Edited by Martin T. Ingham
Review by Adam Selby-Martin
I’ve only ever written as a hobby, not as a career, and only then short pieces of fiction such as vignettes and short stories; that writing process was difficult enough, so I can only imagine how difficult, and stressful, it must be for an author to compose an entire novel, particularly if they are an independent writer and must therefore also tackle the challenges of self-publishing like editing and cover design. The number of authors I have spoken to, both online and in person, have highlighted how demanding (and yet deeply rewarding) this process can be, and only increased my admiration for anyone undertaking it. So to take on all of those separate issues (writing, editing, cover design etc.) and then in addition decide to be the editor of an entire anthology – thereby committing to commissioning short stories, reviewing submissions, communicating with authors, dealing with royalties and a dozen other tasks – is a truly staggering task which should be rightly celebrated. And this is what Martin T. Ingham has achieved with Altered Europa, the second alternate-history indie anthology that he has edited and published. Both this anthology and its predecessor, Altered America, have been on my To Be Reviewed list for a while, and as I live closer to Europe rather than America I thought I’d start there.
Altered Europa consists of twenty-one short stories that deal with alternate or counterfactual history. That is, to put it mildly, a significant number of entries for any anthology, particularly one set in such a relatively niche genre; even many of the professional anthologies I’ve reviewed rarely have above 17-18 stories, so this is an impressive achievement by the editor. Pair that with the fact that the collection is available on the Kindle Unlimited programme, and (at time of writing) is a mere £2.49 to purchase outright, and Altered Europa makes an incredibly cost-effective package for the potential reader. Not only is the low cost attractive to a reader, but so is the cover art for the anthology; although not quite the equal of some of the evocative and distinctive designs from Jack Tindale, Sea Lion Press’ own illustrator, the flame-wreathed map of Europe is quite effective, and the fonts chosen to accompany the cover art are complementary and do not clash, as is so often the case with indie publications.
Moving onto the content of the stories within the anthology, it is sometimes a mixed bag in regards to their quality. Unfortunately some of the entries within the collection are simply not that well-written, occasionally wasting interesting Points of Divergence (PoDs); or are based around PoDs that themselves make absolutely no sense and require historical figures to abandon their own personalities and morals and adopt new, foreign ones for the sake of plot progression. However, that being said I have made it a point to rarely, if ever, review a title that I consider to be bad; and the fact that I am writing this review should hopefully therefore be an indication that I found Altered Europa worth my time as a reader. This is because when the anthology does alternate history fiction well, it does it very well indeed. To focus on some of the highlights of the collection, let’s start with Foundation and Evil Empire by Sam Kepfield. Alternate history is at its best, I think, when it focuses on the cultural and social changes that would come from a PoD, and Kepfield’s story is an excellent example of this; positing a timeline where Asimov remains in the Soviet Union rather than emigrating to the United States, Kepfield effortlessly weaves a darkly comic tale of how Soviet bureaucrats would struggle to deal with the themes and viewpoints to be found in some of Asimov’s most famous works.
The Twenty-Year Reich from the pen of Dave D’Alessio is another stand-out story, dealing with one of the core tropes of the genre, the victorious Nazi Germany. However, rather than pouring over the minutiae of how the Reich would govern, or the grim reality of that universe, D’Alessio instead paints a tale of a Reich that goes to war with itself, the death of a sick and aging Fuhrer leading to a brutal civil war where even the winners can’t be said to be at all triumphant. Following on from this, we get the first of two stories written by Dr Tom Anderson, also published by Sea Lion Press; N’oublions Jamais, co-authored with Bruno Lombardi, starts out with a rather typical trench-level view of the First World War. However, as the story progresses, hints and clues begin to come together to highlight that this is a very different version of the conflict that took place in our reality; not only are there some fast-paced and very well-written action scenes, but also some fascinating glimpses into a world where certain historical events occurring differently have led to some very different alliances being formed. It’s a fascinating and compelling story, and one that deserves to be expanded upon.
Moving through the anthology, The Fourth Pandemic was another tale that I greatly enjoyed. Author Tim Moshier unleashes the spectre of biological warfare on the Soviet Union in the final weeks prior to Operation Barbarossa, thereby kicking off an absorbing tale of how a totalitarian state might try to combat a virulent plague spreading through its interior, and how it’s equally totalitarian neighbour might try and take advantage of this distraction and weakness, with some surprising ahistorical results. Then the second story from Dr Tom Anderson, this time the sole writer, is A.E.I.O.U. Beginning with the death of William II, King of Prussia, on the battlefield of Kunersdorf in 1759, Dr Anderson plays to his strengths as an author and produces a magisterial tale of the King’s death rippling through Europe and beyond, changes taking place by degree until the end result is a world almost completely alien to our own reality; and yet such is his skill as a writer that the entire process feels completely organic and unforced.
I think that the shining star, the crown jewel of Altered Europa, is the story by Deborah L. Davitt, entitled Ave, Caesarion. Set in a world where the assassination attempt on Caesar was a failure, Davitt focuses on the figure of Caesarion, the older son of Caesar. Returning to Rome in triumph, with his younger brother in tow, he enters a city where political and religious intriguing is at its height as Caesar lays dying. Davitt writes cleanly and confidently, and is skilled at depicting the political backstabbing and infighting that would be caused by this alternate timeline, but about a quarter of the way through the story it takes a completely unexpected turn; I won’t spoil such a brilliant story, but suffice to say that Davitt seamlessly blends alternate history and magical fantasy and creates a world that cries out for more stories from it to be told.
Moving towards the end of the anthology, A Rare Chance at the Enemy by Mark Melion looks at what might have happened if submersible technology had become viable in the early 19th Century, with the British fleet blockading Napoelonic France encountering the French-funded and Irish-crewed Actium to devastating effects. And The Fire Tulips from Mike Jansen is a richly imaginative and sumptuously-imagined story set in a world where the Dutch East India Company (VOC) has become one of the dominant powers in the world, and follows a VOC computer programmer as he finalises the installation of a VOC superweapon system on the island of Crete. Finally, The Battle of Tim Hortons by Bruno Lombardi and Ben Prewitt is a darkly amusing tale of the Third World War breaking out in Europe in the late 1980s, and the (mis)adventures of one group of Canadian soldiers as they react to the world being plunged into war.
In conclusion, Altered Europa is a credible and highly enjoyable anthology of indie alternate history stories, a number of which shine in terms of the high quality of the writing and imagination on display and deserve to be expanded upon – perhaps in a future sequel to this anthology. It is an absolute must-read for fans of alternate history as a genre, and I can only hope that we see further anthologies of this quality from publisher Martinus, and editor Martin T. Ingham.