Frederick plotted his return to London with the aid of the colonials, eventually taking the throne after his father died and his brother (the historical George III) was assassinated.

This alone would be an impressive achievement, but the historical outline continues to expand until it sweeps over the entire world.  Without the American Revolution, and the Americas remaining part of a very different British Empire, the French Revolution takes a very different course.  Different political ideologies are born, some very dangerous; the alternate French Revolutionary Wars, following a different technological development framework, include a French landing in Britain that does immense damage before the French are finally booted out, leading to a dictatorship fully akin to Bad King John before a civil war eventually restores order … for the moment.  The series touches on issues that plagued our own world – slavery in the Americas, serfdom in Russia; neither of which could be avoided – but always puts its own spin on them. It also draws in figures from our world, ranging from the well-known – Napoleon and Nelson, in very different roles – to the more obscure Henry Stuart, brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in his declining years.

Wars and politics are not the only issues of interest, as the books touch on social issues as much as everything else.  Power shifts lead to different points of view, then to cultural issues intended to shape public opinion.  The far greater chaos of the revolutionary wars in Europe leads to reaction, followed by more revolution.  The different balance of power in the Americas leads to a different take on slavery and racism, with a far less powerful slavery lobby that responds, at least in part, by doubling down on racism.  Others fight back in more subtle ways, pushing people to question their preconceptions.  For example, a hooded hero is eventually revealed, after 50-odd pulp adventures, to be black … causing everyone to either scream in outrage or re-evaluate their positions.

The book also links back to our timeline, or something close to it, by touching on commentary from a cross-time team of explorers studying the alternate world and comparing it to our own.  Their insights are very interesting, as – unlike the locals – they have a basis for comparison.  They can assess developments and see how and why things went differently.  And this also provides some tension, as the explorers – as of Book IV – to have been discovered by the locals. 

It is difficult to exaggerate the sheer level of detail Anderson has worked into the series, although it can be a little overwhelming at times.  It can also be hard to follow what’s going on, as the borderlines are in very different places.  (Anderson deserves credit for not creating the OTL British Empire, plus the United States.)  The books do have the downside of being very dry in places, to the point where I skipped some sections and returned to read them later. 

If you’re looking for an action-adventure novel, Look to the West isn’t for you.  It reads, like I said above, as a history book.  It is unashamedly written for the alternate history community, rather than a more general readership; it doesn’t try to compromise in hopes of getting more attention from people who might not otherwise be interested.  But if you’re looking for a outline of an alternate history world, and a study of how one relatively small change can lead to a very different world, Look to the West has few equals.  I highly recommend it.

Book One, on Amazon Kindle Unlimited.

OUT NOW – The Family Name (The Zero Enigma IX)

26 Feb

House Rubén and House Aguirre had been rivals for centuries even before the discovery of the Zero Talent and a plot to take control of Shallot plunged them – and the entire city – into war.  In a desperate attempt to end the fighting, Akin of House Rubén was betrothed to the only known Zero, Caitlyn of House Aguirre.  Since then, the two houses have been locked in an uneasy alliance, painfully aware that they will hang separately if they do not hang together.

But, as the marriage starts to loom over the city, Akin Rubén discovers a deadly secret.  His twin sister Isabella, sent into exile for her role in the House War, has discovered Callam, the second known Zero.  And Isabella’s desire to carve a position for herself within the family, a role denied to her through no fault of her own, will shake House Rubén to its core. 

As shadowy figures step into the light, ready to stake everything on a desperate bid to save or damn the family, Akin and Isabella find themselves in the middle of a deadly storm that may destroy everything they love …

… And plunge the city back into war.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase here: Amazon USUKCANAUSDraft2Digital

Updates …

25 Feb

Hi, everyone

It’s been a busy week.  The Right Side of History is up for purchase.  I’ve finished the first draft – yes, the first draft – of The Face of the Enemy, Schooled in Magic 23.  I intend to do the edits before I finalise the plot for Child of Destiny, so there may be a two-month gap between the books.  I also intend to write Void’s Tale, so my current schedule looks like:

Mar – Drake’s Drum

Mar/Apr – Void’s Tale

Apr – Unsure, maybe something new, maybe The Zero Secret

May – Child of Destiny.

