By Adam Selby-Martin
There are some scenarios in the Alternate History genre that have been done to death; indeed, more than done to death. They have been flayed apart, their vital essences sucked out, any even vaguely original idea ruthlessly extracted from them for use as story fodder. All that remains of these scenarios after this process is a barely-recognisable husk, one that simply begs to be buried beneath the earth rather than further tortured into something approximating life. And yet, like a necromancer's favourite plaything, they are resurrected time and time again by genre authors because they are seductively easy to write despite there being no original takes left; only stale and unadventurous stories that leave little to no impression on the reader after they have finished the final page, should they manage to make it that far.
What are these cursed and damned situations that refuse to die? The first can only be 'Victorious Dixie' where the slave-holding Confederate States of America triumph over the United States of America during the American Civil War. Millions of words have been shed over that counterfactual, many as futilely as those who died defending that racist institution, and it seems incredibly unlikely that anything new or entertaining can be wrought from the Grey versus the Blue. Exactly the same can be said for its European companion, 'Third Reich Triumphant', countless alternate timelines where the Swastika flies over tired and overwrought timelines, their author’s imaginations as dead and lifeless as anyone daring to take up arms against the Nazi regime.
If there is one thing that could reinvigorate these rotten frameworks, then surely it would be to call a moratorium on them: assemble the venerable council of Alternate Historians and send out a call that Nazi Germany and the CSA were not to be written about for a period of at least ten years. I imagine that would be the bare minimum amount of time needed to allow these scenarios to rest and eventually have fresh life breathed into them, and imaginative new short stories and novels produced as a result.
Unfortunately that seems deeply unlikely to occur, the lure of jackboots and the Stars and Bars too strong for so many authors. The next best thing, therefore, must surely be to discover an author who has been able to look at these decrepit stalwarts and use them as inspiration, rather than as a template to trace over with increasingly broad and careless strokes. I genuinely didn't think that was possible, but then I came across author Tom Brook, and his first novel, the intriguingly-titled Prison of Peoples. Within its pages Brook presents us with a Europe unified under an ascendant Germany; but rather than the coal-scuttle helmets of the Wehrmacht being responsible for this domination, it is instead the spiked-top pickelhaubs of Kaiser Wilhelm II's armed forces.
Both the back-cover blurb and the cover art caught my eye as I scrolled through the (sadly much attenuated) Kindle listings for the Alternate History genre. Prison of Peoples has perhaps the best piece of cover art I've come across in the genre with the sole exception of those titles released by Sea Lion Press. Composed of stark, monochrome shadow portraits of two men facing away from each other, their heads overlapping, shadow-drenched mountains rising up behind them in the background, the art both instantly highlighted the subdued and tense atmosphere to be found in the book, and also ensured it stood out to me as a reader. The cover blurb only enhanced my interest - deftly painting a portrait of a world set two decades after the Great War ended in an Imperial German victory; a retrenched British Empire, shadowy conspiracies in central Europe, mysteries and schemes stretching across the continent. It sounded both hugely ambitious and refreshingly original, and I couldn't wait to dive inside and see what it could deliver.
It didn't take me long to realise how accomplished a writer Brook is - the opening chapter of the book alone, set in the port of Trieste on the Adriatic coast, is far more engaging, atmospheric and well-written than most counterfactual titles I’ve come across. Brook really has a knack for descriptive prose, bringing the port and its environment to life in only a few short paragraphs, and he also combines that with some subtle but effective character-building as he introduces the first of several viewpoint characters in the novel. You can often tell within the first few pages whether a book is going to make you want to stick around, but with Prison of Peoples it only took me a few paragraphs to decide I was going to read the whole thing.
We begin the story in Trieste, and it isn't long before we see the first hints of how this timeline differs thanks to German victory during the Great War. Trieste and Vienna are still cities of great importance, not dulled and fractured by wartime loss, and there are discussions of fraught international relationships - some kind of demilitarized zone between Austria-Hungary and Italy, and difficulties in the Ukraine that seem likely to lead to an overreaction from the authorities in Berlin before too long. It's all quite vague at first, but it's delightfully engrossing all the same, and it was fantastic to see a German-dominated Europe described where everything wasn't just doused in Wehrmacht feldgrau and the blood-red Swastika, but instead carved up between colourful, competing empires that managed to survive the conflict intact, unlike in our reality. Multiple nations competing against each other, diplomatically, militarily and even culturally, will always be more fascinating than a single, dominating power.
