By Adam Selby-Martin
[Please note that the author kindly provided a review copy in return for an honest review of this title]
One of the reasons I started reviewing for the Sea Lion Press blog was to try and find – and just as importantly celebrate – Alternate History fiction that breaks away from the stale tropes of the genre. We have more than enough titles set in a victorious Third Reich; a victorious Confederacy; and a Cold War that has turned Hot. While there are undeniably some authors that have managed to innovate– Joel Radunzel and Bart Gauvin’s Northern Fury: H-Hour being an excellent example of this – there seems to be a general lack of imagination and flair in the majority of titles written around those settings.
As such, I’m always up for a slice of alternate history fiction that focuses on regions or periods of time that are lesser-known and have therefore received negligible attention; very often, there are PoDs (Points of Divergence) that are just as world-changing as those to be found in better-known scenarios. A case in point is author T.T. Drewett’s first novel, the intriguingly-titled The Oregon War, which focuses on the radically different outcomes that could have occurred if a famous geological event had occurred slightly differently.
Mount St. Helens in Washington State is most famous for erupting in May 1980, killing more than fifty people and causing widespread destruction. However, the volcano also erupted 150 years previously, in 1842.
In our reality, the eruption then was fortuitous in that the wind direction meant that the ash and ejecta scattered harmlessly into the nearby ocean and unoccupied lands. Cleverly, however, Drewett makes a single change that then ripples through history - the wind blows in the opposite direction, sending poisonous ash and ejecta into the nearby Willamette Valley, which is territory belonging to the United States of America. Oregon City is decimated, filled with little but corpses, and thousands of miles of land contaminated for years – if not decades – to come.
To say that this changes the course of history on the North American continent would be putting it mildly. In a dramatic and chaos-filled prologue, Drewett skilfully shows the devastation that would have occurred when Mount St. Helens erupted, with some atmospheric writing that shows how the entire region changes and the ecosystem itself is severely disrupted. The ash kills anyone it encounters and ruins the soil, and the weather changes that occur are genuinely terrifying, with rain hammering into the ground and little sunlight reaching the ground for months. Those who survive within the Valley are faced with starvation, and Drewett rightly draws parallels to the 'Year Without Summer' of 1816, when a similar eruption caused plummeting temperatures and major food shortages throughout Europe. That same climate change is now unleashed throughout the Western coast of the North American continent, affecting both the United States and Canada.
The real ahistorical changes begin to unfurl in the aftermath of the eruption. With tens of thousands dead in the Oregon Territories, and the reach of the US government limited in the American West, it falls to Canada (and, by default, the British Empire) to lead efforts to aid survivors and begin assessing the damage done. After several years, some recovery has been possible, but has also resulted in de-facto control over the Western territories being assumed by the British Empire. Although a substantial population of settlers has been built up - mostly British citizens and sympathetic Native American tribes - continued expansion by the Hudson Bay Company and other enterprises begin to clash with American settlers, and talk in Washington D.C. turns to war between the two powers
The key characters in Drewett’s fast-moving narrative are the Harper family, who have fled towards the Oregon Territory after their farm was repossessed, and had hoped to start a new life. Instead, they find themselves taking over a farm and struggling to make a living while caught between British forces and increasingly-hostile American neighbours. The clash between the increasing social, cultural and military influence of the Empire, and American citizens near-abandoned by an East-coast government obsessed with attempting to annexe Texas and parts of Mexico is fascinating, and Drewett slowly but surely develops the Harpers as a bellweather for this conflict. As time progresses, we see the introduction of Indian Sepoys and even Hawaiian natives into the region as the Empire consolidates its hold on the region, and the complex relationship between the Native American tribes and the outright hostility of the American government, and the potentially-dubious benevolence of the Empire. These cultural shifts are by far the most engaging and intriguing parts of The Oregon War, and help to add depth to the plot and make the ahistorical reality much more real for the reader; for once in the genre, these elements are not pushed aside for pure military action.
That’s not to say there’s no fighting, however, as war does eventually break out between the Empire and an American government that finally drags its attention away its southern borders to its western edges. Here we benefit from the introduction of William Taylor, an officer in the Royal Engineers; initially moved to the region to build roads and infrastructure, Taylor becomes directly engaged in the blossoming conflict, as well as a complex love triangle with the daughter of the Harper family.
Although the fighting itself doesn’t occur until the latter half of the novel, the action scenes are well-written and generally realistic in nature, especially as we also get the viewpoints of a Royal Navy officer, and a certain infamous American Civil War general who commands a section of American forces against the British incursions, to further expand the narrative. I often feel that there’s a certain brutality that comes from musket-era fighting that isn’t seen in later eras, and that certainly comes across in the scenes that Drewett writes.
There are a few minor issues with The Oregon War, all of which might be expected from an author’s first title, particularly one that’s self-published. There are a number of typos and small errors throughout the text, and some paragraphs and the occasional page that don’t quite fit together properly in regards to the narrative – perhaps the result of multiple different drafts being put together. There’s also a mildly bemusing habit of any character being upset being described as having “tears streaking down [their] cheeks” which I found myself keeping track of as I went through the novel. Yet none of these are major issues, and certainly don’t get anywhere near the sin of breaking the pace of the narrative, or drawing the reader out of the world that Drewett has painstakingly created.
Ultimately what Drewett has created in The Oregon War is an engaging, deeply impressive and strikingly original piece of Alternate History fiction, which makes use of a relatively obscure geological event to create massive ahistorical changes in the timeline. Well-written, evenly paced and featuring a narrative that never particularly strains plausibility (unlike so many Alternate History titles these days), as well as some strong characterisation, The Oregon War is a remarkable achievement by the author. There seems to be a great many possibilities for direct sequels, or titles further on in this timeline, and I can only hope that these come out eventually. Regardless, I will be keeping an eye out for future publications by Drewett, and would strongly recommend fans of the Alternate History genre 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