Good news – I’ve started uploading The Family Name to Amazon and it will hopefully be up soon.

Bad news (sort of) – Cast Adrift got rejected, so I will find a cover and put it online too.

In other news, I’m angry beyond words at the current Baen situation.  I will do a post on it soon, but – for the moment – I’ve expressed my support by buying a bunch of Baen books.  If you have the inclination, please join us in supporting a company that has done wonders for the SF/Fantasy community and yet is taking an unjustified hammering.  Toni does not deserve this sort of treatment and, frankly, I’m pretty sure that disinviting her could be used as grounds for convention-goers to demand a refund, as this was pretty clearly not something that couldn’t be helped.


OUT NOW – The Right Side of History (Schooled in Magic 22)

20 Feb

The Necromantic War is over, but there is no peace …

A brutal uprising in the Kingdom of Alluvia has shaken the Allied Lands – and Emily finds herself accused of starting it. Desperate, all too aware the kingdom is on the verge of becoming a vortex of chaos, Emily travels to Alluvia in the hopes of calming both sides long enough to secure peace…

…Unaware that the uprising is merely the first step in a plan to shatter the Allied Lands beyond repair.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links on this page.

Stuck in Magic 10

1 Feb

Chapter Ten

The first impression I had of the City Guard, which only grew stronger over my first week of service, was that they were simply not a very professional outfit.  The rules and regulations were astonishingly loose, to the point there was practically unlimited scope for abuse and corruption … as long as the guardsman in question didn’t pick on a landlord or a magician or someone with enough money to land the guard in hot water.  I’d wondered, at first, why they’d been so quick to snap me up and put me to work, my mind suggesting all sorts of possibilities before it had dawned on me just how desperate the guards were for manpower.  We were not popular.  We slept in our barracks, in the guardhouse, because sleeping outside was asking for trouble.  I had the feeling the vast majority of the population hated our guts.  We were, at best, tolerated.

It was hard not to blame them, I decided, as I worked through my probationary period.  Horst and Fallows weren’t bad people, not in the sense they were terrorists or insurgents or rapists, but they were corrupt and often bullies.  It was hard to watch them angling for bribes and not say something, to not call them out for being assholes to the people they were supposed to protect.  I knew there’d be no point – collecting bribes was one of the perks of the job, the very few perks of the job – but it was still galling.  It was all I could do, at times, to bite my tongue as I learned how the city actually worked.  I had the feeling the formal rules, such as they were, bore little resemblance to reality.

Slowly, a picture began to emerge.  The city did have a formal government, but it was dominated by the landlords.  They’d stacked everything in their favour.  The highest-ranking posts in the government belonged to them and their families by right, with no one else so much as having a hope of being promoted.  The landlords were a de facto aristocracy, practically a state within a state.  They paid for everything, which gave them vast power over the entire city.  There were no limits on their power, at least within the walls.  Outside, where the warlords held sway, was a different matter.  The city’s walls were strong, but an army wouldn’t need to break into the city to take power.  They’d just have to lay siege to the city and wait for the population to starve.

I kept asking questions, ignoring the snide remarks from my fellow guardsmen as I showed my ignorance time and time again.  There was a certain safety in being underestimated, but still … I guessed some of them suspected I’d come from a very long way away, although they couldn’t possibly have realised just how far I’d come.  I was weird to them, a man with completely alien values.  I tried to keep a lid on it – the more different one was, the harder it was to be accepted – but it wasn’t easy.  The more I learnt, the less I liked the city.

“You’ve done well,” Fallows said, when we came to the end of our shift.  “I think you’ll be a full guardsman soon.”

