Review by Adam Selby-Martin
Although there's a preponderance of military history-orientated alternate history on the market, relatively few of them that I've come across are focused on aerial warfare, except as a general part of a wider conflict. So it was therefore something of a surprise when I was wading through the detritus of the alternate history genre listings on the Kindle, and suddenly came across The Battle Over Britain by Simon Brading.
As always, it was the cover that caught my eye - this time, it was a simple yet very professional piece of art that mimicked the look of various official RAF histories I've come across in my studies. A Burgundy and Navy Blue background is transfixed with what looks like the badge and motto of a Royal Air Force squadron; only on closer inspection do you realise that it'd actually the Royal Air Corps, a subtle but distinctive difference.
That difference is carried on over in the back cover blurb. Once again, a casual browse would notice the broad brush strokes of a plot - the British air force guarding the skies of Southern England in the aftermath of the British Expeditionary Force being forced off of the Continent by German forces that now threaten to invade the country by crossing the Channel. Once again, a second read is needed to see some subtle differences - why is it the Kingdom of Britain? And did that say that it was the Prussian armies of the Kaiser that are massing to launch an invasion?
I had no idea what was going on, but the author had done an excellent job with cover art and cover blurb to the extent that I decided to take a calculated risk and download the book and give it a try. After reading the first few pages of the novel, I was sufficiently impressed that I came to the conclusion that downloading The Battle Over Britain hadn't been a risk at all. It’s actually very well-written, with a minimum of typos and generally effective copy-editing, and there’s some fantastic descriptive language used by Brading, particularly in terms of technical language around aircraft, and the experience of flying.
The latter especially felt very authentic, at least to a layperson such as myself, and seemed to give a very good account of what it would be like to fly an aircraft, especially a propeller fighter. One of my favourite parts of The Battle Over Britain was how the author doesn’t begin by overloading the reader with an introduction to the altered reality found in the book, or highlighting too many differences at once; instead they’re allowed to evolve and emerge organically, beginning with the fact that the main character is a female pilot for the Royal Air Corps, and moving into notions of springs replacing aviation fuel, magnification lenses in pilot goggles, and references to coal-powered aircraft. It’s very pulpy in nature, but that’s never necessarily a bad thing, and Brading handles it in an extremely deft manner.
Although the notion of the pilot who refuses to play by the ball and obey all of the regulations is a venerable old trope, it's still an effective one in the right hands, and Brading develops his protagonist well, demonstrating her obvious skill as a pilot, both in the dogfight at the start of the novel, and also in the unorthodox manner in which she modifies her fighter to give her a better chance against the Prussian fighters who ambushed her flight. I enjoyed the idea of Gwen Stone actually making changes to the airframe of her aircraft, as it's something of an original take on the trope, and gives her an obvious narrative arc; as the Prussian Empire renews its aerial assault on the battered defenders of the Kingdom of Britain and casualties mount, she finds herself exiled to the titular Misfit Squadron, full of ace pilots and geniuses who also just happen to refuse to obey the RAC rulebook.
The author doesn't just pay lip-service to the nature of Misfit Squadron and concentrate solely on the aerial adventures and dogfights that the squadron gets embroiled in. The cast of characters that make up the fliers and their support staff are impressively well-rounded and fleshed out, even those who only appear once or twice, and he deftly evokes the atmosphere of a different squadron with unusual qualities and different ways of taking the fight to the Prussians. Just as impressive is the fact that we often see the characters - especially Gwen - become deeply engaged with the design, modification and repair of their unique aircraft. There are scenes where pilots spend hours at drafting boards, coming up with detailed schematics for their aircraft, and Brading achieves the almost-impossible by actually making these scenes both a) organic and b) engaging to the reader by investing them with the pilot's emotions, and avoiding all but the barest of jargon and technical details.
