By Alexander Wallace
We in the West have an unfortunate tendency to think of the 1990s as a peaceful, sometimes outright boring, decade. It was a time that the victors of the Cold War got to rest on their laurels, pretending that history had ended while conflicts that had been dampened by great power conflict resumed in earnest. India and Pakistan were on the brink of nuclear war. Rwanda was plunged into genocide, and dragged much of central Africa along with it. The Russians besieged Chechnya.
It is in Yugoslavia, another vicious war zone of that decade (the massacre at Foča remains one of the most nauseating acts of inhumanity to other humans I’ve ever read), that T. K. Blackwood alters in his novel Blue Masquerade, the first novel of a projected series. In this world, the Soviet Union and the broader Eastern Bloc survive the challenges of the 1970s and 1980s. It is a new Soviet premier who has to contend with the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia, in addition to the United States; this premier deploys the Soviet Army and Navy to the region.
This book is very much an attempt at the Cold War technothriller popular in the 1980s, altering history to produce the sort of war that Blackwood wants to write about. I saw a number of similarities to both Harry Turtledove and Tom Clancy, particularly the latter’s gargantuan novel Red Storm Rising.
It is a book that succeeds in a number of ways, particularly in how it shows how armed conflict interacts with, and reacts to, political power. Both the Soviet Premier and the American President are viewpoint characters (albeit fictional characters). From the White House and the Kremlin, the two give you the vantage point of the highest echelons of power scrambling to make the best of an immensely chaotic situation on the ground.
Blackwood does a good job with his other characters, too. I liked most the small news team in the country that witnesses everything devolve into the pits of hell; we all too often forget about how these wars are seen in the press. He also gives a proper moral reckoning to the American marine that ends up inadvertently igniting the inferno, as well as a character in the United States Army Reserve in Florida who fears for his own safety and the future of his family.
The only glaring flaw in this book is the lack of prominent characters from the collapsing country that serves as a battleground between Americans (and some allies) and Soviets; there is one Serb who shows up infrequently, and one Croat among the news crew as a translator, but neither get the spotlight outsiders do. Blackwood’s war is reminiscent of parts of the Western theater of World War II, with artillery, aircraft, armor, and infantry all fighting on roughly equal terms. As compellingly written as it is (for Blackwood writes very good action), it cannot help but feel like a bowdlerization of a war that gave the world the slaughterhouses of Srebrenica, Foča, Vukovar, among too many others, a war that helped give the world the term ‘genocidal rape.’
Blue Masquerade is what TvTropes calls a ‘genre throwback:’ a deliberate attempt to bring back an older genre of fiction. It is one that succeeds in showcasing all the strengths of 1980s war thrillers, with a grand, sweeping scope and with action that makes you grit your teeth at how visceral it is, but with the focus on great powers that was typical of the period. For what it is, it is quite an enjoyable book, and I recommend it to anyone who likes that sort of thing.
Alex Wallace edited the Sea Lion Press anthology "Alloamericana".