Our first viewpoint character, Joseph, is a former soldier of the Austro-Hungarian empire, now retired in a luxurious but ceremonial trade post in Trieste. When he's visited by his old commanding officer, he's suddenly thrust into a political and diplomatic morass in the demitarized zone between his country and Italy, where tensions are sky-high and threatening to lead to another conflict breaking out. His story is then paralleled by several others in alternating chapters, joined by those of an exiled Russian aristocrat living in London; the Personal Private Secretary of the British Prime Minister; and a woman living with her family in Bulgaria.
Having so many varied characters with their own trajectories and conflicts could have been a recipe for disaster in the hands of some writers; even famous authors in the Alternate History genre have suffered from characters blurring together and becoming indistinct and easy to forget after just a few chapters. But fortunately Brook is more than up to the task - even more impressive given that this is his first novel – and each character stands out as well-realised and three-dimensional. They’re not just names on a page used to advance the plot, and there are no occurrences of that bugbear in the genre, the dreaded infodump. Fortunately Brook never succumbs to the temptation to tell, rather than show; instead, the world is allowed to evolve organically as we are lead through the chapters, more and more clues being carefully doled out to both show how the German victory came about, and the ramifications of that triumph to the entire continent.
Of all of the cast of characters in the novel, it's the character of Joseph, the Slovenian ex-soldier, that resonated with me the most; an old man who is no longer able to summon up the passions and the hatred that he had twenty years ago, simply haunted by his wartime experiences and the righteous, bloody slaughter as the victorious Austro-Hungarian forces swept through the Italian lines and into Venice at the end of the conflict. Brook really gets into the mindset of Joseph, and by extension the entire Austro-Hungarian war experience. The conflicted nature of fighting in the Austro-Hungarian army, the military of an artificial formation, formed up of a polyglot of soldiers from wildly different nations fighting for themselves, and not for some abstract empire. It's hugely effective, and there's some highly emphatic writing produced by Brook to give voice to Joseph's bitter reminiscences.
That focus on the character of Joseph, and the contradictory nature of Austro-Hungary, is perhaps the most important, and original, feature of Prison of Peoples. Rather than focusing on the well-known combatants, Brook instead provides is a desperately-needed focus on lesser-known participants in the Great War, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Take Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria, for instance; they contributed millions of soldiers to the conflict, were the focus of some of the hardest fighting to be seen in the war years, and yet the knowledge about them in the West is surely severely lacking. I'm not afraid to admit that my own knowledge was tested, and found greatly wanting, when I started reading Prison of Peoples; it took a great deal of internet and book-based research before I was more comfortable in my understanding of the overarching plot and its actors. That it forced me to go beyond my own biases and learn more about a neglected element of 20th Century history is another point in favour of the author's excellent writing and world-building.
A deft eye for descriptive prose, and strong, three-dimensional characters are key elements of any piece of writing, but they must be joined by a strong plot that drives itself forwards, and doesn't just meander and disappoint the reader. I don't want to spoil the whole plot of the novel, particularly the revelations that occur in the last few chapters, but suffice to say it's an intriguing and multi-faceted one. An old soldier haunted by his past, a foolish and indiscreet senior civil servant, a Russian emigre, and a young woman in Bulgaria - their stories together draw you into this familiar yet fundamentally different world as war once again threatens to engulf all of Europe. For those who have a real interest in history, there are some real gems in the alternate history depicted (such as the Mitteleuropa system), but even for those with a more general interest, Brook makes it obvious how things have changed in the two decades since Germany triumphed. It's a fascinating and multi-faceted world that's been created, with a huge amount of potential to be explored.
There are a few minor flaws to be found in the book. The writing style and punctuation can take a little time to get used to, and the characterisation of the relationship between Neville, the Permanent Private Secretary, and the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, is rather too casual in nature. But these are, as I said, very minor details that are more than compensated for by the originality and passion found in the rest of the novel. For in Prison of Peoples we have an earnest attempt to break free of the turgid and stifling confines of the dominating scenarios of the Alternate History genre, and for that alone the author should be widely celebrated.
Fortunately Prison of Peoples is also a supremely confident and highly accomplished piece of counterfactual fiction, one that readily brings Mr Brook's obvious skills as a writer into play. Brilliant prose, wonderfully descriptive language and a setting drenched in atmosphere is interlinked with world-building that has obviously benefited from a significant amount of research and considered thought. It all comes together to propel forward an ambitious, character-driven plot that stretches across decades and an entire continent. Prison of Peoples is one of the best Alternate History novels to be published in the past few years, and I dearly wish we had more like it in the genre. I genuinely cannot wait for the sequel, and am deeply intrigued to see where Mr Brook takes the series next.
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