By Adam Selby-Martin
As I think I’ve alluded to in previous reviews for this blog, if you took a survey of published Alternate History fiction, the vast majority of it would be roughly divisible into only a few time periods and locations. The two greatest and most dominant periods would likely be the Second World War and its associated scenario of ‘The Third Reich Victorious’, and the American Civil War and ‘Dixie Victorious’, likely with ‘Cold War Goes Hot’ in its various iterations coming in as a strong third. Of the other categories, I would struggle to name more than a scant handful of counterfactual fiction novels, novellas, short stories etc. that focus on non-white populations or the native inhabitants of a continent, or non-Western countries such as those in the Middle East, South-East Asia or Africa. Indeed, the majority of those that come to mind are in fact published by Sea Lion Press, such as Three Days in Yangon by Zachary Lynn, Walking Through Dreams by Jared Kavanagh, or The Plague Policeman by Anthony Jones. As such, when I come across an Alternate History title that gives us one of these viewpoints, I’m always extremely interested and eager to review them.
This brings me to Alliance: Metamorphosis by David Oliver-Godric, a recently-released novel that looks at what might have happened if a Chinese trader and his vessels belonging to the Song Empire had travelled further east of Korea and China than anyone had before; travelling so far into uncharted territory that they actually discover an entire continent never heard of before. A continent that in our timeline is known as North America, but which becomes a very different place in this universe. It's an utterly fascinating idea that I don't think I've actually seen before in the Alternate History genre, and is such a complex Point of Divergence (PoD) that the consequences are staggering to even consider. The novel itself follows several viewpoints, both those of some of the Song traders arriving on the new continent, as well as several Native Americans who encounter them. We begin by following a small group from the River People tribe who are hunting and killing animals in the grasslands, only for protagonist Hawk to discover unfamiliar signs in the trees and bushes that indicate an unfamiliar tribe is in the area. Given their lack of contact, and the numbers indicated by their debris, Hawk and his comrades believe it unlikely they are traders, or indeed friendly in any manner. When Hawk encounters Midnight, a young woman fleeing from the crazed Shaman who has taken over her tribe, the Grassland People, they are both determined to stop the Shaman's attempts to lead the Grassland People against the River People.
While Midnight, Hawk and the River People prepare for a war they do not want, word comes of strangers from far overseas arriving to trade with a nearby tribe. Curious, Hawk and Midnight accompany a trade delegation and meet with Zahn, a trader from the Song Empire in China. Suddenly two separate cultures who never met in this manner in our reality are suddenly talking and trading supplies and knowledge; the Chinese traders hope for fur skins and copper, and in exchange offer the secret of a powder that can cause great explosions and even harm people: a little something called gunpowder. Not only that, but they bring new tools and techniques that lend themselves to agriculture, construction, animal husbandry – and war. Because even as the implications of these new trade goods are considered by the natives, Hawk and Midnight must feverishly prepare their tribe for a war they do not want to fight. With these changes, history in North America begins to take a very different course, though it's to Oliver-Godric's credit that this change only comes very slowly, resisting the temptation for time-jumps of the kind sometimes seen in the Alternate History genre. Alliance: Metamorphosis is solely focused on the adventures and experiences of the River People as they fortify their villages and wage a defensive war unlike any seen before on the continent, with the mysteries of gunpowder and other advanced techniques remaining in the background, though with tantalising hints that bode well for future novels in the series.
This really is an extraordinary book, with a fervent imagination and innate understanding of the time periods and the cultures involved, particularly the Native American tribes. Oliver-Godric really brings to life the lifestyle, culture and even attitudes of the Native American tribes, as well as delivering vivid descriptions of flora, fauna and wildlife. For you see, Oliver-Godric has a very engaging writing style, one that is relatively rare in any genre, but even more so when it comes to Alternate History; his writing and narrative-construction effortlessly pulls you along with the story, and there were several moments when I became astonished to realise just how much I had read in such a short space of time. Hawk and Midnight’s adventures and skirmishes benefit from a smooth, easily-flowing pace that takes you through the story, aided by short, punchy chapters that refuse to follow the genre standard of long, often laborious chapters that get the reader bogged down in excessive details. There’s a real sense of adventure to be had here, blended with some fast-paced and extremely well-written action sequences.
It really is a joy to read, and I think I finished it far sooner than any other Alternate History novel I’ve read in quite some time. Really, my only concern about the entire novel was the title – while it does eventually make sense within the context of the narrative, Alliance: Metamorphosis does unfortunately sound rather generic and like one of those endless sci-fi novels that litter that genre, usually with a chisel-faced Space Marine glaring manfully out from the cover while a spaceship explodes behind him. It could potentially make readers miss out on reading the novel; but I suspect that would be very easy to fix, were any discerning publisher to pick up Oliver-Godric’s fantastic slice of counter-factual fiction
Innovation is the lifeblood of any genre, but especially one like the Alternate History genre where it’s incredibly easy for rote, stale scenarios like a victorious Third Reich or nuclear-tipped Cold War to dominate. That’s why it’s so important to find and praise authors like David Oliver-Godric, who demonstrates exactly the sort of original, creative and thought-provoking work that the genre needs if it is going to survive and prosper. We need far more books that follow the example of Oliver-Godric and T.T. Drewett (author of the excellent The Oregon War), rather than the 1,001st book on the South winning the American Civil War, or the 10,001st book on a victorious Third Reich. Alliance: Metamorphosis is exactly that sort of book, and Oliver-Godric that sort of author, and I would be doing both a disservice if I gave Alliance: Metamorphosis anything less than my full-throated approval and recommendation.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews