The Peshawar Lancers

There are still alternate history reviews in my archive, but I think I’ve beaten (and flayed and crushed) this particular dead horse enough.

So this will be the last one for a while.

Raw Feed (2005): The Peshawar Lancers, S. M. Stirling, 2002.peshawar-lancers

Stirling thinks through the consequences of his alternate history. The point of divergence is a series of commentary impacts, mostly in the northern hemisphere, in 1878.

American civilization is wiped out. The British Isles are all but denuded of people. Prime Minister Disraeli marshals an exodus of the most important people, cultural knowledge, and technology and sends it to India. France is also wiped out but French culture lives on in Northern Africa. Islam is resurgent across the Middle East and Balkans. Russia has turned into a country of nominal Satan worshippers. Japan and China have combined. The Angrezi Raj, the cultural fusion of British and Indian culture, inherits the British empires (including new outposts in North America.)

The exposition is mostly in the first 60 pages of the book in which Stirling throws around a lot Indian/Hindu terms. He gets around to religious issues (basically the Anglican Church has accepted a lot of the Hindu gods and goddesses as versions of the Trinity) later on. To further show off his world building, he has five appendices with the background of the world. The culture is credible, and Stirling certainly makes this version of the British Empire seem noble and appealing with its personal ties of loyalty and honor and an intelligence run along informal lines.

Initially, I didn’t like my first exposure to seeress Yasmini, whose visions of the future, I thought, brought an unwelcome element of magic to this alternate history. Then Stirling got around to rationalizing using an obvious, if oblique, version of Roger Penrose’s idea that the brain is a quantum computer and thus (Penrose doesn’t say this) can see alternate timelines. The presence of a Kali cult was to be expected even if they were minor villains allied to the Satanic Peacock Throne.

The novel has two faults though neither was enough to disgust me. The reason — penetration of the Imperial intelligence services so vast that they can not be purged safely without first luring the traitors into the open –why Athelstane King and company have to sneak aboard the dirigible at the end seemed was a bit weak. I think Stirling, understandably, just wanted some scenes on a dirigible.

The end of the book descended into a wealth of clichés (presumably taken from the authors Stirling lists in the acknowledgements). There is not only a prince in disguise (the French envoy sent to arrange a marriage turns out to be the French prince who gets himself involved in a lot of combat during the book) but three marriages. The marriage of the French prince and Princess Sita was expected — after all, that’s why the envoy is there, to arrange it. But the marriage of Athelstane King and Yasmini, though hardly unexpected, was that old cliché of adventure plots. Worse was the convenient death of the Emperor and the marriage of scientist Cassandra King and the Crown Prince.

All three of the main women characters are of the same improbable action heroine mold beloved of modern authors. Stirling may have a thing for this sort of thing given the character of guerilla leader Skida Thibodeau in Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling’s Go Tell the Spartans. I think I was supposed to find the constant insults between King’s faithful Sikh Narayan Singh and would be Pathan assassin Ibrahim Khan (who also turns out to be a prince) funny. I didn’t mind them, but I usually didn’t find them funny.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

 

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Romulus Buckle & The Engines of War

The steampunk series concludes with this retro review from January 10, 2014.

This book, like the first Romulus Buckle novel, came to me via Amazon’s Vine program.

Review: Romulus Buckle & The Engines of War, Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., 2013.Romulus Buckle

I’ll admit I approached this book more out of duty than desire. I had already committed to reviewing it before I had even read the proceeding Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders.

I found this one more enjoyable and better paced since Preston had gotten the introduction of most of the main characters out of the way in the first book. We also got the long descriptions of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, center of most of the action, out of the way there. You will need that description, though, so the first book can’t really be skipped.

To be sure, Captain Romulus Buckle’s undergoing the expected romantic confusion of new attraction to his sisters Max and Sabrina. (No, there’s no creepy incest vibe here. All three are orphan adoptees of Balthazar Crankshaft but unrelated to each other by blood.) Max and Sabrina are also struggling with new feelings – and their unacknowledged expressions of them however – towards Romulus. And, yes, the Founder clan has been covertly instigating war between the other clans.

But Preston opens his world of the series in unexpected ways. To be sure, we get two nifty set piece battles with alien critters. We also get a very Age of Sail type naval battle between airships – complete with snipers in the rigging. An intriguing automaton character is revealed. New clans and their cities are introduced. Valkyrie Smelt, beautiful and haughty daughter of Katzenjammer Smelt (yes, Preston’s names are amusing at times), becomes an officer aboard Buckle’s ship. Max begins to be obsessed with the legendary Martian Equation of Immortality which she encounters in an unlikely place. Continue reading

Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders

The steampunk series continues with two more installments.

This retro review is from December 22, 2013.

Review: Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders, Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., 2013.Romulus Buckle

Preston’s great strength, perhaps honed in his career as a screenwriter, is his ability to evoke and describe the physical details of a scene, its characters, land, atmosphere, and, of course, the brass fittings and leather clothes and steam engines of steampunk.

The details of this world are interesting. It is the “Snow World”, Earth about 300 hundred years after an invasion by aliens, dubbed “Martians” but they aren’t really from Mars) which left Earth with large obelisks of indestructible material and no electricity. In the ruins of Los Angeles, it has even left a permanent cloud of poison gas. Man has reverted to small clans built around professions: (the Crankshafts, merchants that Captain Romulus Buckle belongs to; the Alchemists, engineers of steam powered robots and other things; the Imperials who built the main character of the story, the airship Pneumatic Zeppelin.

And, while it’s still ludicrous, Preston’s steampunk technology is less ludicrous than that of a lot of other steampunk stories. This is something of a naval adventure with detailed descriptions of the airship and, when necessary, its repair. Essentially, the plot involves the rescue of Crankshaft leader Balthazar from imprisonment in the City of Founders, a clan living under the ruins of Los Angeles. Continue reading

The Steampunk of Michael Coorlim

 

As I’ve said before (and repeat below), steampunk is a rather decadent speculative genre: not really plausible alternate history, no plausible technological speculation, and often sort of a retro nostalgia for Victorian fashions and technologic.

Still, I like some of it.

Besides the steampunk work of Mark Hodder, I’m fond of the self-published steampunk Galvanic Century by Michael Coorlim.

I was introduced to his work via a review copy from the author of “And They Called Her Spider” and went on to buy most of the rest though (as will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog) not current with his Galvanic Century work.

Besides his characterization, I like that his world closely echoes the world right before World War One.

This is not one of my regular retro reviews. Coorlim has been shuffling the editions of his steampunk and the ones I reviewed don’t necessarily exist, so I’ll list the stories I’ve read and the current editions they appear in.

The reviews of been stitched together like a Frankenstein monster — rather appropriate because he sort of puts in an appearance in one of these stories.

Continue reading

Lord Kelvin’s Machine

The steampunk series continues.

Raw Feed (2002): Lord Kelvin’s Machine, James P. Blaylock, 1992.Lord Kelvin's Machine

I liked this sequel to Blaylock’s Homunculus better than that novel. (The Lord Kelvin of the title is, in fact, the famous physicist Lord Kelvin who makes an appearance as a character.)

Villains Ignacio Narbondo and Willis Pule are back from the first novel. Pule is now insane and forms a grotesque pair with his mother. The novel has an interesting structure and gets better as it goes along.

The opening chapter sets up Langdon St. Ives’ obsession with avenging himself on Narbondo for the death of St. Ives’ wife and his quest to resurrect her via time travel. (The Holmesian flavor of this novel is even stronger than the one in Homunculus. Narbondo is sort of a Moriarty figure to St. Ives and Parsons, the rather stuffy, socially connected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences who always keeps St. Ives out of it, comes off rather like Holmes’ Scotland Yard rival, LeStrande.) The opening third of the book involves St. Ives foiling a blackmail plot by Narbondo to pull a comet into the Earth via a powerful supermagnet. Blaylock provides an interesting story of how Narbondo is tracked down and how he ends up supposedly drowned in a frigid Nowegian lake. However, Blaylock never really explains why the opening chapter of Part I necessitates St. Ives being in Peru and how Narbondo’s earthquake generating scheme worked. The story follows St. Ives and ever competent servant Hasbro.

However, the novel’s story and humor really picks up with Part II which is narrated by a minor character from Homunculus, Jack Owlesby. Jack’s a pretty normal guy who chides himself for his fondness for good food and drink and naps and his wife and knows he’s not particular courageous. However, he’s competent and courageous enough to foil a renegade ichthyologist and his dangerous sidekick from Wyoming in their scheme to use the stolen supermagnet to down metal-bottomed ships and extort money from the Crown. He also has a run in with the weird Pules. Continue reading

Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII

I have several volumes of this series, but this is the only one I’ve read — probably because a review was expected since I got it from the publisher via LibraryThing.

A retro review from February 16, 2013.

Review: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII, ed. K. D. Wentworth, 2012.Writers of the Future

Don’t think of this as a collection of amateur stories. These stories are as proficient as those you will find in any anthology, more than many I’d say. Many of these stories are not even the first publication of their authors.

And don’t think of this as some sort of talent-spotting exercise, a dutiful survey to see who might be the subject of “buzz” in the future. As with past winners, some of these authors will go on to distinguished careers. Others will fade away.

There is something here for most tastes in the fantastic: fantasy, surrealism, a bit of steampunk, and military and straight science fiction.

Some of that science fiction is conceptually inventive. If it isn’t entirely groundbreaking, it at least looks at some old ideas in a new way. Three stories in this category were my favorites.

Actually, my favorite, Gerald Warfield’s “The Poly Islands“, may do something completely new in its setting – the famed island of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean. Here, it’s populated by criminal gangs, those on the run from those gangs like protagonist Liyang, and political refugees. Add in the mysterious nature of the Crab, leader of the Poly Island community, some intrigue, and the well-worked out details of living on an unstable platform of plastic garbage, and you have a winning story marred only a tiny bit by a somewhat schmaltzy ending. Continue reading

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

A retro review from July 8, 2012 …

Review: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, Mark Hodder, 2011.Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

I’ll tread lightly in describing this book so as not to spoil Hodder’s grotesque, sometimes humorous, mix of messed up history, altered Victorian notables, occultism, and marvels of steam-powered and genetic engineering. I will say there are plenty of marvels apart from those listed in the book’s description.

If you’re new to Hodder, you can jump into the series with this book. In fact, the only flaw in the book is Hodder’s courtesy in getting the reader unfamiliar with the preceding volume, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, up to speed slows things a bit. Even if you haven’t read the third and last volume in the series (which I have), it’s clear this is an important link in the story with the conclusion foreshadowing what is to come in the third book. Again, Hodder provides an afterword covering most of the violence he’s done to our nineteenth century timeline.

I didn’t like this book quite as well as its predecessor just because I didn’t find the titular clockwork man and the controversy (taken from actual history) of the Tichborne claimant quite as interesting as the Spring Heeled Jack legend, but, if you love complicated stories with lots of interesting asides, this is the book for you.

And the cover is pretty snazzy on this one too.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/index

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

A retro review from May 27, 2012 …

Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder, 2010.Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

“With blood and with iron, shall a nation be moulded.” And what blood and what iron!

Hodder doesn’t exactly give us a steampunk world. There are too many biological grotesqueries like swans big enough to carry men into deepest Africa, huge dray horses, greyhounds who deliver messages to every memorized address in London, and parakeets who deliver voice messages – liberally laced with insults and profanity. Mendel’s work, in this world, was not “lost” and men like Darwin and Francis Galton have plenty of ideas about using the new science. This is no Victorian Age of freakish steam powered machines (though there are plenty, here). Indeed, Hodder gets rid of Queen Victoria in 1840.

Technically, that sort of makes this an alternate history, but Hodder cheerfully does such violence to history and the many historical personages he has here – not to mention throwing in werewolves and the bizarre legend of Spring Heeled Jack – that it feels very different.

Explorer Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne, author of the above quote, make a good duo of investigators for King Albert. Swinburne, with his small stature and masochistic tendencies, provides a lot of comic relief. Burton, after an early encounter with Spring Heeled Jack, realizes that his life could take an alternate path and that provides a quite satisfying scene towards the end of the book. Continue reading

Changeless

Usual drill. I’m working on other stuff. You get a retro review.

This one is from June 18, 2010.

Review: Changeless, Gail Carriger, 2010.Changeless

Newlyweds often have many negotiations and arrangements to work out in their married lives. That holds true even when one is an aristocratic werewolf and the other a special advisor to Queen Victoria. So, when Lord Woolsey forgets to tell wife Alexia about the werewolf regiment that will be camping out on the grounds of their estate and then heads off to Scotland, she is none too happy. Especially, since she has also been charged by the Queen with figuring out why werewolves and vampires throughout London are reverting to fragile human form. Alexia being Alexia, literally soulless practicality and pragmatism, she sets off to set things right with or without her husband’s help.

While still a mixture of romance, humor, mystery, adventure, and steampunk gadgetry that has something for everyone, this wasn’t quite as entertaining as the first novel, Soulless. And, being the middle book of a trilogy, it ends on a cliffhanger. The revelation precipitating the cliffhanger is entirely predictable almost from the beginning if not the problems stemming from it.

Continue reading

Soulless

I’m off revising some work for another project, so you get a retro review, from March 21, 2010, of a not exactly obscure book. So far, I’ve only read one of its sequels which you’ll get a retro review of eventually.

Review: Soulless, Gail Carriger, 2009.Soulless

It’s the Italian blood, you see. That’s what makes Alexia so outspoken and hot tempered. And, of course, it didn’t help in the looks department: too prominent of nose, olive-colored skin, and dark hair. All the gift of her dead Italian father and not exactly the sort of thing London society favors. And it certainly does not help that she has spent so much time in her father’s library reading about philosophy and science and the supernatural. Little wonder she’s a spinster of 25.

Alexia has another inheritance from her father, one known only to her and the Queen Victoria’s government. She is a preternatural, that rarest of creatures in a world that not only acknowledges the presence of vampires and werewolves but has legalized and tamed them with laws and registration. Having no other prospects and a curious mind, she would like to work for the BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, which manages these unnaturals. Her knowledge and preternatural abilities – essentially the capability to neutralize via touch the powers of vampires and werewolves – would be useful she feels. A point reinforced, she notes, when she kills a rouge vampire at a dance with her silver tipped parasol. (It’s not for nothing that this series is called the Parasol Protectorate.) However, the BUR head , Lord Maccon, will have none of a gentlewoman working for him though he does rather admire her fierce alpha ways which remind him of the women of his native Highlands. And, for her part, the handsome, hulking werewolf Maccon brings some interesting visions to Alexia’s mind and sensations to her body.

I’m not a fan of vampire novels and the current trend to throw them together with werewolves seem a last gasp to get some more literary life out of the undead and usually comes off as contrived. There is a bit of that here. However, to her credit, Carriger does create a credible alternate history around these creations with their presence becoming tolerated in England before Queen Elizabeth’s time. (Things are quite different on the Continent and in America. In those lands, the persecution continues.) Feudalism and the administrative structure of the Roman Empire are said to have been inspired by vampire society and methods of reproduction. That’s fine, but the touch of British military tactics deriving from the hunting methods of werewolf packs seems kind of silly and unexplained and very unobvious. Carriger goes to a lot of trouble to emphasize the wolf aspect of werewolf society which, to my mind, was a plus since I’ve long thought werewolves more interesting than vampires. Continue reading