Category Archives: Alternate History

Maplecroft

Maplecroft by Cherie PriestReview: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest (Roc Trade, 2014)

Apparently Lizzie Borden took an ax (it was missing an ‘e’, I’m trying to track it down) and gave her mother forty whacks. Really? Whacks with an axe (hey, the ‘e’ came back!)? Surely one chops with an axe? You whack someone with a blunt instrument like a club or the lid of a piano. Or did she do it with the axe handle? Or the flat of the blade? Anyway, she went on to give her dad much the same treatment, with an extra whack/chop for measure. Daddy issues. To be honest that was about the extent of my knowledge of Miss Lizzie Andrew Borden and her alleged pursuits. While a staple of American legend it always seemed a bit ho-hum to a European. I mean, who needs the Bordens when you already have the Borgias? Well thankfully Cherie Priest’s latest novel, Maplecroft, has set me straight on the history of America’s most notoriously (allegedly) wayward woman.

Well, only for exceedingly twisted values of ‘straight’. The story opens with Lizzie (hereon known as Lisbeth) caring for her sickly sister Emma in Maplecroft, the mansion they procured for themselves following the deaths of their parents. Being mostly unaware of the details behind the Borden story I did a little research into the affair prior to reading. Priest has done an amazing job of gathering up all the strands of the real-life incident and investigation and weaving them into her re-telling: a violent sickness had befallen the household for a few days; the maid was alerted by cries from Lisbeth; the bodies of the parents, Abby and Andrew were discovered, bearing 19 and 11 axe wounds respectively (40 and 41? Pfft…). Lizzie was the chief suspect but later acquitted by a jury, the real killer remaining undiscovered.

And it’s here that Maplecroft begins its delightful divergence from reality. For you see, Lisbeth did indeed take the axe to her parents. But she did it to protect not only herself and frail Emma but to save her town and perhaps the world.  Dark, nameless horrors lurk in the shadows of Fall River, slimy boneless fiends, denizens of the deep and disciples of the dark gods which lurk beneath the roiling waves. Yes folks, we’re deep in Lovecraft territory here and it’s one of the most enjoyable excursions I’ve had there in a good long time. Starting with an innocent mailing of a slime mold sample to a distant professor, Maplecroft slowly builds the tension until all and sundry are losing their minds and their lives and the world is on the brink of disaster.

On the one hand we have an awakening god making its murderous way across America to find the woman who unwittingly brought him to life. And back at the ranch we have Lisbeth struggling to contain her wildly intelligent sibling while dealing with her increasingly curious girlfriend and the unwanted attentions of a private investigator. Juggling these two strands together, Cherie Priest turns Maplecroft into an unexpected winner on a number of levels. The narrative voice she adopts is utterly beautiful, telling the story primarily through the eyes of Lisbeth and Emma yet doing so in a manner very firmly rooted in the period. Such is the thickness of the nineteenth century atmosphere that you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were indeed reading an undiscovered Lovecraft novel. Priest has had plenty of practice with her forays into steampunk and now it just feels so natural, not at all forced, unlike the caricatures of older literary styles which usually crop up when an author attempts to imitate literature of an earlier era.

But it’s the attention to detail which really grabbed me. There’s not a single element of Lisbeth’s world which goes unexamined and it serves to pull you right in and keep a hold of you, immersing you in the antiquated horror all around. From the trusty axe with which she dispatches her unwordly foes to the wonderful acid bath under the floorboards of her basement, this is a world painted in deep, rich colours. You’re going to hear the creatures scratching against the door, you’ll see the stress take its toll on beleaguered Lisbeth and you will smell, the unimaginable stench of the elder gods at work. In marked contrast to the master whose works inspired Maplecroft, Cherie Priest has no qualms at all when it comes to describing the indescribable and it simply works.

I’d venture so far as to say that if you have no experience of HP Lovecraft then Maplecroft would actually be a wonderful place to commence your addiction. It’s not truly related to his works but the similarities in tone and subject are simply incredible and Priest’s work is a great deal more accessible. If you’re already a fan of unnameable horrors then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s Lovecraft for a new generation, written with an obvious love for the source material and doesn’t sully the name in the slightest. Cthulhu would be proud.

