By Alexander Wallace
Of the entire constellation of things that alternate historians love, two of the brightest stars are Theodore Roosevelt and steampunk. Our compatriots at NeverWas have a whole section on steampunk, and Matt Mitrovich’s YouTube channel has an entire video about alternate history involving the bespectacled president. The two have known each other before; see Scott Washburn’s The Great Martian War series or the animated film War of the Worlds: Goliath.
Published by Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, Michael A. Ventrella’s novel Big Stick adds to the corpus of alternate history on both subjects. The cover is revelatory: Theodore Roosevelt and another character are held by steampunk robots. That other character is Beverly Haddad, an agent for a certain organization with its own interest in the man who is, at this moment, the commissioner of the New York Police Department.
(A side note - I purchased my copy of this book from Mr. Ventrella personally at CAPCLAVE 2021 in Rockville, Maryland; he signed the copy for me. I attended a number of panels he was on, and he was quite pleasant. As part of a larger group, Mr. Ventrella and I engaged in the traditional reading of The Eye of Argon together, which was quite fun)
The plot kicks off in New York, when a lightning bolt sets Roosevelt’s office alight. Haddad intervenes to save him, telling him that he is necessary for her own purposes. You are then thrust into an adventure involving Anthony Comstock, lightning guns, airships, and cunning political machinations. Those who like bizarre contraptions reminiscent of the work of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne will be pleased here.
The whole enterprise felt like a lighter, pulpier version of Bioshock: Infinite, set at the cusp of the twentieth century (1897, in this case), dealing heavily with race, gender, and class issues. Beverly Haddad is black, and the narrative treats this realistically; it does similar for other black characters. The Gilded Age is in full swing, and Big Stick’s villains are ruthless robber barons and other rich people with vocally voiced contempt for anything resembling ‘progressivism’ or ‘Marxism.’
What is hands-down the best part of this book is the pacing; the plot ticks along like a metronome, with very little fat on the meat. It means the book never slows down; it is a steampunk thriller par excellence.
The character work is also quite good. Theodore Roosevelt feels like the hero that alternate history has always made him, and he is gregarious (although as a Filipino-American I am mildly irritated by a lack of willingness to discuss his loud support of imperialism). Beverly Haddad is wicked smart with know-how bolstered by a background that deepens her place in the story. In a sense, they are buddy cops, and the wit between them is quite funny.
Big Stick is good, pulpy fun. It is that more lighthearted sort of alternate history that uses its setting to furnish an adventure in the old-school sense, updated with modern sensibility but without sacrificing why people loved those adventure tales in the first place. It reminds me of my friend Colin Salt’s novels The Smithtown Unit or Box Press: pure, simple fun.