Review by Adam Selby Martin
The Alternate History genre is littered with tropes, but two of the greatest are a triumphant Confederate States of America during the American Civil War; and a victorious Third Reich during the Second World War. The genre is filled with novels, novellas and short stories set in universes founded on those tropes, and many of them tend to blur together in terms of quality, writing styles and particularly in regards to an increasing lack of originality. As such, I always find it worth celebrating and highlighting any works I find that are set in one of those timelines, and which feature a fresh and innovative take on it. For the ‘triumphant Confederacy’ that work was Mark Ciccone’s Red Delta, and for the ‘victorious Third Reich’ it’s the subject of this latest review – Reich of Renegades by Mark Lynch.
I must start the review with a confession: when I first came across Reich of Renegades a few months ago, while browsing through the list of Alternate History genre titles on the Kindle, I almost immediately dismissed it and went onto the next entry in that never-ending list. Why? Because the cover is actually quite bland and unattractive: the main element of the cover is some kind of stock imagery of a war-torn city, all ruined buildings and shattered walls, blended with a weird green hue that made me think of some kind of generic, post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. Combined with cover text that seems to be slightly squashed-up and generally ill-fitting, and the stereotypical Reichsadler (the eagle clutching the swastika) used in place of the ‘o’ in ‘of’, it did nothing to draw me in, in order to read the cover blurb or even download a sample chapter. So I passed it by and didn’t give it another thought, having mentally dismissed it from the chance of a read and review.
But I’m reviewing it now, so how did I come back to it? Well, in fact it was by continuing my attempt to sift through the entire indie Alternate History genre on the Kindle and uncovering the diamonds in the sea of general mediocrity. I eventually came across another novel by Mark Lynch – the brilliant The War of Zero Sum, the first book in an Alternate History trilogy looking at an Ireland divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. It had a fantastic piece of cover art (by the same cover artist, confusingly, who designed the cover for Reich of Renegades) that immediately drew me in and got me reading. As I was reading, I noticed in the Related Titles page that Reich of Renegades was by the same author, and on the merit of The War of Zero Sum decided to give it another go, starting with the cover blurb and a sample chapter. It’s fortunate that I did, because as soon as I started reading, I found that Mr Lynch had managed what I thought had been all but impossible – taking an incredibly stale and clichéd part of the genre and bringing it to life again by focusing on an angle that, I believe, hasn’t actually been focused on before.
The background to Reich of Renegades is one that’s been portrayed a thousand times before: a doomed stand at Dunkirk, the British Expeditionary Force missing, dead or captured, armistice and negotiated peace by a government headed by arch-appeaser Prime Minister Halifax. Turning to the east, a Reich undistracted by Britain is able to swiftly invade the USSR and conduct a far more successful Operation Barbarossa, resulting in a Greater German Reich that stretches from the Channel to the Urals. So far, so clichéd. But these events are merely the distant background to the plot of Reich of Renegades, which instead focuses on the duo of John and Andrew Preston, two brothers serving in the Palestine Police Force in 1946 and doing their best to maintain the grip on the territory which becomes more tenuous with every passing day as the British Empire swiftly crumbles to pieces in the aftermath of defeat. John is a war-weary veteran of Dunkirk and then various campaigns to try and maintain Empire, and is disillusioned with life; Andrew is also a veteran, though he never saw action, and is an avid fascist and pre-war member of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists who hero-worships Hitler and the Nazi Party. After a vicious bombing campaign in Palestine (modelled after the real-life bombing of the King David hotel) that leads to personal tragedy, both brothers return to a Britain crippled both economically and in terms of national morale.
However, unknown to John, his brother’s obsession with the Third Reich and its ‘superior’ way of life leads to him volunteering his family for the Nazi Generalplan Ost settlers programme, where volunteers of sufficiently Aryan stock are provided with land and Russian slave-workers in the huge swathes of territory that used to be the USSR. At first feted by the Nazi authorities as they make their way across occupied Europe, the grim, harsh realities of an entire continent controlled by the Third Reich start to make themselves apparent to the family; and by the time they arrive in the east it has become incredibly obvious that there is no ‘promised land’ for them, and they are in fact in a great deal of danger.
The first thing to highlight is how inspired this scenario is for a piece of alternate history fiction – by focusing on the realities of the lesser-known Generalplan Ost and the proposed fortified settler farms to be set up in the event of a Nazi victory, Mr Lynch simultaneously avoids the majority of the clichés and tropes associated with the ‘victorious Third Reich’ scenario, while using that scenario as the basis for a fascinating and extremely well-researched novel. The small settlements that were set up by the Nazis in our reality, before events on the Eastern Front turned against them and forced their evacuation, have been well-documented, including accounts of the incredibly harsh life that the initial settlers found themselves undertaking; but they are sufficiently obscure that a story set in that area would still be able to hold surprises for your average reader. The author has obviously done his research, both on the actual settlements, and the Nazi proposals for their expansion, and that research shines through the entire book, particularly in the later chapters; it becomes very easy to envisage the nightmarish, dystopian scenario that Lynch depicts the Preston family having to deal with on a daily basis. In fact, one of the sections in the book that still stands out to me, weeks after reading it, is the train journey from Berlin to the eastern territories, and the increasingly depressing sights that the Preston’s see as they travel through Nazi-dominated Europe.
The book is very well researched, and that research integrated seamlessly into the title without ever descending into ‘infodumps’ or anything else that might pull the reader out of the book, and the writing is of a similar very high quality. The Preston family are well-written and fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters that all seem to have their own lives, motivations and thoughts. I particularly enjoyed how the author portrayed Andrew Preston and the relationship with his wife, Yvonne; already a fractious, abusive relationship even before the novel begins, the author does an excellent job of vividly charting their marriage breaking down even further, as Yvonne begins to stand up to her husband, and Andrew slowly realises that he is not the hardy Aryan adventurer that he believed he would become once in the east.
Reich of Renegades is a masterful piece of counter-factual fiction, taking an alternate history scenario that has been done to death and breathing fresh life into it through a variety of clever means. Mr Lynch is an excellent writer, with a keen eye for detail and characterisation, and I look forward to reading more of the titles that he has published; and I strongly urge anyone reading this review to do the same.
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