By Adam Selby-Martin
[Please note that the author kindly provided a review copy in return for an honest review of this title]
Sometimes sifting through social media to look for Alternate History fiction pays off, despite the number of YouTube videos, maps and miscellaneous discussions that have to be waded through because they use Alternate History-related hashtags. In this case, scrolling through Twitter revealed a post by author Michael Cnudde that advertised his novel War Plan Crimson. The cover was intriguing and eye-catching, as was the title, and back-cover blurb spoke of conflict between Canada and the United States in the 1930s, hardly a common topic in counter-factual fiction. I made a note to look it up in the future, only for Mr Cnudde to kindly offer a review copy over Twitter. That decided the matter, and I got to reading as soon as possible.
The Business Plot is one of the more interesting political conspiracy theories that abounds in North America, and one that could potentially have had radical and long-reaching political effects if it had both been true - and succeeded. According to Marine Corps Major-General Smedley Butler, a group of conservative businessmen were determined to use him as the figurehead for a veteran’s organisation that would overthrow the newly-elected Roosevelt administration and replace it with a business and fascist-friendly administration. Butler dramatically testified to the House Un-American Committee, however, and the plot - whatever it was, and however real it was - was derailed. But in War Plan Crimson, Cnudde posits a world in which the Business Plot was both real and its masterminds determined to succeed. What if the plotters ensured Butler could not testify - permanently? How then might history have developed differently? These are deeply tantalising questions, and Mr Cnudde is to be commended for finding a PoD (Point of Divergence) for fascism in America that doesn't follow the same stale genre tropes of isolationism (via Lindbergh) or outright Nazi invasion.
That scenario is the basis for War Plan Crimson, with the bulk of the novel following on from the coup against Roosevelt and the ascendancy of the plotters. As we're introduced to our protagonist, US Army Major John Adams - Great War Veteran and now Intelligence Officer - Cnudde takes the time to clearly and vividly lay bare the uncomfortable reality of post-coup America. Unions, miners, 'subversives' - all are crushed by the military and the secret police of the Political Directorate, while the establishment drums up public sentiment against enemies both internal and external, however imaginary - including their neughbours to the North. Intransigence against Canada - and the British Empire in turn - increases daily, and Adams becomes involved in War Plan Crimson, a theoretical wargame of invading Canada that slowly becomes less and less of a theory.
The build-up to the inevitable conflict between the USA and the British Empire is swift and tense, Cnudde finding just the right balance between developing backstory and characters for the coming war, and ensuring that the pre-war chapters aren't bogged down with extraneous detail and fluff. Just as importantly, he doesn’t give into the temptation to 'count rifles' or devote page after page to technical details about the weapons involved. Some are mentioned, of course, but only in the context of offering new information to the reader, and not just for the sake of technical details. It makes for a refreshing change compared to many other titles in the Alternate History genre that focus on military campaigns, and ensures the characters and political developments have sufficient room to breathe, and therefore develop naturally.
When war does break out, it's lightning-fast, chaotic and deftly-written. Although only a few years prior to the start date of the real Second World War, the American-Canadian conflict feels like a very different beast, full of ad-hoc manoeuvres making use of military technology that hasn't been proven yet, or even properly tested. Vehicles and armaments that would be seen as obsolete in 1944 or even 1939 are shockingly bleeding-edge as the Canadians desperately fend off the American invasion. To take one example - by 1940, the Vickers Light Tank Mark VI was considered to be antiquated and unable to compete with German scout vehicles or the Panzer II and III. Yet on the American-Canadian border, it's the latest in British AFV technology that gets thrown into the right. It's all masterful stuff, Cnudde doing a fantastic job of making the war feel unique, and not a re-skinned version of the Second World War.
As the novel progresses, there’s more than just fighting on the North American front to be considered, as Cnudde highlights that this is genuinely a World War and not just confined to one continent. The British and American Fleets clash repeatedly, HMS Hood going toe to toe with USS New York, and Canadian commandoes and stay-behind forces wage bloody war against the American occupying forces. And the Imperial Japanese Navy lurks at the edges of the conflict, just waiting to take advantage of the two Western powers bloodying each other. There’s even action within North America itself, as patriots disgusted with the rise of fascism begin to fight back – first secretly, and then ever-more in the open.
There’s a large cast of characters for the reader to encounter as they make their way through War Plan Crimson, and given their sheer number, many of them lack quite the amount of depth I would have personally preferred, with some historical personalities almost reduced to core stereotypes. However that’s balanced out by the fact that the fictional characters are often well fleshed-out, and regardless of whether they’re real or not they’re usually engaging and fun to follow along with as the story continues. Cnudde even has some fun mixing up the fates of various military commanders and famous personalities: Patton and Montgomery clash along the Canadian border, Amelia Earhart languishes in a camp for political subversives, and J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoia and intense dislike of competition turns him into an unlikely hero for American democracy. Above all, none of their fates are certain – incredibly well-known people – historical icons – die in the pages of War Plan Crimson, or otherwise have their paths in life changed radically.
There are a few rough edges, it must be admitted – the story as a whole could have done with a little more copy-editing, due to the number of typos that sometimes crop up; and there are a few times where characters use phrases or terminology that would not appear for years to come, or only as a result of incredibly specific events that this alternate timeline would ensure never occurred. The term Blitzkrieg, for example, is cited by Erwin Rommel as a German term for the new form of warfare unleashed upon the Canadians; whereas, of course, it was the invention of a journalist in the aftermath of the Battle of France in 1940 in our reality. But these are minor quibbles, and are entirely outweighed by the sheer amount of thought that Cnudde has put into the story and background found within War Plan Crimson; the fast-paced plot that effortlessly blends military, political and cultural clashes; and the sheer amount of fun to be had in a world where almost everything you know about the world just prior to the Second World War is turned upside down, shaken vigorously, and then reassembled into a fractured mirror image that is both familiar and yet disturbingly different at the same time.
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