Review by Adam Selby-Martin
[Please note that the author kindly provided a review copy pre-publication in return for a fair and honest review]
It's always something to celebrate when another piece of alternate history fiction is announced for publication, and particularly intriguing when it's a title written by an established author who's decided to try writing something set in a counterfactual scenario.
In this case, Ashes of America is from the pen of Fergus McNeill, author of the popular DI Harland crime thrillers. Now, crime fiction isn't really my genre to be honest, but I'd heard some good reviews of Mr McNeill's books through word of mouth, and I'd had him pegged as an author to investigate if I did fancy a change in direction for my reading tastes. So it seemed incredibly good luck to discover that he was publishing an alternate history crime thriller set in the aftermath of a very different end to the Second World War.
Of course, the genre is no stranger to crime fiction, and indeed some of the finest examples of alternate history writing involve crime, murders and investigations. One need only think of books like Len Deighton's SS-GB, Fatherland by Robert Harris, or my personal favourite, Michael Chabon's peerless The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Each of those titles took an alternate direction for the Second World War as their basis, though all in very different directions; it's a fertile scenario to develop, even if only as a backdrop to a plot, and I was curious as to what Mr McNeill would do with it.
The back-cover blurb for Ashes of America certainly seemed to indicate that it would be taking a direction with the conflict that's rarely been seen in published alternate history fiction - it spoke of being set in the early 1950s, of an America slowly recovering after the defeat of Russia, with an intact Germany as an ally. That's a hell of a timeline to post, especially when there are further hints that there are secrets about this conflict that have yet to be uncovered, and I'll readily admit that I was completely hooked. The cover art, by the author himself, aided in engaging my interest - like all good covers it catches the readers eye as they scroll through the Kindle listings, and the mirrored text and the clash of red and blue over a monochrome photograph certainly did that. Good cover art can be difficult to create, but it can make all of the difference between a pass and a sale, and is always worth investing in.
And so, to the book itself. We start with the draft of a speech by notorious isolationist Charles Lindbergh, written for an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa. That certainly sounds historical- until you realise that it was written in 1953; in our reality, the America First Committee, for which Lindbergh was its most prominent spokesperson, was dissolved in 1941. Obviously something happened in this timeline to reinvigorate the popular anti-war movement, and that's revealed in the second page of the speech. Germany surrendered in 1945 - but only to the Western Allies. The remnants of the Third Reich then joined with France, Britain and the United States to fight against the Soviet Union in a conflict only ended by mushroom clouds over Moscow. I absolutely loved this revelation, because as I discussed above, you just don't see this direction taken very often in counterfactual fiction. Scenarios in which the Cold War turns Hot War focus almost exclusively on the 1960s or the 1980s, when fighting inevitably results in nuclear exchanges and a miserable end to human civilization. But a conflict in the mid-1940s, where nuclear weapons were extremely limited in numbers and (relative) power? That has the potential to result in a post-war world that's both radically different yet not covered in world-ending radioactive ash; and this is the world that Mr McNeill explores in Ashes of America.
But of course crime fiction is Mr McNeill's pedigree, and it courses through the entire novel. Our protagonist is Frank Rye, war veteran and small-town cop, living in a rundown town that has only shrunk since the end of the conflict closed down the zinc mills that fed the factories during wartime. The sort of town where nothing really ever happens, and Frank's all too happy for that. Except, of course, it does; he starts his shift one morning only to discover that a fellow officer has been murdered, the man found naked in the bed of a local waitress, head caved in with a baseball bat. That's bad enough, but the officer was murdered on an errand Frank was supposed to be on; he'd persuaded the murdered man to swap with him, to cover up the fact that Frank is sleeping with a married woman. Unwilling to explain why he didn't undertake the errand himself, Frank is suspended from the police department, and finds himself forced by his feelings of guilt to investigate the murder.
