By Adam Selby-Martin
I’ve found that, as a reviewer of Alternate History titles, the books and anthologies that I review tend to fall into three distinct categories.
The first are those titles that I immediately put on my TBR (To Be Read) list, primarily due either to the author being known to me from a previous book, or the high quality and eye-catching nature of the cover art.
The second are those that I know I’ll immediately be avoiding – usually these are No. X in a long-running series based on the Cold War Turns Hot or time-travelling scenario, and I’ve seen from excerpts that the quality and imagination just isn’t what I’m looking for in AH fiction.
The third category is the most difficult to explain, and also the largest by far – books that I’m on the fence about. These are usually books that don’t have much in the way of cover art – using stock images, perhaps, accompanied by generic font – or have vague and potentially confusing back-cover blurb that don’t quite bring to the forefront just what the nature of the Alternate History is in this title.
Defying Conventions by Joseph Knowles was in that third category, and having just finished it, I can categorically state that this is a classic example of not judging a book by its cover. The cover art is a stock image of parchment and a feather pen, and the back-cover blurb is slightly intriguing, but too vague in my opinion about the difference between our timeline, and the timeline represented in the novel. That being said, I am always happy to read Alternate History that focuses on lesser-known or obscure Points of Divergence (PoDs), and Defying Conventions certainly presents that: what if the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in the fledgling United States of America, had been plagued by espionage and murder, and the potential for a very different Constitution, and the development of the embryonic US government?
Our viewpoint for this intriguing scenario is Camden Page, a young man who travels from the Virginian countryside to become the Apprentice to distinguished attorney Joseph Randolph, a friend of his family and the man who pledged to watch over Camden after the death of his parents at a very young age. He meets Randolph at a crucial time in American legal and Constitutional history – in only a few weeks, delegates from across the American states will gather in Independence Hall in Philadelphia to discuss amending the Articles of Confederation.
After an accident in which the chosen delegate is near-killed by a horse and carriage accident, a replacement delegate is required, and Camden and his mentor Randolph become involved in both the choice of the new delegate, and also the wider issues of Constitutional development. It’s a deeply interesting scenario, and Camden is the ideal surrogate for the reader in entering what is a series complex and multi-faceted legal and social arguments; he learns at the same time as the reader, allowing Knowles to unleash his impressive knowledge of the Constitutional Convention, and the personalities involved in its debates.
The plot is well-written and evenly paced, and even the detailed arguments around the opposing theories of governance – centralisation of power versus diffusion of power to the States – are presented in an engaging way that never comes across as polemical or as unreadable blocks of text – the ‘Wikipedia copy and paste’ form of writing historical background. I genuinely learnt a great deal about the Convention, the Constitution and the key power players at the time, to the extent that I’m looking for non-fiction books about this remarkable period of history. There are also keen observations on how close wartime comrades, such as George Washington and James Monroe, could become distant due to the politics involved in the Convention, something that I would wager readers would not have considered given the general narrative of the unity of the American rebels during the War of Independence.
So there’s a good plot leavened by Knowles knowledge of the situation in the United States at the time, but it wouldn’t be the first genre novel to fall at the hurdle of not having any decent or engaging character. Fortunately, once again that isn’t the case. Camden is a sympathetic protagonist, both in his growing knowledge about the Convention and his attraction to his mentor’s niece Georgiana, which complicates his time at the Convention and his journeys around Virginia. A romance blossoms, and while that type of plot has never been my favourite, the fact that Georgiana was a strong and three-dimensional character helped make it bearable. There are also some interesting appearances from famous and semi-famous figures from the War of Independence, allowing Knowles to demonstrate just how small and relatively insular American high society was in the period, and how an attorney’s apprentice might plausibly mingle with war heroes and politicians.
Despite its rather plain exterior, anyone picking up Defying Conventions will find themselves reading an engagingly-written and deftly-plotted portrait of a nation recovering from revolution and at the crossroads of governance, while plagued by murder, plotting and treachery that threatens to change the course of history, with an ending that is both decisive and yet appropriately understated. It’s unclear whether there will be a sequel to Defying Conventions, and yet if there is I will be the very first person in the line to purchase it from Mr Knowles.
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