There's some fantastic detail and world-building in this element of the novel, and although the idea of spring-powered aircraft might seem slightly ridiculous, Brading supplies more than enough grounded detail to make it seem entirely realistic and even feasible. An element of confidence shines through, here, and the author's background as a pilot is readily evident, as is his passion. Also, all due credit to Brading for deciding to have the aircraft in the novel be powered by springs, rather than be Author No. 4, 578 (and counting) to decide that steam-power (and therefore steampunk) is the way to go. Instead he cleverly avoids the clichés of that particular subgenre, and devises something that I don't think I've ever actually come across before, or at least not in the context of aircraft.
Some of the changes that Brading makes in creating his alternate history version of the United Kingdom are a little obvious - the Prussian MU9 fighter is obviously the real-life Luftwaffe Messerschmitt bf 109, to take just one example - but he demonstrates enough imagination, and confidence in his own world-building, that it comes across as enjoyable pulpy rather than the sort of lazy copy-and-paste job that you come across in the alternate history and fantasy genres at times. Plus there's the undeniable fact that much of the parallel technology that he introduces in the novel are genuinely interesting to see function; they might serve exactly the same purpose as fuel tanks in our universe, but I won't deny that I got a frisson of thrill from the tension - pun intended - Brading introduces from a spring-powered fighter slowly losing spring tension and having to fly back to base or crash-land. In addition, the strong female cast of characters are a refreshing change from the male-dominated nature of military history alternate history stories, especially as they all come across as cool, competent and heroic.
There's also a definite focus on the non-combat elements of the narrative, especially looking at the way that relationships develop between Gwen and the rest of Misfit Squadron, but that doesn't mean Brading stints on the aerial combat - quite the reverse, in fact. When they take place, the battles in the air are rapid-fire, tense and action-packed, and once again Brading's flight experience gives it a level of authenticity you don't always see when aircraft and pilots are utilised in novels. They're really enjoyable to read, and become even more so when Misfit Squadron's Prussian foes, the Crimson Barons, enter the fray and begin engaging them in life or death dogfights over Southern England.
I was also impressed by how much detail Brading does into in regards to what British society looks like in this reality. At first I'd assumed that we'd only have occasional glimpses or asides, with the focus purely on Misfit Squadron and their adventures, but then half-way through the novel Gwen and some of her colleagues visit London, and we get to see a much more in-depth examination of the capital, and by extension society and culture in the Kingdom of Britain. Some of the most striking changes Brading creates in his version of London are architectural in nature; perhaps my favourite was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s extension to Buckingham Palace, which formed a kind of glass tower, one of the tallest in the entire world.
Although an exact Point of Divergence (PoD) isn't nailed down, it's obviously both extensive and pervasive because, to take just one example, we have here a world run on springs, hydrogen and coal. It isn't clear if petroleum and its derivatives exist at all, or just aren't used for fuel; and to be fair, the world that Brading has painstakingly constructed is so well-developed that questions like these just made curious, rather than breaking the suspension of disbelief that had been conjured up. It has an air of comprehensiveness and thought being put into it, for reasons other than just following the general trend of steampunk; although there are some superficial similarities between the world of The Battle Over Britain and the steampunk genre, all of the changes presented by Brading appear to be functional and integral to the plot, unlike so many steampunk titles where springs, cogs and zeppelins are only surface-deep constructions.
Well before the mid-point of the book, I was firmly and inextricably hooked on The Battle Over Britain and the blend of alternate history, aeronautical detail and pulp action that Brading has created. The writing is extremely good, the plot fast-paced, tense and highly enjoyable, and none of the characters ever came across as anything less than three-dimension and fully fleshed out. Best of all, the alternate reality that the novel is set in never feels superficial or forced, and all of the elements that appear in it come across as organic and natural to the world, not added in a transparent attempt to appeal to a certain reader demographic or solely for appearance’s sake. I really enjoyed The Battle Over Britain and can strongly recommend it to fans of alternate history.
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