The plot of Ashes of America may start in small-town America, but before long McNeill has seamlessly moved the plot into something that spans the United States of America, and eventually entire continents, uncovering uncomfortable secrets from the Second World War, and then the anti-Communist alliance against the Soviet Union. As the chapters go by, we start to get glimpses into Frank's past, those gaps in his service record; his recruitment into the secretive and deadly world of intelligence services and espionage due to his ability to speak flawless German, and his journey across half a continent to enter Switzerland. I always enjoy wartime thrillers that are set in Bern, the Swiss capital; the neutral city where Allied and Axis intelligence services could freely rub elbows and wage their own secretive wars against each other. Espionage, counter-espionage, the origin of so many of the tropes of Cold War spy thrillers: letter drops, passing messages to contacts in crowded public places, the odd short but brutal fight that hopefully wouldn't be noticed by the Swiss authorities. These are all combined with some fantastic, high-quality prose and impressive characterisation, McNeill skillfully juggling a complex cast of characters to ensure that they all get their time in the sun and appear as fully-rounded and three-dimensional.
Really, there are two interlaced elements in Ashes of America that need to be reviewed, and while they’re firmly enmeshed in the plot, they deserve to be examined separately as well. On one level, this novel is a fantastic piece of small-town America crime fiction blended with wartime espionage in neutral Switzerland - and it’s the scenes in Bern that really shine the most. From the very beginning it’s obvious that McNeill is a master of his trade, providing the reader with an engaging protagonist in the form of the jaded, cynical Frank Rye who just wants a quiet life after years of being involved in conflict and strife; and the conspiracy he becomes enmeshed in is certainly interesting enough to form the core of the plot, McNeill slowly building up the relationship between Rye and his fellow spies and superiors. There are some great descriptions of wartime Bern, with McNeill really bringing that city to life, and depicting the strange, almost eerie atmosphere of a city that’s both at peace and yet surrounded by belligerents and infiltrated by the intelligence agencies of every major political power. There’s a sense that it’s almost hollowed out, a neutral facade stretched over a seething cauldron of political intrigue that only operates in shades of grey, the city existing for no other purpose. It’s all delightfully intriguing, and McNeill really does it justice, deftly and engagingly portraying a world that's polite on the surface, but deeply complex and morally ambiguous once you get underneath its skin.
If Ashes of America had just been a contemporary piece of historical fiction it would have been engaging enough - but it’s that second element, the alternate history that McNeill introduces, that really elevates it to the top of both genres - Crime and Alternate History. When I started reading, I erroneously concluded that this would be a title where the alternate history element would be firmly in the background, serving to advance the plot and not really engaging with it. But as the chapters progressed, I realised just how subtly McNeill was integrating the counterfactual elements, using them to emphasise the sinister nature of the machinations occuring in Bern until the genuinely horrifying - and chillingly plausible - conclusion is reached. We know that Moscow disappeared in a mushroom cloud in 1945; after all, the back cover blurb tells us that. But it’s the social and political consequences of that conflict that are most disquieting, especially as McNeill doles them out as minor, indirect references rather than the plot-disrupting info-dumps beloved by so many authors of counterfactual fiction. It’s the way that anti-German feeling is still laced throughout American society, despite the fact that Germany surrendered and was an erstwhile ally against the dangers of encroaching Communism, with ‘Kraut’ splashed onto the poster for a movie entitled ‘The Brave German’. Or the references to donation boxes for Russian-Americans in internment camps, and US ‘peacekeeping forces’ still being embroiled in bitter conflicts in Northern Russia and Korea despite the Russian defeat. Not to mention that vague feeling, laced throughout the novel, of who the real enemy was in 1945, and whether the right decisions were made at the time.
Ashes of America is a complex and multi-layered novel that blends together a number of different elements: a murder investigation in post-war America, wartime espionage set in Bern, a city filled with shadows and steeped in moral ambiguity, and a counterfactual setting that takes the Second World War in a radically different direction in 1945. None of those elements are particularly easy to handle, and it’s not difficult to foresee that in the hands of a less experienced or confident author, they might have sat uneasily together and clashed. However Mr McNeill is more than up to the task, creating a novel that is somehow greater than the sum of is three constituent parts and delivering a deeply engaging plot that is one of the most interesting and plausible pieces of Alternate History I’ve read in a very long time. Perhaps the best thing about Ashes of America is that it hints at so many more revelations that are lying just underneath its surface, desperate to be brought out into the sunlight and explored in much more thorough detail in the form of a sequel. I absolutely loved reading Ashes of America, and I believe many other readers will as well; and hopefully, in time, we’ll come back to the world of Frank Rye, a world that seems to be ripe for further exploration.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews