By Adam Selby-Martin
As with so many Alternate History titles that I review on this blog, it was the cover art for Those in Peril that drew my attention as I was scrolling through the Kindle listings for the genre.
A good piece of cover art accurately portrays the essence of the title it represents, while also drawing the attention of potential readers, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cover image that manages to do both so perfectly. The anthology title is announced in capital letters wreathed in flames at the top of the cover, while the rest of the cover is dominated by the full-colour art of an 18th-Century sailing ship unleashing a broadside into a modern-day warship, flaming wreckage flying from the crippled vessel’s hull; the piston-engine fighter soaring overhead is really just the icing on the cake.
It certainly drew my attention, as did the back-cover blurb that announced that this was simply the first in a planned Phases of Mars trilogy of military history-themed Alternate History anthologies. As the cover art so subtly indicates, Those in Peril is focused on naval warfare stories, while the other two titles will collect aerial and ground warfare stories respectively.
Well, there certainly aren’t that many Alternate History fiction anthologies centred around military history any more (those seem to have died out in the early 2000s with the Alternate General anthologies edited by Harry Turtledove), so I was interested to see what editors Chris Kennedy and James Young had managed to collate for this first anthology. Would there be an over-reliance on World War II-related stories, as with so much military history Alternate History these days? And just as importantly, would there be a more diverse range of author voices than is usually seen in the genre? Ultimately, those were questions that could only be answered by diving into the collection.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
Opening the anthology, Naked by Kacey Ezell is an unusual story inspired by a famous photo taken by a combat photographer during the Pacific War. Psychically-gifted people exist in this universe; but unlike many authors (such as Ian Tregillis and his Milkweed Triptych), Ezell doesn’t have them secretly recruited for some clandestine war against the Axis powers. Instead the gifted are feared and shunned by society, and forced to hide their abilities. Naked takes a deft and decidedly subtle look at one such individual, and how her gifts could be used on a much more individual scale. Well-written, intriguing, and a taster for the author’s series in the same universe.
In Captain Bellamy’s War, Stephen J. Simmons provides a fast-paced and action-packed tale that looks at a key event in the history of the port of Nassau. Historically, the pirates and privateers based in the Caribbean port were faced in the early 18th Century with either accepting a Royal Pardon from George I and allying themselves with the British, or defying the King and throwing in their lot with the Jacobites. However, Simmons suggests that there might have been a third way for the men to react - a pirate alliance, working for themselves against the British Crown and any others. Simmons emphasises the brutality and skill involved in period naval warfare, and develops the concept into a plausible and fascinating idea that would lead major changes in the Caribbean and surrounding areas, with wider repercussions that would be interesting to see in future stories.
Next up is A Safe Wartime Posting by Joelle Presby. The German colonies in Africa during the First World War are an underutilised area for alternate history, so I was happy to see Presby use Kamerun (modern-day Cameroon) as the setting for her story. Seen from the eyes of a jaded US Navy NCO shepherding an eager young Lieutenant on a sight-seeing visit, we get an atmospheric tour of one of the major towns in German West Afrika, and also some insights into relations between the Germans and the local population. More importantly, the nature of the young Lieutenant's relationship with a certain Vice-President, and the shattered health of the current occupant of the Oval Office, leads to a surprising if somewhat implausible conclusion as British forces begin their attempt to capture German colonial holdings on the continent.
What happens when an inventor ahead of her time, and suffering from the results of the intense misogyny of the period, teams up with the disgraced officer who bled the Union Navy to death during the failed assault on the port of New Orleans? Author Day Al-Mohamed weaves a spell-binding and thrilling tale of espionage, inventiveness and action that blends subtle counterfactuals with the urgent need for vindication and redemption in Martha Coston and the Farragut Curse.
The Trent Affair is a common enough topic in naval warfare Alternate History, and William Stroockh’s The Blue and the Red: Palmerston’s Ironclads highlights what might have been the result if the diplomatic affair had managed to escalate into open conflict between the United States and the British Empire. An opportunistic reporter joins the British naval squadron supporting the assault on the east coast of the USA and witnesses the devestation unleashed on an unprepared United States. The sheer firepower and brutal force of the ironclads, unleashed on an ill-prepared US Navy and American cities is impressive in a bleak, apocalyptic way, and Stroockh’s tale is enjoyable enough as a form of ‘classic’ Alternate History, aided by some amusing cynicism about the role of transatlantic newspapers, and interesting and engaging digressions on how such a conflict would be undertaken.