“Thanks,” I said, rather sourly.  It wouldn’t be long, I’d been assured, before I’d get more important work to do.  Patrol was easy, as long as you didn’t run into trouble.  Manning the gatehouses along the walls was apparently a great deal harder.  I suspected that meant more lucrative.  “Can we go to bed now?”

“Hell, no,” Horst said.  “We’re going out drinking.”

I blinked.  It hadn’t taken me long to realise that Fallows and Horst went out after dark, although they’d never invited me.  I wasn’t one of them.  Not yet.  But now … I followed them out of the guardhouse, through a maze of side-streets and into a tavern, torn between excitement and fear.  It was hardly the first time I’d gone drinking – I’d engaged in many a drinking competition in the army – but here … I might say something I shouldn’t.  God alone knew how they’d react to the truth.  They might think I was lying … it might be better, all things considered, if they thought I was lying.  The truth might not set me free.

I’d been in some dives in my time, but the tavern was easily the seediest place I’d ever drunk.  The floor was filthy, the table and chairs crusted in the remnants of marathon drinking sessions, the music strange and atonal and the bartenders looking surly as they took our order and pointed to booths in the corner.  I forced myself to breathe through my mouth as we sat down, wishing – not for the first time – that the guardhouse had a proper shower.  My skin felt grimy, no matter how many times I wiped myself down.  I didn’t want to visit the public baths – I’d heard some horror stories about them – but I was starting to feel I didn’t have a choice.  I’d probably leave a trail of muck when I clambered into the water.

“Here.”  Fallows shoved a tankard of something under my nose.  “You’ll like this.”

I gritted my teeth, then took a sip.  It was beer – or something closely akin to beer.  It tasted weak, yet … I had a feeling there was a lot of alcohol in it.  The patrons were quaffing the stiff like nectar, throwing back their necks as they poured it down their throats and over their shirts.  There was something nasty in the air, I noted, as liquid pooled around their feet.  It felt as if a fight was going to break out at any moment.  I warily checked my weapons as I took another sip.  The beer didn’t taste any better.  I supposed the more I drank, the less I would care.

Horst put his tankard to his lips and drank … and drank … and drank.  I stared in frank disbelief as he held up the empty tankard, let out an immense belch and waved at the bartender for a refill.  A waitress appeared with a new tankard, her eyes a million years old.  I felt a stab of sympathy as she turned and hurried away.  Bartending wasn’t an easy job, even back home.  Here … I doubted the drunkards would leave her alone for a second.

“So,” Fallows said.  “How do you like being a guard?”

“It’s pretty interesting,” I lied.  It was a job and not a very good job, but it gave me something to do and somewhere to sleep while I got my bearings.  I’d learnt an awful lot about the city by keeping my mouth firmly closed and letting my partners do the talking.  They didn’t seem to know much about the lands outside the walls – they had a striking lack of curiosity about the wider world – but they knew everything about the city.  “I’m enjoying myself.”

“Really?”  Horst brayed like a mule.  “We must be doing something wrong.”

Fallows snorted.  “You’ll get bored of it soon enough,” he cautioned.  “By then, perhaps you’ll be on the walls.”

I shrugged.  “How did you become a guard?”

“It’s a respectable profession,” Fallows said.  His partner snickered.  “And it suits me.”

I kept my thoughts to myself.  I was pretty sure that was a lie.  The police hadn’t been popular back home – certainly not where I’d grown up – but the Damansara Guardsmen were about as popular as a kick in the groin and somewhat less welcome.  I wasn’t blind to how many people tried to escape our gaze, when we patrolled the streets, or told their daughters to hurry away from us.  Horst and Fallows might seem like good chaps, but the locals regarded them as predators.  No, scavengers.  A pack of hungry hyenas might be more welcome.

“It’s fun,” Horst said.  He waved for another tankard.  “And profitable.”

He elbowed me.  “You should make the most of it.  You won’t be a guard forever.”

Hopefully not, I agreed silently.  I’d been doing my best to think of concepts I could introduce, although it wasn’t easy.  My mystery predecessor had scooped up all the low-hanging fruit.  What few ideas I’d had – irrigation, for example – required connections and money I didn’t have.  What am I going to do with myself?

