By Alex Wallace
It can feel like the ISOT (a trope named after Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Sterling wherein people from one time period are sent to another time period) is a dying breed of alternate history. Really, only the 1632 series and its spinoffs are doing that sort of AH nowadays, and as such it would make sense that the most recent example of this subgenre is Kevin Ikenberry’s new novel The Crossing, the newest branch in the Assiti Shards multiverse which includes the 1632 series. Like the other books in this multiverse, a group of people from the twenty-first century are sent back in time, to curious and interesting results. Ikenberry’s time travelers are a group of ROTC cadets on an exercise in rural New Jersey; through the intervention of everyone’s favorite unknown time-juggling powers, they are sent to rural New Jersey, near the town of Trenton, days before Christmas in the year of 1776.
Ikenberry understands very well what made the original 1632 tick; Ikenberry discussed the book in detail with Eric Flint, and the latter’s influence is clear even if he is not credited on the cover. Ikenberry, like Flint, is a master at pacing his scenes, choosing just the right characters to be at just the right places to create a plot that ticks along like a metronome. Ikenberry wastes no words, and the result is compulsively readable. Perhaps as an homage, both 1632 and The Crossing, after displacing its protagonists in time, begin with the uptimers stopping German-speaking soldiers from raping a downtimer woman.
As with the exploits of the residents of Grantville, there is much action. It is in these scenes that the brilliance of ROTC cadets as your uptimers becomes apparent; they know just enough to change the course of events, but not enough to sap any tension from the narrative. The uptimers have twenty-first century guns which are capable of only so much in the face of the British Army. There’s an intensity to the combat, ranged and melee, for which Ikenberry doubtlessly took notes from Flint.
The leader of your displaced uptimers is Jameel Mason, a black middle class college student with aspirations to be a lawyer. To Ikenberry’s credit, he is unafraid of probing the implications of a black man leading a diverse group of Americans - including two women - in the eighteenth century and encountering the father of their country, a man who remains the richest of all Presidents because of his ownership of human beings. Mason gets the most point-of-view segments, and you get to know him well. I suspect a black author would have written him a bit differently, but Ikenberry does him well.
About the only things I found lacking in The Crossing are things that can be explained by the fact that it is starting a new subseries within the Assiti Shards multiverse. What I enjoyed the most in the 1632 series was the clash of cultures expressed through the variety of characters Flint et al have created (or plucked from the historical record). Being focused around the events of the Battle of Trenton, you don’t get much of that here, be it with African-Americans or women; related to this, I think Ikenberry has his downtimers accept the uptimers with not enough questions asked. Some uptimers don’t get much to do here, but I suspect they will do more in subsequent books (this goes for one particularly artistic cadet especially). This book is the slight tremor before a massive earthquake, and I am certain that the ensuing conflagration will be spectacular.
I can already sense that The Crossing will be a popular book among alternate history readers, and with traction in the broader speculative fiction sphere. It proves that the ISOT is not dead, and it promises great things in the future of this budding series.
Alex Wallace is the editor of the 'Alloamericana' Anthology