By Gary Oswald
The sad truth is I’m not actually that big a fan of professionally written alternate history books. I’m not one of those people who grew up on Turtledove and Stirling, by and large whenever I have encountered bookstore AH I’ve just not been that fond. There are exceptions to that but by and large the AH books I have really loved have been written by amateurs and published through small online firms like the one whose website I am writing on. It feels like amateurs are more likely to be bold and break out of writing just ‘what if the Nazis had won’ again and again.
This book is published by a Canadian company called Fossil Cove Press who don’t seem to have a website and who only seem to have ever published books written by one author, Denis George Valdron. Without jumping to conclusions we might assume that this isn’t a hugely mainstream publishing company and this book probably isn’t available in most non virtual book shops. There is a certain amateur feel to the book, I noticed a couple of typos or misprints in my edition.
But it’s a great book despite that. In fact it’s probably my single favourite AH book I’ve ever read that wasn’t published by Sea Lion Press. It is imaginative and interested in history and not focused on the same old eras of WWII and the American Civil War.
But before I try and explain why this book appeals so much to me, I’m going to offer some caveats about why you might not like it. The book contains two stories, probably set in different worlds, and they share the same presentation. Neither are written as stories, they’re primarily written as script for visual media about these oddities with descriptions of montages and cuts and other visual effects that can’t be shown in an actual book. The first is a single documentary and the second is a series of different sources going forwards in time but both share the 'Cameraman cuts away' style of writing. This format is a little off-putting especially if you’re expecting straightforward prose though I personally felt it added to the style of both stories.
And these aren’t vigorous Alternate History stories. Purist AH argues that a small change will make the entire world unrecognisable after a century. These stories don’t do that. In the first one European Wars during the 15th century have different victors and in the modern USA Mel Brooks still makes Blazing Saddles. The viewpoint of these stories is of a modern American journalist telling their audience about a strange historical trend or rare animal and they act as a guide to the audience. So they are as close to us as possible, they grew up hearing stuff about the oddities the subject is but otherwise they grew up in our world and make references.to stuff we’d understand.
The second story in particular isn't really AH so much as a standard disaster story. The changes that resulted in that disaster happened thousands of years ago but up until the beginning of the story the outside world was the same. If this is AH then so is Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. If what you want from AH is to look at a completely new society then this butterfly killing approach will probably disappoint.
So with those caveats out of the way, what does the book do well? Well I’ll focus primarily on the first and longest story ‘Bear Cavalry’ and then look at the second. The first story is about how Bears were domesticated in Iceland, something that never happened in our time line, and the brief unhappy career of the Danish Bear Cavalry. What I love about this story is first off it’s an interesting idea, something offbeat and original of the kind you rarely get in published AH and Domesticated Bears is just a cool alternate cultural trait to give to a society. And the world-building is excellent, it feels at first like it’s our world but as the documentary takes us through an Icelandic subculture of tamed Bears you get a look into a very alien world. It’s that mixture of the familiar and the alien that AH does so well. Because the changes are largely limited to Iceland, you have that hidden world sense of crossing into an alien world.
And it’s really historically vigorous and plausible. The fake documentary talks you through all the steps that led to the Icelandic people domesticating Bears and this is where the format really shines. Because it feels as entertaining and educational as a good documentary you should. You get pages of interviews with animal experts telling us real facts about how animal domestication works and how Bears could be tamed. And then when several pages of exposition begins to get boring we cut to a visit to a restaurant serving Bear meat or a bit of banter between our presenters. The presenters in particular really keep it readable. You never really see behind the affable on screen personas but just following people who are making jokes and complaining about not understanding the academics and are likeable really helps the story be readable. You have a guide to identify with.
And like I’ve learned a lot about Bears. And the way he uses those Bears to just completely change Scandinavian history is fascinating. In between the two short stories, Valdron has a few pages talking about the real history of the era but you don’t need that really. If you don’t know the history, you can follow along the new history easily enough and if you do, you’ll be delighted by the way the Bears change things and set people on different fates. It’s a look into a culture that never existed on Earth but could have done and the faux documentary style means it covers all the angles of that culture so it feels real and feels plausible. It’s great, it’s exactly what I want from my AH. And the rise and fall of the Bear Cavalry provides a plot with set up and climax, the exposition is interesting in itself but it also serves an actual narrative.
And there’s a second story. This is advertised as a bonus story and is very short in comparison. 80% of the book is the first story with the last 1/5th being this one. The name of the second story essentially spoils it completely so I won't mention it. But basically, it’s a dark take on an idea used in children media and that concept is always going to be a hard sell for me because it’s just never struck me as very clever.
The second story is fine. It’s not the most subtle of stories but the switches in perspective are relatively clever and the concept is original enough. But it’s also nothing you won’t have seen before if you've ever watched a Monster movie. There’s a bit more science than you would normally get, the bits where Valdron talks about the monsters from an evolutionary standpoint are quite interesting, and it isn’t constricted to the classic three act structure of a movie, but it’s a monster horror story. You know what you’re getting. Again its fine but it’s not as imaginative and original as the first story is.
So do these two stories work together? Well the style of these two stories is very different. There’s some offhand references to horrible events in the first story but it’s generally quite light. The second is a flat out horror story.
As you might have guessed, it’s the first story I loved and I don’t really think it’s improved by sharing a book with another story. But it’s not a bad story and it seems churlish to complain about some extra content. And the first 80% of the book is enough to justify the cost by itself.
If you have any interest in this kind of AH, where the author looks at a culture rather than a person, please check this out. It’s excellent.