I stared into my beer.  I’d done some research.  Renting a room within an apartment was expensive.  Renting a whole apartment for myself was so far outside my price range that I would have get promoted several times before I could even consider it.  One had to spend money to make money and I didn’t have any money.  How the hell had Martin Padway done it?  He’d made brandy … somehow, I doubted that would work for me.  And no one was going to listen to my ideas on irrigation either.  Why should they?

Fallows smiled, coldly.  “So … tell us about yourself.”

It was an order.  I hesitated.  It was a good sign, I supposed, that they were showing interest in me.  They hadn’t asked many questions over the last few weeks, even when I was questioning them.  I understood – I was the FNG, as far as they were concerned, who might be gone in a flash – but it was still irritating.  And yet, I would have preferred them to show no interest at all.  I didn’t want to lie, but I knew I couldn’t tell the truth either.

“My family were taken from their homes, a very long time ago,” I said.  It was true – and they’d believe it.  The vanished empire had apparently scattered ethnic groups around its territory to make it harder for them to become a coherent threat.  Or something.  I guessed it was why there was so much diversity in places like Damansara.  “I was raised a very long way away and eventually became a soldier.”

“A mercenary,” Fallows said.  “And there I was thinking you were a decent guy.”

His words were so deadpan it took me a moment to realise it was a joke.  Soldiers weren’t held in high regard, while mercenaries were feared and hated by just about everyone.  I’d never been fond of them myself – I’d met too many during my time in Iraq – but here it was worse.  They’d fight for whoever paid them, as long as the money held out; they’d loot, rape and burn their way through towns and villages, regardless of which side they were actually on.  I’d heard the horror stories.  Mercenaries were about as welcome in the city as child molesters.

Horst grinned as he polished off yet another tankard of beer.  “You fought in the wars?”

“Small wars,” I said.  There were rumours of wars against evil sorcerers, strange monsters and campaigns on a scale that would have daunted Eisenhower and Zhukov.  I was fairly sure the stories were exaggerated, but there was probably some truth within the lies.  “It was a job.”

“Your mother must have disowned you,” Fallows said.  There was something waspish in his voice, as if I’d somehow touched a nerve.  “A mercenary, for a son.”

I shrugged.  “My mother is dead.”

A sense of aloneness washed over me.  Cleo and my sons were in another world.  There was no one, as far as I knew, who’d understand my life.  Horst and Fallows knew I’d come from a long way away, but they didn’t know – they couldn’t know – just how far I’d come.  I took a sip of my beer, suddenly understanding precisely why people drank themselves to death.  It would be so easy to crawl into a bottle and refuse to come out.  I was doomed to be alone for the rest of my life.

There might be others, I thought, as I finished the tankard.  Jasmine hinted there might be others.

I grimaced.  I’d been lucky.  Someone else might have been raped or enslaved or killed by now.  If there were others … I wished for my old company, with all of its vehicles and equipment.  A company of modern soldiers could have taken the city, imposed a genuinely responsible government, thrashed the warlords and started hammering out a semi-modern tech base.  The Lost Regiment would have had an easy time of it, without giant aliens roaming the lands and eating everyone in their path.  They would certainly have survived long enough to get their bearings, then realise their technology was not only superior but very easy to duplicate.  A American from the Civil War era would have been a hell of a lot more useful – here – than me.

Horst shoved another tankard under my nose.  “Drink,” he ordered.  He’d had at least four tankards himself and he was still surprisingly sober.  Either he was used to it or I was wrong about the alcohol content.  “It’ll do you good.”

I sipped the drink, while doing my best to answer questions without giving too much away.  I had hundreds of stories of military service, but most of them would have sounded like blatant lies.  They didn’t know about tanks or aircraft or any of the toys I’d taken for granted.  I told them a little about my service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they didn’t seem too impressed.  I wasn’t sure why.  I had a feeling I was missing something.

