By Adam Selby-Martin
This review was previously posted on the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviewer on 25 January 2018
I’ve long maintained that perhaps the most important part of selling an alternate history novel – or indeed any piece of writing – to a reader is the quality of the cover art. There are literally tens of thousands of novels, novellas and short stories that are listed in Alternate History genre on Amazon, and the only way that the average reader – or even someone like myself who has a passion about the genre – is going to be able to pick up a story and want to actually read it is if the cover catches their eye. There are a few ways to do this – all of the titles published by Sea Lion Press, for example, have the distinctive art style produced by Jack Tindale, that are both stylish and consistent, demonstrating that they are from the same publisher; and even if an author doesn’t have the funds to pay for a professional cover design, good quality ones can still be produced by authors who actually take the time to work on them, such as the cover art for Marc Hywel Jones’ Fireflies of Port Stanley.
Make sure your title has a noticeable cover, and readers will find that it immediately stands out from the rest of the stories as they scroll down page after page of Amazon results. Such was the case for Red Delta: A Novel of Alternate History by Mark Ciccone.
The cover image for Red Delta, by Donna Canavan, is professional, well-composed and above all eye-catching: the initial imagery of Vietnam-era Huey Bell helicopters and soldiers drew me in, and the unfamiliar Confederate-style insignia on the soldier in the foreground, and on the helicopter fuselages, intrigued me enough to read the summary and then purchase a copy. And I’m very glad I did, because I think this is one of the finest and most imaginative pieces of counter-factual fiction that I have read in some time.
The victory of the Confederate States of America (CSA) over the United States in the American Civil War is one of the most common scenarios in alternate history fiction, generating millions upon millions of words by both indie and professional authors. I’ve enjoyed a few such novels, from Harry Turtledove’s seminal The Guns of the South and his titanic Southern Victory series, to other classics such as Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore or the Gettysburg duology by Gingrich, Forstchen and Hanser. All of these titles have different takes on why and how the CSA is able to achieve victory, but seem to treat the CSA itself as a monolithic bloc, a single country that would be destined to stay together in the aftermath of such a momentous victory, despite the inherent tensions between the different States that formed the Confederacy. If these tensions are addressed at all, it is simply as rumours of further secession that come to nothing, such as in The Guns of the South, or guerrilla warfare-style rebellions by slaves and sympathisers that achieve relatively little.
There seem to be very few titles, if any, that instead tend towards the deeply intriguing scenario that Mr Ciccione portrays. In Red Delta, although the Confederacy is victorious in battle, post-war economic problems, not to mention the attempts to impose a centralised government on the rebel States, soon lead to a permanent fracturing of the Confederacy into a handful of polarised countries, as often bitter and bloody rivals as they are allies. By the early 1970s, the setting for Red Delta, the South is a mess of Balkanised countries barely able to fend off the Brotherhood Liberation Army (BLA), an increasingly powerful and politically radicalised black militia, let alone the political intriguing of the United States.
After an opening chapter that concisely lays out the causes of Confederate victory, and some of the seeds of its future dismemberment, the rest of the novel takes place in 1973 in and around the city of Jackson, capital of the Republic of Missouri and very much the frontline of the struggle against the BLA. Terry Garrison, a young reporter for the Nation newspaper – in this reality a struggling, left-wing paper – has arrived in Jackson with other reporters to attend what promises to be a peace conference between the Southern nations and the BLA that will bring lasting peace to the region.
As Garrison travels to the venue of the peace conference, the author deftly portrays the feeling of a city whose population has been in wartime conditions for many, many years, and also gives us an insight into what a post-victory Confederacy might look like after it had been reduced fighting an insurgency for what is essentially its entire lifespan. Indeed, as the novel progresses and Garrison inadvertently becomes enmeshed in a political conspiracy that threatens to permanently destroy the entire peace process, one of Red Delta’s greatest attributes is the atmosphere and background detail that Mr Ciccione has put into Jackson, Missouri and the rest of the fractured South; the author has obviously put a great deal of thought into what such a region would look like a century on, and as a result the political, social and cultural elements shine through, and throw up a host of intriguing nuggets that are positively screaming out to be explored in a sequel.
These elements help to flesh out the setting of the novel, but would be little without effective characterisation, plot and writing – and fortunately Red Delta has all three in spades. The plot rattles along nicely, each scene adding something to the plot, and although the characters sometimes fall into broad stereotypes – the amateur reporter in above his head, the grizzled veteran reporter, the conscientious soldier – they are well-written and sufficiently fleshed out to avoid being two-dimensional. Although there are a few times where the ‘Former CSA as Vietnam’ scenario is perhaps a little too obvious – down to the names of some of the supporting characters, and particularly a certain secondary antagonist who perpetrated a war crime – it never becomes overwhelming as the overarching setting is sufficiently realised, and an alternate-Vietnam War scenario does fit nicely into it.
Mr Ciccione has published other alternate history titles – at time of writing a trio of novellas set in the United States and South America, which I will be reviewing soon – and if the quality of writing and plotting is as high as found in Red Delta (and I have no doubt that it is), I believe that we are witnessing the rise of a distinctive and imaginative new author in the Alternate History genre.
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