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The Lives Of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Lives Of Tao by Wesley ChuReview: The Lives Of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013)

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for the wish-fulfillment branch of sci-fi/fantasy. You know the kind, when the protagonist just could be you or someone you know. Like The Never-Ending Story for grown-ups. Hell, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Escapism’s half the reason we read, transporting ourselves to other worlds, other eras. Now and again it’s fun to be in our own era and our own bodies, becoming the hero, leaving the desk-job behind. Welcome to The Lives Of Tao.

Roen Tan is nobody. Slowly aging, getting wider every year, stuck in a cubicle farm in an anonymous software development company. He has no spine, his boss rules his life. He can’t gather the courage to ask for a date, and even if he did his lack of confidence and physique would make the outcome more or less certain. Then Tao comes into his life – and I mean literally.

Tao is a Prophus, an agent for one faction of an alien species fighting an invisible civil war among us. They’ve been here since before the dinosaurs, working to advance the evolution of local species until able to construct a craft to take them home. Why not do it themselves? The Prophus and their rivals the Genjix are gaseous lifeforms unable to survive in our atmosphere. They must inhabit hosts, sharing with them all of their memories from previous hosts through their unimaginably long lifespans. Humans, being the most intelligent species around, are their vessel of choice and all the major events of our history have been manipulated by them to allow us to advance technologically as fast as possible. The catch is that once a Prophus or Genjix enters a host they are stuck there until that host’s death.

Tao and his vessel Edward, something of a superspy in the James Bond mould, find themselves trapped following an incursion into Genjix territory – a Chicago skyscraper. Unwilling to allow his Prophus to be captured, Edward sacrifices himself, allowing Tao to seek out a new host. Unfortunately Tao’s time is limited and suitable vessels in the vicinity are thin on the ground. With scant seconds left on the clock Tao dives into… guess who?

The Lives Of Tao plays out more or less predictably from here on out. Tao, as a high-ranking spy, must whip Roen into shape in order to continue their urgent fieldwork. Cue a series of ridiculous training montages in literary form. You can almost hear the 80s cheese-rock pumping in the background as Roen has his befuddled ass kicked over and over by his mentors. All the time the Genjix are tracking him down, the net tightening around him as they race to eliminate him before his training is completed.

Sound silly? Yeah, that’s because it is. It’s gloriously silly, revelling in all the action tropes it picks up and abuses. This is not a book which takes itself seriously at all. That’s not to say it isn’t engaging though; I was hooked from the get-go by the basic premise, the hugely entertaining action scenes and Chu’s nerd humour. On top of this there’s a minor sub-plot unfolding in the background as Tao relates the history of his species’ arrival on Earth, his own experience in hosts such as Genghis Khan, and the schism which led to the current war. Some of the historical sections are wonderfully playful – the Black Death as a slate-cleaner to erase the Dark Ages? – while others are frighteningly plausible.

The Lives Of Tao is brain candy, no doubt, but with an uncanny gravitas which keeps it stuck in your head well after you finally force yourself to put it down. Especially recommended for any nerd who has ever found themselves hating a soulless office job.

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The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tegillis

Bitter Seeds by Ian TregillisReview: The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (Tor Fantasy, 2010-2013)

An admission first: half of the books I have read since become an ebook convert have been chosen on the recommendation of a single source, Boing Boing. Their chief reviewer and hugely talented author in his own right, Cory Doctorow, has tastes so perfectly in alignment with my own that I barely even bother to read the details, I just dive right in. So obviously when he highlighted the closing chapter in a trilogy based around an alternate history of World War Two, one in which the Axis had access to superpowered Ubermenschen while the Allies pinned their hopes on more traditional warlocks, I was all in. The vision in my head was of a ludicrous, action-packed piece of sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, utterly lightweight and throwaway yet enjoyable. Next time I’ll read the review…

The Milkweed Triptych, comprised of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil, begins shortly before the opening stages of the Second World War. The prologue introduces us to the key players on opposing sides, firstly a tough, opportunistic London orphan known as Raybould Marsh who is taken under the wing of government operative John Stephenson. On the other side are a pair of gypsy siblings, Gretel and Klaus, delivered into the hands of mad Nazi scientist Dr von Westarp by an unscrupulous farmer.