The music changed.  I looked up.  A trio of travelling bards – for a moment, I thought they were Diddakoi – stood on the stage, striking dramatic poses.  They didn’t seem fazed by the volley of abuse from the patrons.  Instead, they started to sing.  They were badly out of tune -and there was something archaic about their style – but I had to admit they had a certain charm.  The patrons hooted and hollered, waving their tankards around as if they were going to throw beer at the singers.  I guessed it was a tough crowd.  The patrons certainly didn’t seem impressed by songs of the Necromancer’s Bane, Crown Prince Dater and a bunch of other people I hadn’t even known existed.

Horst waved at me as the bards took a break.  “Did you fight in that war?”

I shook my head.  There was no point in lying, not when I knew too little to tell a convincing lie.  Besides, I wasn’t sure how much of the songs were made up of whole cloth.  Half of them praised various people I’d never heard of and the other half condemned them.  I wondered, vaguely, if the bards saw any contradiction in kissing a prince’s ass one moment and putting a knife in his back the next.  Maybe they just didn’t care.  The songs were probably written by the prince’s PR department and the bards were paid to sing them.

“That’s a shame,” Horst said.  “It was supposed to be glorious.”

“War is never glorious,” I said, a little more severely than I’d meant.  The beer was getting to me.  “War is homes destroyed, men mutilated and killed, women and children raped …”

I shook my head, forcing myself to sit back as the night wore on.  The beer was making it harder to think straight.  I was going to have a hangover tomorrow, my first in years.  And yet … I looked at Horst and Fallows, feeling a surge of comradely good feeling towards them.  It was hard not to feel something, despite their flaws.  They wouldn’t have taken me out drinking if they hadn’t been warming up to me.

Fallows stood.  “This way.”

I felt wobbly as I followed them across the room and up a flight of dark stairs to a heavy wooden door.  The air smelt hot, humid and scented.  Someone had sprayed perfume everywhere … I hesitated as we reached the top, suddenly all too aware of what was on the far side.  Fallows didn’t slow down.  He pushed the door open and stepped inside.  A row of young women waited for us, wearing almost nothing.  I felt my heart kick into overdrive as I struggled to sober up.  Fallows had taken me to a brothel!

Horst elbowed me.  “Our treat,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”

My heart clenched.  I’d been cautioned, when I’d started my military career, that many of the prostitutes in brothels weren’t there of their own free will.  Some of them had been sold into sex slavery, others had had no choice but to sell their bodies to survive.  And I’d been told – we’d all been told – not to visit brothels.  I tried not to be sick as I remembered the dire warnings.  STDs were the least of the dangers.

I caught a girl’s eye.  She looked around nineteen, but her eyes were ninety.

“No,” I said.  I didn’t want to catch something nasty.  Magic could cure anything that wasn’t immediately lethal, I’d been told, but potions were expensive.  I doubted the brothel forced its clients to use condoms.  “I don’t want a girl.”

“A boy?”  Fallows seemed pleased, rather than disgusted.  “There are boys in the next room …”

“No, thank you.”  I allowed myself a moment of relief that I hadn’t drunk too much.  “I’m still married.”

Horst leered at me.  “Your wife will never know.”

That was truer than he could possibly have known.  I scowled.  “I’d know.”

Fallows shrugged.  “Then you can wait out here,” he said, sardonically.  “And if you get bored, feel free to take one of the girls.”

“Will do,” I said.  I considered heading back to the guardhouse, then dismissed the thought before it had fully-formed.  I would be alone and not entirely sober.  It would be asking for trouble.  “I’ll wait for you downstairs.”

They shrugged, then made their choices and took the girls into the next room.  I forced myself to sit back and wait, ignoring the titters from the girls.  They didn’t know what to make of me.  I supposed I didn’t know either.  Part of my body was reminding me that it had been a very long time since …

And you’d probably catch something nasty if you slept with one of them, I told myself.  I didn’t know if AIDS existed here, but it wasn’t the only danger.  And how would you cope with an STD?