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'Axis of Andes' review

By Gary Oswald

Amateur AH exists for the same reason any amateur writing does. Partly because people just like to write in a relatively low pressure environment where it's not the thing that puts food on the table. But partly to fill a gap that the market that isn't providing.

And one of the things that professional AH wasn't really often providing was historical vigour. However good the prose of professional AH is, and it's generally variable like every genre, the story is mostly the aim rather than the history. This meant that published AH fiction tends to be based about big well known historical events, WWII or the American Civil War, that don't have to be explained to the audience and go with big obvious PODs, like what if the Soviets were the first to the moon or America was still British.

Amateur AH forums increasingly became a place for deeper examinations of history, a place where you could discuss 'what if the 1978 coup in the Comoros failed' and its amateur fiction would be rigorously researched to make the history plausible in a way that professional AH rarely cared about. The amateur fiction that emerged from that forums is now often being published, either by small publishing companies such as Sea Lion Press or as self published works, which 'Axis of Andes' is. And it can be noted both for being based on more obscure history and often being more concerned with historical detail and rivet counting then actually telling the story.

Axis of Andes, a single story told across two books by D.G. Valdron, whose 'Bear Cavalry' I adored, very much emerges from that amateur tradition. It is about the Ecuador-Peru war of 1941, in our timeline a minor conflict in which less than 2,000 people died which went almost unnoticed among the drama of the Second World War. In Valdron's books however it ignites into a far more bloody affair and South America sees some of the hell that Europe and Asia experienced.

I remain taken by the ambition and imagination of that premise and the cleverness on setting the war during a time when the USA is too busy to intervene. It very much shows the good side to the amateur AH community. This is a book with an imaginative premise, genuine historical knowledge about areas of the world which we don't think about as much in the west and the audacity to create genuinely new things and depict societies we never saw in OTL.

But there is a downside to this. Valdron is a genuinely talented writer, he creates vivid characters, has a keen eye for dialogue and has a strong narrative voice. There are scenes in these books that are fantastic. The last stand of the president of Bolivia is one of the best darkly comic scenes I've read in any book, let alone just AH, for its depiction of a man caught up in a different story to the one he thought he was. He also knows what he's talking about, the research is palpable.

But that's not entirely positive because the story, the narrative, as vivid as it is, often plays second fiddle to that research. The first book continually stops the story so that the writer can explain his workings. It reminds me of the worst kind of old school sci-fi where the writer is desperate to get ahead of criticism by spending 10 pages showing how his engine could work and honestly, I'm just happy to assume it does. So you get a, wonderfully observed, narrative scene, followed by the writer going 'so you may wonder if this is plausible, but given what happened in otl at this date and this date it is'. The exposition is not natural, and it's extensive. You increasing get the impression of reading something written by someone who has been nitpicked to death before and doesn't want to be again. And this does show the bad side of these writing communities.

The first book feels like a narrative story which has no faith in its narrative and constantly falls back to essay writing instead. Around about 40% of the first book is just Valdron catching the reader up on real South American history, and he's a witty historian, it's interesting, I like reading history books. But I wish that he'd tried to get the necessary background into the narrative and left the rest out instead.

The result is a book that's neither one thing or the other, it's not a story and its not really an essay. We don't spend enough time with our characters to feel like a pulp war story because every time we're introduced to them, we then leave them to learn about the history of the Bolivian Army which reduces the emotional connections we're forming.

But perhaps the exposition is needed. This is the trade off about writing about less know history, that you have to catch the readers up and can't just start with 'Germany won the second world war' and know all of your audience gets what that means.

Luckily the second book, can rely on the fact the first book has already done this and can put catching the reader up aside to just sit down to tell its story. I enjoyed the first book, but it felt flawed. The second book is just a great example of how readable good AH can be.

Alex Wallace recently wrote an essay about choosing the voices you write through. Do you write from the POV of princes or from peasants?

Valdron resolves this in one of the cleverest ways I've ever seen. Book one's narrative is mostly told from the point of view of rich white racist landowners with fascist sympathies. But then Book 2 is largely instead told from the point of view of poor indian villagers and it upends a lot of the assumed nobility of the book 1 povs in a really clever way. It punctures a lot of the assumptions that the readers have formed about these characters and is ruthless about doing so.

It's a book which starts by telling one story and then undercuts that to reveal the actual story it was telling all along and it does so brilliantly.

For all the excess exposition and rivet counting (there are chapters which are just a list of forces each country has), it's this boldness and imagination in what historical stories to tell that I love about amateur AH.

People are often critical of this kind of book, which isn't as smoothly written as a book by Roth or Chabon. It's self published and has typos and some editing mistakes, it's insecure about its plausibility and eager to display its research over Argentine tank capabilities, it summarises important plot points rather than shows them and is somewhat rushed. It's not the sort of book you could imagine getting into the mainstream and being talked about on Oprah.

But, on the flipside, its difficult to imagine a Roth or a Chabon writing this story, about these countries. That's why I find amateur AH worth reading, because it tells you stories that noone else will tell you. There are many books with good action scenes and vivid soldier characters but none that have such a clear eyed depiction of early 20th century South American politics. And I value that this is a book written by someone who cares about getting those details right.

I'm glad there are writing communities that produce work like this and I'm glad I read it. And if you have any tolerance for this kind of work at all, I recommend you read it too.



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