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The Greatest Villain in Alternate History

By Colin Salt

One of ways in which John Schettler's gargantuan (to put it mildly) Kirov series somehow works is by still having its plots ultimately be character-focused. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the saga of Ivan Volkov. Volkov was an intelligence officer in the present who became one of the several time traveling warlords the series is built around, and he's a delight. In fact, I can say without hesitation that Volkov is my favorite antagonist in all of published alternate history.

Now, if you were looking for a deep, conflicted, three-dimensional character, you've come to the wrong place. Volkov is very much a one-note black-hearted supervillain. But his kitten-stabbing nature comes across as over the top fun rather than axe-grinding creepiness. This is a man who allies with a time-displaced version of himself and lands his airship to adopt some of the wolves that serve as his namesake. He represents the excessive over-the-top nature of the Kirov series at its best.

But what I like the most about Volkov is how he, likely unintentionally, serves as a Man Who Came Early style subversion of the "time/space traveler isekai munchkin" archetype. Volkov styles himself "The Prophet" due to his future foreknowledge, and doesn't hesitate to use more advanced technology (at least for the sake of making more powerful explosions). Yet that's all that he has. Every solution to a problem in his mind involves dropping a nuclear bomb on it, and his (total lack of) statecraft leads him to fighting both the Axis and Allies at various points in World War II. His destruction of Leningrad transforms his Orenberg-centered fiefdom from low-priority containment to immediate threat, which leads to the butterfly of the Western Allies being the ones that overran Germany while the Soviets finished his forces off.

Yet this is no post-1991 Tom Clancy supervillain who exists purely to act as a punching bag. Volkov throughout the series comes across as a legitimate threat. Yet his danger lies not in being shrewd and sophisticated like he thinks he is. No, it lies in him being overly crude and destructive, flailing around with his advanced toys.

Volkov comes to the fore in the World War II arc where he and his airship fleet make multiple attempts to seize the main time portal in Siberia. This made me realize that the Kirov series was not just a bland "what if they had four tanks in a platoon at paper strength instead of five" scenario, but an audacious gonzo crazy gigantomanic spectacle. And as a wannabe munchkin, he serves as a character critique, however accidentally. Not bad for a series where much of the content is literally a description of playing a video game.


Colin Salt reviews other genres at his blog: Fuldapocalypse Fiction and has written The Smithtown Unit and its sequel for Sea Lion Press


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