By Colin Salt
The Kirov series is one of the most out-there works of alternate history I’ve read, and possibly the most. I mean this in a good way.
The best comparison to John Schettler’s epic is not Harry Turtledove/Robert Conroy style “popular AH.” The best comparison is not pseudo-textbook “internet AH”. The best comparison is the gigantic Smash Bros./every video game the author owned crossover, The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest. That gargantuan fanfic is, as of this writing, 4.1 million words long. Kirov is 52 books as of this post and (from a rough count) over five million words.
The series begins as follows. During a period of massive tensions between Russia and the West, the battlecruiser Kirov, rebuilt using parts from every other ship in the class, sails on a live fire exercise. Then it and its crew find themselves transported back in time. Lots of weird stuff then happens.
Looking at the first book, one might think it’s just a clunky Final Countdown/Axis of Time-style “modern warship sent to the past” story. And that would be accurate. Looking at any one installment, the image may be of a slow-paced set of rote, overdescribed action scenes that frequently are barely-disguised wargame lets plays. That would be accurate as well. In fact, the battles can be described as like a novelization of an RPG where every single random encounter is written down with only the most blatant game mechanics cut off (there’s a reason this is 50+ books long).
And yet, I legitimately, honestly, un-sarcastically love this series. With the low quality of the actual books, why do I find myself having a weird soft spot? Probably because this series has in spades what a lot of alternate history lacks-audacity. Alternate history is something that, by any means, should be the sort of thing where everything runs wild, but for a variety of reasons, it mostly isn’t. Not so here. This is like an obscure 70s progressive rock album full of incredibly long and varied songs-on one hand, it doesn’t sound the best, but on the other, you have to admire the ambition of it all. And I’d gladly trade fifty books of more competent mediocrity for fifty books of massive ambition, however flawed.
And this is nothing if not ambitious. Kirov is this gargantuan soap opera of scheming time travelers and cosmic changes. Besides an alternate World War II, there are timeshifted modern weapons in the war. There are airships. There are different countries that are the result of time travel. There is a contemporary World War III. There is another contemporary World War III in a world changed by the warship’s intervention in the past. There are interventions in the Napoleonic and Zulu Wars.
And while the Kirov series leans very, very, heavily on wargaming, it dodges some Schwerer Gustav-sized bullets in very crucial ways. A lot of wargaming-centered “alternate history” is over-obsessed with making things exactly the way they were IOTL before the battles begin. This is both understandable and necessary for scenarios that are intended reenactments of historical events that did happen, but it often feels restrictive. Not so Kirov. One advantage of having an alternate history is that the orders of battle can be changed to whatever the author desires, and this is very much taken advantage of.
Another one is that it features its own cast of original characters. While not the best, this is still a large advantage over a lot of other details-first alternate history that simply takes a set of increasingly obscure historical figures and plops them into the story. And it also, for all the problems in execution, does not go for a straight “pseudo-textbook” style and legitimately tries to have a plot and flow.
Finally, its very detail lifts it over a lot of considerably more slapdash alternate history. At least it has legitimate thought and effort put into it, and the time travel shenanigans actually make it feel a little more “plausible”.
This is a strange series and one that I wouldn’t recommend for “normal” reading. It’s very strange to be critical of the individual components yet having genuine adoration for the franchise as a whole. Yet this is the case here. It’s just such a standout and mold-breaker, and I view even flawed examples of ambitious works with more respect than those books that sink into the middle of the pack.