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis

Fast forward a decade or so and Europe is on the verge of breaking out into war. Von Westarp’s brood have developed remarkable powers, variously able to become invisible, or even totally incorporeal, to start infernos, to crush tanks like paper models with thought alone or even, in Gretel’s case, to view all the potential twisting strands which the future might take and select the one with the most favourable outcome to follow. Marsh, now a spy moving up the ranks of the secret service, becomes aware of Germany’s new secret weapon through a bizarre and fatal encounter with a potential defector. The situation soon escalates and Stephenson, compelled by Marsh’s revelations, creates Project Milkweed, tasked with countering Germany’s now unstoppable advances using a force of warlocks rounded up by Marsh’s unlikely best friend, the aristocratic Will Beauclerk.

With a set-up like this we should be en route to mindless carnage, no? Surprisingly Ian Tregillis takes an altogether different tack with The Milkweed Triptych – it is a dark, bleak and thoughtful exploration of the lengths people will go to to fulfill their desires and the consequences thereof. Key to this is the mechanics of the warlocks’ particular skillset. Rather than typical magic they utilise a proto-language known as Enochian to communicate with the Eidolons, creatures who know no spatial or temporal limitations and whose abilities to warp the fabric of reality is matched only by their hatred of humanity. Unable to locate us (Will likens their efforts to trying to pinpoint one particular ant which could be anywhere on the globe), they demand blood prices for their favours, blood which forms a map leading to the human realm. Two things follow inevitably from this premise: the blood prices escalate the more we demand of them, and with each blood map they come closer to finding us. A recipe for disaster indeed.

Necessary Evil by Ian TregillisFurther complicating matters, and crucial to the entire plot of the series, is Gretel and her ability to divine and manipulate the future. Her ability, one employed, is apparently infallible and raises an important question – if the future is set, or at least chosen by Gretel, then do we have any free will? Marsh steadfastly rails against this, saying “I refuse to live in a clockwork universe”, a thought I’m sure we all instinctively cling to no matter that all scientific evidence is stacked against it. Will shares his conviction but Gretel’s wonderful response is simply “Of course you’re free little rabbit. Now hop along. Hop, hop, hop.” No matter your own personal position on the determinism vs free will debate you will still be entranced by the slow, disturbing development of Gretel’s character and the extent of the webs she weaves.which could be anywhere on the globe), they demand blood prices for their favours, blood which forms a map leading to the human realm. Two things follow inevitably from this premise: the blood prices escalate the more we demand of them, and with each blood map they come closer to finding us. A recipe for disaster indeed.

So, The Milkweed Triptych is far from the brain candy which I had anticipated and is an altogether more heavyweight and thought-provoking work. I have one major bone to pick with Ian Tregillis though and that’s the language employed in the dialogue throughout the book. Yes, I realise we’re dealing with a certain historical period and that anachronisms should lend it more authenticity but it tends to sound more like something out of a movie than actual conversation. Did anyone ever really say “Bloody hop”? And as for the character of the Scotsman, Lorimer, and his penchant for calling the apparently handsome Klaus a ‘minger’? ‘Minger’ is a Scots word specifically referring to an ugly person, certainly not a general derogatory term. Not a huge criticism and one which the majority of the book’s readers will be blissfully unaware of but it rankled with me enough to distract from the flow of the book. Thankfully his historical research is far better than his forays into Scots vernacular.

On the whole though The Milkweed Triptych, once I adjusted to the unexpected darkness of the tone, was a very enjoyable read and one which I steamed through quickly. History buffs will get a lot of mileage out of the attention paid to the details of WW2 and beyond, fantasy fans will love the concept of the Eidolons and their blood prices, while sci-fi (and probably comic) aficionados will find plenty to keep them occupied in Von Westarp’s lab-created superhumans and their insanely destructive powers. For the general fiction reader there’s a story of love, desperation, fall and redemption hidden behind the window dressing. Something for everyone in other words.

 

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