By Adam Selby-Martin
I was first attracted to this anthology by the unusual cover art, with its bleak, eerie monochrome background and the blood-red font used for the title, as well as the low price and fact that it had gathered together seven stories focusing on alternate interpretations of the First World War. That was certainly another added attraction - the First World War continues to be an area poorly served by the Alternate History genre, despite the best efforts of Sea Lion Press. I looked forward to seeing what fresh interpretations of the conflict the gathered authors could bring forth; and the fact that the collection also included a reprint story from Elizabeth Moon, one of the best scifi authors currently writing, only further sweetened the deal.
The collection opens with Igor Ljubuncic's The Girl With The Flaxen Hair, which takes the deeply intriguing step of imagining a world where Gavrilo Princip failed to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914, thereby failing to start the First World War. Instead, after confronting the Archduke and his wife in their motorcade but failing to pull the trigger on his pistol, the Princip of this timeline falters and then flees. Fast forward an indeterminate amount of time later, and we find Princip fighting alongside hated Austrians in the Hapsburg army, waging a grinding and exhausting war against Russia. It's a conflict launched by a vengeful Archduke Ferdinand when he ascended to the throne, and doesn't seem to be going well for the Hapsburg regime in general. Ljubuncic deftly evokes the blood soaked chaos of an Austro-Hungarian army waging war against an endless sea of Russian soldiers, flinging themselves against heavily-defended trenches, cut down by artillery and machine-guns and unable to retreat lest they be cut down by officers behind them. He also does a fantastic job of getting inside Princip's head and looking at both his motivations for attempting to assassinate the Archduke, and then extrapolating forwards into what the young nationalist might have thought about being conscripted into the ramshackle, multi-ethnic army. We also get to see the results of Ferdinand not dying in 1914, and the hints at a far different future for the great powers of Central and Eastern Europe. It really is a brilliantly-written story that focuses on an unexplored, yet depressingly plausible, timeline that comes from a single changed decision, and is a fantastic start to the anthology.
We then move onto Lee Swift' contribution, Wormhole, following the travails of Lance-Corporal Albrecht Trumann, a soldier in the German army specialising in mining, and a veteran of the ugly, bitter and close-quarters battles waged under the earth during the First World War. He's angry and insolent, haunted by the memories of the battles he's barely survived so far, and would be facing a firing squad if not for his skills making him the perfect candidate for a secretive mission. The nature of that mission is rather spectacular, and drifts firmly into a steampunk-esque style by making use of the type of technology that wouldn't exist for decades after the end of the conflict, and indeed doesn't quite exist even today in the exact format shown in the story. However, while the technology itself isn't plausible, the story and overarching narrative does remain distinctly realistic, and Swift uses the technology to tell a story of what might have happened if a revolutionary weapon first deployed in the First World War had been adapted to fight underground rather than above the ground.
The claustrophobia of the early armoured fighting vehicles featured in that conflict would have been exponentially worse if their crews had been forced to deal with the fear of being crushed to death, or stuck forever underground, and Swift demonstrates that with a keen eye for detail and characterisation. He also matches it to a fast-paced and action-packed story that suddenly deploys a strange and unexpected twist, blending an unusual fantasy element with the alternate technological history that's been written so far. While it sounds unusual it actually works really well, with Swift blending together various elements to make a compelling and unforgettable story with a strangely hopeful and even upbeat ending.
Jawohl comes from the pen of Wilson Geiger and is a story that blends together alternate history and body horror to create something both quietly unsettling and deeply memorable. We follow a German officer who lives and works in the depths of an enormous field fortification in the aftermath of the Armistice, undertaking repairs to the walls and sponsons of the fortress, obeying the commands of a distant commanding officer. And yet as the pages progress, it becomes clear that there is something deeply wrong with Hauptmann Werner, some void within him that can no longer be filled. He is tormented by blood-soaked, gore-filled nightmares of his time in the trenches, and the ghost of a strange woman that haunts him without him understanding his connection to her. It's an eerily atmospheric and often downright creepy story, and only becomes more and more disturbing as the pages turn and more details about Werner's home and role are revealed. In fact, it stayed with me long after I finished both the story, and the collection as a whole, and might be one of the best horror stories I've ever read set in and around the First World War, particularly given how utterly surreal large sections of it are.
We then move onto naval matters with Elizabeth Moon's Tradition, which takes a more 'traditional' approach to alternate history by examining an obscure, yet vitally important, Point of Divergence (PoD) in the early days of the First World War. Moon has a real knack for writing Alternate History, and it's a shame that she hasn't written more tales set in the genre, because Tradition is smoothly-paced, incredibly well-written and focuses on an area of alternate history that is rarely examined. There are numerous land-based PoDs for the First World War, ranging from 1914 all the way to the last few days before the Armistice in 1918, and they have been examined comprehensively over the years by authors and historians. Yet naval PoDs never seem to be engaged with in anywhere near the same level of detail or thought, despite them being just as crucial and portentious. To take just one example, Moon here bases her tale on preventing the German battle cruiser Goeben from entering the port of Constantinople, which led to a huge number of changes in the conflict and radiating out into history even after it ended. Yet if one decision had been changed, in order to prevent the Goeben from reaching Turkish waters, history might well have been very different. It's a deeply impressive story that is also thought-provoking in the issues it raises, and it's a great regret that no sequel was ever written.
On the Cheap by Dan Bieger is set in Dublin, shortly after the end of the First World War, with a reporter interviewing several Irish veterans of that conflict. However it soon becomes clear that there is something different about these ex-soldiers, especially the man weaving this remarkable yarn to the reporter. For he claims to be one of the Fey, mythical fairies from Irish folklore, and that during the war he and his fellows went to aid the Irish regiments fighting in the trenches. It's certainly a novel and original concept to base a story on, and Bieger tells it with verve and gusto through the informal speaking style of the narrator/protagonist. In a darkly comic narrative, the Fey wanders around German lines poking his nose into various matters and showing discord disguised as a German officer. And while he can't change the bloody nature of warfare, exploiting the rigid nature of Prussian obedience and training means he's able to swing the battle in the favour of the Irish Guard, and also create an opportunity for a certain Sergeant Cork to win the Victoria Cross. A true story, or just a bunch of gossip and tall tales created by a man in his drink? It's up to the reader to decide, but either way it's an entertaining and spirited take on blending the Fantasy and Alternate History genres.
The penultimate story is One Man's War authored by G.L. Lathian, and opens with ex-infantryman Lutz Bergmann being interviewed about a certain member of his old unit in the German Army, the First Battalion of Reserve Regiment Sixteen. A very famous - or rather infamous - comrade in fact: one Adolf Hitler. As the story progresses, we see the relationship between the two men slowly develop, and Lathian puts some real thought and imagination into the two men and their own personal philosophies. They talk constantly, conducting little intellectual spars about the state of Germany and the world in general, with a particular focus on the powers behind all of the fighting. It's an unusual direction for a story, and to speak in any greater detail would threaten to spoil the twists and turns of the plot, but it should suffice to say that Lathian's story is perhaps the most original and thought-provoking in the collection, and alone is worth the price of purchasing it.
Finally, Andrew Leon Hudson closes out the collection with The Foundation, a rather surreal and strangely haunting tale of a group of men tasked with digging the foundations of a tremendous and highly secretive monument that will celebrate The Empire and its achievements, with a focus on the curious numbers 11-11-11. None of the men know what the repetitive numbers represent, even our protagonist, and it is with a blend of duty and curiosity that they begin the laborious process of excavating the foundations. As the foundations are dug deeper and deeper, and new materials arrive for whatever is being built, our protagonist becomes more and more restless, plagued by nightmares of corpses, yet unable to discover just why the monument is being built and for what purpose. Something important has happened here, and then been forgotten, and its nature is terrifying to consider. It's a strange yet deeply evocative piece, and I'm very glad I read it; given some of the nuances in Hudson's writing, I can strongly recommend reading it several times to make sure you take in everything. It also makes for a strong and memorable ending the anthology as a whole.
Wars to End All Wars: Alternate Tales from the Trenches is an excellent little Alternate History collection; although only the length of an average novella, the seven stories collected within it are all brilliantly written and highly imaginative, bringing forth new angles and considerations on the First World War. The stories range from 'pure' alternate history, as with Moon's Tradition, all the way through to more abstract and unsettling stories like The Foundation by Andrew Leon Hudson, and together form a wide-ranging and often thought-provoking discourse on a conflict that still has much to consider from a counterfactual viewpoint. I can strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in alternate history or the First World War, especially as it appears to be permanently priced at a mere 99p.
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