It’s relatively rare to find an Alternate History tale that looks at what might have occurred if an event didn’t take place - sometimes a single act can change history; or rather, the absence of an action. That’s the situation in Rob Howell’s Far Better To Dare, which focuses on the captain and crew of the USS Maine in a universe where her destruction in Havana’s harbour didn’t lead to the Spanish-American War of 1898. A decade later, and the Maine and her counterparts come face-to-face with a Spanish fleet that has had ten years to improve, leading to a tale dominated by the two fleets slugging it out. The naval action is impressively written, and is prevented from being too boring by some subtle but intriguing world-building, and impressively in-depth characters for a short story.
Sarah Hoyt gives us another lesser-known Point of Divergence in For Want Of A Pin that looks at the evacuation of the Portuguese court from Portugal to Brazil in 1807 in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Seen from the viewpoint of a young girl, the daughter of an influential secretary to the Portuguese monarch, Hoyt skilfully demonstrates how the smallest of ripples – a torn dress, and a borrowed pin – could lead to a domino effect that radically changes the fate of Portugal, its oversea holdings and the Portuguese navy at a crucial moment in that continent-wide conflict.
By far the most challenging, original and interesting tales in the entire anthology, Nothing Can Be Said to Be Sufficient to Describe It by Meriah Crawford doesn’t focus on military actions, or naval fleets engaging each other. Instead we have a slow-paced and culturally-focused tale of architects and lighthouses; specifically, the famous Eddystone lighthouses designed by Henry Winstanley. Though it takes some time to get going, and the letter-writing format becomes a little tedious towards the end, the cultural and architectural alternate history is both subtle and highly rewarding to finally see come to a conclusion.
There’s also some action-heavy, pulp-orientated tales in the anthology, as is seen by Philip S. Bolger’s Corsairs and Tenzans. In this somewhat implausible, but undeniably exciting tale, a joint American-Japanese taskforce clashes with an Italian-German fleet in a titanic struggle in 1942. Imperial Japan and the United States being forced into an uneasy alliance to fend off the advances of an Axis-dominated Europe is certainly a fresh take on an otherwise worn-out scenario, regardless of its likelihood, and Bolger’s action scenes are intense, edge-of-your-seat affairs as every possible major surface combatant belonging to the Axis, Allied and Japanese fleets face off against each other. I don’t know if Alternate History as a genre can be said to have fan service – but if it can, then Bolger delivers it in massively entertaining spadefuls.
Justin Watson gives us a much-needed character-focused story in For a Few Camels More, which sees a Vichy French convoy commander trying to fend off an American-backed mercenary Japanese submarine captain off the coast of Indochina. It’s another fantastic take on the ‘Nazi Victory’ scenario, and really benefits from a focus on character development and atmospheric, claustrophobic action sequences as the submarine stalks the convoy vessels. A first-class tale that just begs to be expanded upon in further stories from Mr Watson.
Finally, Fate of the Falklands by James Young may be a somewhat controversial story, depending on the reader, but it’s undeniably well-written and thought-provoking. From a story-telling perspective, the realities of the British victories during the Falkland conflict always strained the boundaries of plausibility – the cobbled-together naval taskforce, the longest-ranged bombing raid in history by the RAF Vulcans on Port Stanley Airport, which in turn further reduced the effectiveness of the Argentinian Air Force. Mr Young’s tale takes a counter-factual yet, ironically, more ‘realistic’ take on the conflict, significantly changing the fate of the Falklands, and British and Argentinian prestige.
It can’t be denied that Those in Peril is a very good military history-focused Alternate History anthology, and is a significant achievement by its editors and publisher Theogony Books. There are perhaps a few too many stories focused on the Second World War or the Trent Affair, but there are also some fantastically-written stories that focus on lesser-known conflicts and areas of the world. These help to ensure the anthology has a varied set of voices and isn’t weighed down by an over-reliance on stale and over-wrought scenarios, and overall means that Those in Peril is a definite must-read for fans of Alternate History or military history fiction. If the editors can retain this level of quality in their stories, I greatly look forward to the next two anthologies in the Phases of Mars trilogy.
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