By Adam Selby-Martin
In the parlance of the Alternate History genre, an ISOT scenario (named after the first novel to use the concept, S.M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time) is one that features an area of the Earth that is suddenly dislocated in time and sent to another period of world history, usually in the past. Everything inside the 'bubble' remains the same, but the world outside the area that has been dislocated is now that of the time period they have arrived in. It's a complex scenario to pull off, but a number of alternate history series have been successfully based on it.
To begin with there's Stirling's ISOT trilogy, and Eric Flint's 1634 novel, which has been spun into its own long-running series; and of course there's Dislocated to Success and Towards the Glittering Sunset from Sea Lion Press, the first two novels in a series by Iain Bowen that deals with the consequences of the Britain of 1980 being sent back to 1730. But I've never quite seen an angle on the ISOT scenario such as the one taken by Dale Cozort. An alien race decides to use incredibly-advanced technology to take ‘Snapshots’ of certain geographical areas, at certain times in history, isolating them from the rest of that place’s natural timeline. Furthermore, they don’t just isolate them (as per other ISOT scenarios), they instead ‘stitch’ them together with other Snapshots; this means that, even if the inhabitants of a Snapshot were able to break through the Wall around them, they would only find another world and another timeline, equally alien to them as they are to the inhabitants of the other side. It’s a unique and hugely imaginative concept, with near-unlimited potential, and I couldn’t wait to see what Stalingrad Run would do with it.
In the world of Stalingrad Run, one such Snapshot suddenly occurs on the morning of November 6th, 1942. An impenetrable wall suddenly springs into place, encompassing a rough circle that encloses the UK, mainland Europe as far as Stalingrad, and parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The immediate effects are devastating - ships are cut in half and sink, submarines crumple into ruin, planes exploding on impact. But the longer-term implications are far worse, and cunningly so - because Cozort has carefully chosen a period where Nazi Germany was still dominant. There are relatively few American forces in the encompassed area, as most were in the Pacific Theatre or being trained in the USA; and although the UK is within the Wall, it has been cut off from the Empire's resources. Even the USSR is devoid of many of its natural resources and manpower. Only the Third Reich stands to do well, having all of mainland continental Europe under its control. The outlook is therefore bleak for the overstretched and under-resourced Allies.
The primary protagonist in the novel is Captain Jim Bridger, a US Army Engineer who, at the time of the Snapshot, is leading a convoy into Soviet-occupied Northern Iran. Cut off from the rest of his men, Bridger accidentally becomes involved with a mysterious female sniper who appears to be gunning for Stalin; the murderous NKVD agent hunting the sniper; and a strange man who only answers to Loki, the Norse trickster god. Within minutes of the Snapshot occurring, Bridger’s life is turned upside down as he is forced to flee through the occupied Soviet Union and eventually into the heart of Nazi Germany in an attempt to reach safety. Cozort deftly blends in all the elements of a classic thriller with the chaos of the Snapshot, and it’s hard not to feel sympathetic for Bridger when his world continually foes from bad to worse. There are some pulse-raising action scenes, especially as Bridger and his companions weave their way through the anarchy of the Soviet-German front-lines, and also a keen sense of mystery as it slowly becomes obvious that Bridger is not quite what he appears. The plot even becomes strangely surreal, as Bridger is pursued across the continent, dogged by people with strange abilities and confusing motives, as well as hiding his own unique nature. As Bridger is hunted across occupied Europe, his distant cousin Colonel Tillman, a logistics officer in the US Army, becomes embroiled in the Allied attempts to understand the Wall and later their attempts to breach it. These chapters, which are interwoven with Bridgers’, allow Cozort to introduce the baffling and often bizarre qualities of the Wall, and the strange universe which appears to be on the other side. There’s a nice logical progression in how the Allies deal with the Wall, beginning with the blatant (shoot it, bomb it, ram ships into it) and trailing off into more logical and less destructive methods, such as reconnaissance flights and scientific investigation. These chapters also allow Cozort to show Allied relationships begin to fray and the lack of resources begin to bite, as well as throwing in wild cards in the form of Kim Philby (known to readers as a Soviet spy but not to Tillman) and Tillman’s estranged wife.
It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that there is a huge amount going on within the multiple plots of Stalingrad Run (the above descriptions don’t even begin to go into the nature of Bridger’s companions; or the nature of the society on the other side of the Wall) and it is to Cozort’s credit that he keeps the plots both engaging and relevant, without any of them becoming overwhelming or feel like padding. There are no wasted paragraphs or pages, and no subplots that just fizzle out into irrelevancy, just a fast-paced overarching plot that keeps you hooked until the last page. Coupled with three-dimensional characters, excellent writing quality and some deeply impressive world-building (especially in regards to the Wall and its properties), Stalingrad Run is a truly impressive feat. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say it’s a unique achievement, and I genuinely can’t wait to see where the next novel in the series takes the plot.
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