By Alex Wallace
One of those strange historical footnotes the budding alternate historian will come across during their informal initiation into the hobby is the State of Deseret, the aborted attempt by Brigham Young and other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (‘Mormons,’ popularly, but as of writing the Church discourages use of that word in that way) to achieve their own state within the United States. Unfortunately for them, they never achieved that dream, and what they got was, ultimately, the State of Utah. Despite its currency as a shiny bauble in the trinket collection of alternate history, few have dared to really focus on it for a story until D. J. Butler did in his 2015 book City of the Saints.
City of the Saints was originally a series of four interconnected novellas, named Liahona, Deseret, Timpanogos, and Teancum, all names from the Book of Mormon or the history of Utah. Butler is a practicing Latter-Day Saint; he dedicates the book to his grandmother, whom he calls ‘a saint among the Saints.’ The namesake ‘city’ is the Great Salt Lake City, capital of the Kingdom of Deseret led by President Brigham Young. It is a city described as being like a massive beehive, with humans as bees. It is a city reveling in steampunk splendor, for this is no simple grounded alternate history tale.
Butler combines Latter-Day Saint history with the Victoriana beloved by steampunk to weave a fantastic yarn. The first section of the book revolves around the massive landship Liahona as it travels towards the Deseret capital; there are airships (including the Teancum) and electricity (channeled through ‘Franklin Poles’) and ray guns. Unlike our world, this world’s Deseret is a fully functional state - one that has not gone without attracting the attention of those with other interests.
Those coming to Deseret are a good deal of people you may have heard of. Both Samuel Clemens (alias Mark Twain) and Edgar Allen Poe are among the people dispatched to the City on the behalf of different blocs within the United States, which teeters toward civil war. Similarly, the United Kingdom has sent its agents. What results is a story filled with political intrigue and frontier action, blending traditional westerns and steampunk.
The sheer scope of Butler’s work is impressive; the internal logic of the scenario is consistent, and the motivations of the characters are understandable. I would say, though, that the backstory provided to bring about the world has some logical gaps within it. In any case, it is a world that feels alive, and quite believable in human terms given the industriousness of the Latter-Day Saints.
Butler particularly succeeds in his dialogue; he knows he is dealing with many people with big personalities (as Clemens and Poe would alone guarantee) and as such writes dialogue with a razor-sharp wit. Likewise, he has the action-writing chops worthy of much of the pulp literature from which City of the Saints takes obvious inspiration.
I never thought there’d be an LDS-themed alternate history novel, but the genre keeps surprising me, pleasantly so. For those of you who have been interested in Deseret but lament its general paucity within the genre, this is just for you.
Alex Wallace edited the Sea Lion Press anthology "Alloamericana".