By Adam Selby-Martin
At the beginning of 2019 I reviewed the intriguingly titled Prison of Peoples, the debut novel of new Alternate History author Tom Brook. The first book in the Withering of Eagles series, Prison of Peoples caught my eye with its subdued and moody cover art, and a back-cover blurb that promised to deliver a scenario almost never seen in the Alternate History genre: a 1930s Europe dominated by an Imperial Germany that had decisively won the Great War, and had gone on to assert control over the whole of Western Europe, and much of Central Europe to boot. In a genre where the 'victorious Germany' scenario is overwhelmingly dominated by poor-quality emulations of SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle, it was a breath of fresh air to enter into a world where the Kaiser's Germany had triumphed. France struggled under wartime reparations, Britain languished on the side-lines, ejected from the continent and content instead to focus on the maintenance of empire, and Austro-Hungary attempted to come to terms with its continued existence and internal contradictions. It was a fascinating slice of counterfactual fiction, vividly imagined and expertly plotted, and with an ambitious, character-driven plot. I absolutely loved Prison of Peoples and considered it to be one of the best Alternate History novels to come out of the indie scene in quite some time.
I eagerly awaited the next title in the Withering of Eagles series, wondering just where Brook would take the story in terms of Russia, Imperial Germany and especially Austro-Hungary; and when no other books appeared, and I wasn't able to get into contact with the author for an interview, I feared that yet another promising author had been forced out of the publishing business. Whether it's real life hardships, economic issues or - more recently - the global pandemic, I've known a number of brilliant authors across genres who've been unable to continue writing. It's always a depressing occurrence, so when I was browsing through the Alternate History listings on the Kindle and suddenly discovered Brook had just published another title in the Withering of Eagles series, I was incredibly excited. Not a full novel, Yesterday's Dreams is instead a small collection of short stories that help to further flesh out the backstory and world-building of the series, many of them leading up to the events of Prison of Peoples. Eager to see what Brook had come up with, I dived straight into the collection.
Yesterday's Dreams consists of seven short stories, each focusing on a different nation and faction within the Withering of Eagles world. As they're quite short, I'm not going to go into great detail for each one for fear of spoiling them, and instead just give some of my impressions. Honour and Glory is set in the Italian Front in 1917, as relentless Austian advances fracture and then destroy the Italian front lines, and follows Italian officer Marco as he desperately leads the shattered remnants of his regiment to safety. Exhausted, frightened and without any guidance from senior officers, Marco is forced into a position of command for which he feels utterly unsuited, and further tragedy strikes as he uncovers the horrifying truth of the Italian Army's situation. Brook deftly brings to life the confusion and chaos of a routed army, and men just trying to survive and get home, and in the process adds some nice context to the PoD (Point of Divergence) for the series as a whole. Christmas in Ruthenia then takes us to Austro-Hungary in the early 1920s and a young Jewish girl, Feygele, living with her mother in a small bakery. Feygele fears the 'bad man' who visits her mother every Christmas Eve and makes her sad; but what initially appears to be a story of terror and intimidation is unexpectedly flipped by Brook into something heartbreaking and emotional, demonstrating that even the victors in this alternate Great War suffered terribly. It's the best story in the collection, and worth the asking price alone. It's followed by a trip to France in Among the Ruins, to a nursing home which is the residence of Victor, elderly veteran of the Franco-Prussian War. Losing his memory and barely able to walk, he loses himself in bitter recriminations at the state of France, and the awful truth about his sons and the fate of France herself that lurk in his broken, fading memories. It's another gripping and emotional tale, expertly crafted to demonstrate just how far France has fallen in this reality, and the cost to multiple generations.
Crossing the Channel, Brook then takes us to London, capital city of an Empire and a power that has been cast out of Europe for the first time in living memory. Losing the Great War has also affected Britain, with its capital locked into a brutal civil war, socialists and royalists and numerous other factions waging vicious street fights to try and claim territory. Bookshop worker Jessica is caught up in the midst of the latest conflict, armed only with a dining table leg to defend herself and her meagre possessions. As she tries to survive another night, Brook gives us a chilling insight into the factionalism that grips the UK in the early 1920s, and the brutality and pointlessness of all of the fighting and bloodshed. I was then delighted to see, given the European focus of the series, that the next story takes us to Mexico. Midnight Sun moves forward to 1929, with protagonist Daijirō waiting on a remote beach for his Mexican contacts. Daijirō is an officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy, smuggling guns to Mexican guerrillas to use against the United States, and providing the Mexicans with intelligence about US movements. It's an on-going strategy by the Japanese Empire, keeping the US looking inward while they prepare to strike. It's a clever way for Brook to widen the scope of the Withered Eagles universe and also comes across as entirely realistic; in a reality where the United States never intervened in the Great War, it makes sense that lingering territorial issues with Mexico would eventually result in all out war and occupation.
The penultimate tale, Across the Elbe and Far Away, finally takes us to victorious Germany itself - a country that Brook has kept away from the spotlight so far in the series, cleverly keeping the spotlight on the far more interesting actors on the peripheries of Europe. But we now get a glimpse into the state of the Prussian nobility, and the knowledge that even victory in the Great War isn't able to alter ancient social standings. With her brother dead in the war, Evelyn is forced by her aristocratic family to marry a man she doesn't love, an influential aristocrat with influences on the Council of Dukes that will help her family prosper. We also see that, despite its triumph, Imperial Germany still struggles with rampant militarization and devastated eastern territories. It's a fascinating glimpse, and sets up a lot of potential storylines for future novels in the series. Finally, in The Sun Never Sets, Brook takes us to Egypt in the mid-1930s to discover just how the wider British Empire is changing; anarchy at home is matched by alterations in its colonies, with unrest increasing and British rulers forced to rely increasingly on more 'loyal' subjects like those in the Raj, especially as it appears the Republic of Ireland is no more. Uncertainty, restlessness and anger bubble just underneath the surface of Alexandria, and the rest of the Empire, making for a climactic and powerful ending to the collection as we're made to wonder just what, exactly, the future holds for an Empire whose dominion over much of the world seems increasingly shaky.
Yesterday's Dreams is by far the best piece of Alternate History fiction I've read in 2020, and I'd go so far as to say that it's in my Top 10 Alternate History titles that I've ever reviewed for the Sea Lion Press Blog. Each individual story develops the world of Withering Eagles a little more, fleshing out the backstory and the world-building, and providing keen and incisive insights into how the very different outcome of this world's Great War affected individuals across all of the nations involved, and even those that weren't. The writing is focused, powerful and thoroughly engaging, and Brook manages the difficult feat of engaging with the emotions of the setting without falling into cliches or stereotypes. It's quite frankly a brilliant achievement by Brook, demonstrating that he is one of the rising stars of indie Alternate History fiction, and the whole collection is a steal at a mere 99p or free on Kindle Unlimited. I can only hope that Brook is able to publish the next novel in the Withering of Eagles series before too long. I'll be right there with him when it's released, and I'm determined to bring as many readers with me as I can.
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