By Adam Selby-Martin
Given how difficult it is to locate Alternate History fiction on the Kindle listings these days – genuine AH fiction being drowned under a flood of historical fiction, steampunk, and random foreign-language titles that don’t seem to have any connection to any genre – I’ve taken more and more to checking out the #AlternateHistory hashtag over on Twitter, and lurking in Alternate History groups on Facebook in the hopes of locating new titles by new or existing authors. It’s taken a while, but it finally paid off when I came across author Ted Lapkin, who was advertising his up-coming Alternate History thriller Righteous Kill, published on the 15th May by Silvertail Books. There were a couple of things that caught my eye with Lapkin’s debut novel and persuaded me that it would be worth downloading and reviewing once it was published. First came the cover art, a quality piece that instantly made it stand out compared to the majority of self-published Alternate History fiction: against a blood-red background, a monochrome picture of Adolf Hitler has a rifle scope superimposed over it, contrasting nicely with the title and author fonts. Secondly was the back-cover blurb, which described a plot by an Israeli scientist to send a crack squad of Israeli Special Forces operatives back to 1940 with a single goal – assassinate Hitler. The moral and ethical issues alone made the scenario sound intriguing, as did the fact that Lapkin saw active service in the Israeli Defence Force, therefore bringing an element of authenticity to the military aspects of the novel. It certainly seemed promising, so I decided to jump in and see what Mr Lapkin had to offer.
The novel opens in the modern day, following Yossi Klein and his squad of Matkalistim operatives in the Beqaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, executing a mission to kidnap a senior Hezbollah official and his children, to be used in a high-level prisoner exchange. Having successfully completed the mission without incident, Klein is sent on leave by his superior officer, expecting an extended period of leave without incident. At the same time, however, an Israeli scientist specialising in particle physics is visited by a German scientist with an offer to attend his personal laboratory and witness an allegedly revolutionary event in scientific history. Curious despite the vagueness, Professor Aaron Adivi accompanies the German, only to discover to his shock that the man has quietly discovered the ability to travel through time – and takes Adivi on a trip to Germany that ends in unexpected bloodshed, and then a proposal: use the time machine to send Israeli troops back in time to assassinate Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich’s senior hierarchy. Against Adivi’s protestations that such an act would be impossible, citing the Grandfather Paradox amongst other theories, the German scientist argues that the time stream would change, but only minimally so – citing a Minimal Temporal Disruption concept. It’s certainly a complex theory, but the argument is successfully made that killing Hitler and his cohort prior to the onset of Operation Barbarossa would prevent the worst elements of the Holocaust, saving millions of lives, and also allow the creation of Israel, with only relatively minor historical changes
Having taken that decision, the next few chapters focus on the complex and detailed plan for assassinating Hitler and those accompanying him on his famous 'Amerika' train in October 1940 as it travels through France. There's some intriguing ideas here, such as inserting a sleeper agent into France several years prior to the assassination attempt to purchase property and equipment, that shows Lapkin has done his research and carefully considered the scenario. That same efficiency comes through in terms of the final preparations for Operation Agag, and the journey into the past, with Klein and his hand-picked men arriving in France in October 1940 and preparing to ambush the Fuhrer and his retinue. When that ambush is finally unleashed, Lapkin again demonstrates his skill as a writer by giving us a thrilling, incredibly tense, fast-paced and action-packed set-piece that pays off all of the preceding planning and set-up in spades; there's a huge amount of satisfaction to be had in witnessing the cream of the Nazi regime being ruthlessly purged by the Israeli assault teams, and by the end of it the reader's adrenaline is surging as fast as the special forces operatives themselves.
The assault on ‘Amerika’ is just the beginning for Klein and his men, however, when a mysterious and ill-timed problem with the time-travel technology leaves them stranded in 1940, forced to instead retreat through France while pursued by vengeful Wehrmacht and SS forces, who themselves are slowly realising what the Israelis have achieved with their assault on the train. The novel suddenly becomes very different creature in its second half, entirely to its benefit, as we move away from the sole focus on Klein and his squad to the reactions of the wider world to the decapitation attack on the Third Reich. The addition of various German and British viewpoint characters is a welcome change of view, particularly as Lapkin begins to pivot towards how the Wehrmacht and SS react to loss of the senior political leadership in the Third Reich. The reactions of the remaining senior hierarchy of the Third Reich are a much-needed dimension, and Lapkin makes their politicking and manoeuvring fascinating to watch as they react to the huge power void suddenly appearing in the continent-stretching power. The same can be said for the British, as officials there are forced to pull together vague pieces of evidence that indicate that the nature of the Second World War has suddenly changed drastically. A tense pursuit between the Israelis and the Heer through France and then the Mediterranean is the cause of a number of action-packed set-pieces and running firefights, especially as the whole might of Occupied Europe is thrown against Klein and his remaining men. It all comes to a climactic and rather surprising finale, one with immense repercussions for the entire Middle East region, as well as the whole world in terms of this fundamentally-altered timeline.
The depth and breadth of Lapkin’s imagination for Righteous Kill is genuinely breath-taking, especially in the latter half of the novel as events begin to rapidly unfold in the aftermath of the assault on the Fuhrer’s train. This is clearly a novel that has taken quite some time to write, with impeccable research that shows on nearly every page; in many ways this is to the novel’s advantage, as there’s always a high level of historical accuracy in terms of settings, equipment and personalities. However, there is unfortunately a downside to that level of research, and it shows especially in the first half of the novel. There’s a near-worshipful air in regards to the Israeli special forces featured in the story, and so many different units, regiments and branches of the IDF’s special forces community are demonstrated in such a short span of time that it becomes little short of bewildering – and this is to a man who will readily read Osprey Publishing titles at breakfast, and considers technical manuals about tank design to be light reading! While there is a glossary at the end, which Lapkin is to be commended for including, the constant clicking back-and-forth quickly becomes tiring, especially when you’re trying to get your head around the frankly byzantine nature of the special forces groups included in the story, often to no real advantage to the reader or the story as a whole. The same can be said for the weapons and equipment involved – again, while Lapkin is clearly striving for a high-level of accuracy, it quickly became repetitive to see every mention of a rifle, pistol, machine-gun and radio always preceded by its formal designation. It was rather overwhelming for me, and I’d be concerned that it might be alienating for a casual reader; though considering the rather specialist audience that Alternate History titles are generally aimed at, this might not be as big of an issue as in other genres.
So there are a few issues with Righteous Kill, especially in the first half of the novel, but I found that these were more or less removed once the time-travel element began, and especially once Lapkin relentlessly increases the pace of the plot, with the tension becoming near-unbearable as Klein and his men try and escape from the continent and towards the Middle East. The characterisations even become more in-depth and engaging, as the central cast is reduced somewhat, and Lapkin is able to flesh out the remaining soldiers and civilians with personality details, quirks and even flaws that make them stand out on the page. Indeed, none of the relatively minor issues I’ve highlighted can obscure the fact that Righteous Kill is a remarkable achievement, an action-packed, fast-paced and rigorously researched Alternate History thriller that exhibits Ted Lapkin’s prodigious imagination and impressive skills as a writer and researcher. There certainly seems to be scope for further titles following on from the end of the novel, and I would certainly be interested in reading any such sequel; but I’ll also be on the lookout for any further Alternate History fiction by Lapkin, regardless of the scenario.
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