Review by Adam Selby-Martin
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of his works that I consider author Mark Ciccone to be one of the leading lights in the current generation of authors writing in the alternate history genre. I’ve found the quality of his writing to be consistently high, and the imagination shown in the scenarios he constructs for his works to be top-notch.
Perhaps most significantly, however, Mr Ciccone has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to find the correct balance between the often granular details needed to bring an alternate history scenario to life, and the pacing, characterisation and plot development needed to create an enjoyable piece of fiction. His stories always bring in enough details about the alternate reality he has developed to make them seem realistic and lived-in, but he also blends that with uniform pacing, three-dimensional characterisation, and interesting plots to hit that sweet spot of good alternate history that so many authors in the genre miss. I’ve never found any of his novels or novellas to be a grind to get through, and they usually avoid the sort of ‘As you know, Bob’ info-dumping that so many alternate history stories resort to in order to demonstrate why their universes are different to our reality.
In light of the above, I’ve been determined to read and review every title that Mr Ciccone has currently published, and the next in line is Obsidian and Steel: A Novella of Alternate History. I was particularly anticipating reading this novella, because as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of alternate history titles, there really is a distinct lack of stories set prior to the 19th Century, and also ones that don’t take place within Western Europe or the United States of America. So to find out that one of the author’s title was set in the Aztec Empire during the early 16th Century was fantastic news, and as a bonus there was more excellent cover art. Artist Ryan Anderson has delivered a professional cover illustration, expertly blending together stock images and thematic font choices to make an attractive and colourful cover that stands out amongst the detritus of the alternate history genre listings on the Kindle.
As with all of the best alternate history stories, the Point of Divergence (PoD) that Ciccone selected for Obsidian and Steel is simple, but rapidly leads to wide-ranging and exquisitely chaotic consequences. Ciccone poses the deceptively simple question of what might have happened if one of the expeditions led by Hernan Cortes to conquer the Aztec Empire had actually ended in failure, rather than the astonishing level of success the Conquistador actually achieved in our reality.
Ciccone makes his changes at the point of one of Cortes’ most famous victories, the Battle of the Tlacopan Causeway. In this reality, instead of narrowly achieving victory, Cortes and his men, along with their native allies, are heavily defeated. The Aztec’s begin executing those who survived in a bloody ritual, but just after Cortes himself is sacrificed, the Aztec Emperor Cuauhtemoc becomes curious at the reaction of those few Spaniards left alive – they seem to only truly lose heart when their leader dies on the altar. Stopping the sacrifices, he presents the survivors with an offer – death on the altar, or be put to work with their tools and skills to improve the weapons and knowledge of the Aztec. It’s hardly any choice at all, and with their sullen acceptance, the course of history is changed irrevocably.
It’s a hell of a way to start a story, pregnant with potential, and I also enjoyed that Ciccone didn’t take the easy path and use Cortes as the main character, saved from execution at the last moment; I can’t see Cortes as being someone who would have cooperated with Cuauhtemoc no matter how desperate the situation he was in. After this prologue, Ciccone moves the story forward more than a decade and focuses on the arrival of Francisco Pizarro, another Conquistador who arrives in Spanish Cuba to investigate the disappearance of Cortes and his expedition, as well as troubling rumours that white men have been seen assisting the Aztecs, who have also demonstrated the use of weapons and skills that were unknown to them before Cortes arrived.
There’s some good character development here, with Ciccone deftly sketching out Pizarro as an experienced soldier who is, nonetheless, completely inexperienced with the Aztecs and the region in general. We also get some intriguing glimpses into the politicking and diplomacy that are rife within any Empire, especially one trying to aggressively expand into a new continent, and there are hints that Pizarro has a great deal riding on the success of his own, smaller, expedition finding out what happened to Cortes. He’s joined by a small cast of central characters, including his brother, a fellow soldier; a particularly fanatical priest who nicely demonstrates the dual-nature of Church and State in the Spanish Empire; and a quiet, mysterious Mexica native who has some kind of connection with Cortes and his expedition. The narrative pace is brisk and efficient, Ciccone doing his usual stellar job of marshalling together characters and plot and moving the overarching plot forward at a nicely even speed.
As Pizarro and his expedition move forward into hostile, unknown territory, Ciccone begins to deftly parcel out little details of how this alternate reality has changed. The Aztecs now have far superior armour and weapons, including firearms that are of the same quality as those the Spaniards carry, and they also demonstrate European infantry tactics which they have blended with their own practices to create something unique. The author obviously did quite a bit of research before writing this novella, because authenticity really shines through, particularly when Pizarro and his companions eventually encounter the Aztecs in force, and are taken to see the glories of their capital, Tenochtitlan. Ciccone really effectively demonstrates just how Aztec society has been affected by their co-opting of the Cortes survivors and their skills and knowledge; but also, just as importantly, how much more advanced the Aztecs were even before the change in history. There’s a sobering moment about half-way through the novella when Pizarro witnesses the size, scale and development of Tenochtitlan, and it’s an effective lesson on how native societies were nowhere near as ‘backwards’ as European colonialists and imperialists believed.
Ciccone has not restrained himself here, and his PoD has led to intense, macro-historical changes as well as smaller ones. Although I don’t want to spoil everything that happens in the novella, it becomes apparent that the Aztecs have rapidly and ruthlessly adopted European ways of operating – using their newly-armed and armoured military to crush their opponents and enforce a policy of putting puppet rulers in place to subjugate their former rivals in the region. This has been hugely successful, allowing the Aztecs to advance far further than they had historically, but has come at the price of internal dissension and division; Pizarro rapidly becomes enmeshed in a clash between Cuauhtemoc and his senior advisors that will determine the fate of much of South America.
The novella ends on a real cliff-hanger in terms of long-term plot advancement, with a number of events taking place that threaten to overturn the established order across much of the continent; it’s crystal-clear that on only a few centuries, the Americas will look radically and fundamentally different than they do to us in our reality. I’d love to see a new novel or novella set in the same world, moved forward to present day, in order to see how all of these changes actually play out and what happens as a result. Ciccone has done it once again – Obsidian and Steel is another masterpiece of alternate history writing that avoids all of the tropes and clichés of the genre, and delivers a fresh, imaginative and wide-ranging counterfactual tale of the kind that is needed to stop the genre from becoming completely stale.
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