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review 2020-07-04 22:26
The Conductors - Nicole Glover
The Conductors - Nicole Glover

The Conductors was one of those books where the premise was so unique that I immediately wanted to read it, so I was delighted when it turned up on Netgalley and my request was granted. Mostly, it lived up to my expectations, though there were a couple of things about it that didn't quite work for me, perhaps showing that this is a debut novel. 


The basic premise of The Conductors is that it's set in the post-Civil War United States, with flashbacks to earlier times, but this is an America with one big difference - the existence of magic, in two different forms. The magic wielded by some slaves, and therefore by freed men and women after the war that is based on the elements - either sigils of the constellations or brewed - as opposed to the wand-based Sorcery restricted to white people. While this is an intriguing way of structuring a magic system, there are clear omissions in the world-building (whether by design or not) especially around how much more effective the elemental magic seems to be. 


As well as talking about magic, this is also a murder mystery with a number of dead bodies cropping up along the way. Our protagonists, formerly the eponymous conductors of runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad with the use of magic, find themselves in the middle of this scenario and take on the role of investigators with vigour. Unfortunately, the pacing of the book starts to lag a little in the middle and my interest started to wane a little - again, perhaps, the mark of a first novel?


Everything gets resolved in the end, I'm sure you'll be glad to hear, and this seems to be a standalone so there's no nasty cliffhanger for the next book to deal with. All in all, The Conductors is an entertaining read and clearly a labour of love for the author, who has worked hard in terms of her research. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. 



I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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review 2020-06-22 17:35
A fresh take on a familiar life
Rodham: A Novel - Curtis Sittenfeld

What is the value in alternate history? For most writers, alternate history provides an opportunity to play “what if?” games with the past, to imagine how much different the world would be had events turned out differently. For others, it serves as a sort of literary funhouse mirror that can be used to comment on the world in which we live, in subtle or sometimes not-so-subtle ways. In the hands of a very few authors, however, alternate history can become an acute form of character study, one that can use changes in circumstance as a means to considering questions of who we are as people and the ways in which our lives are shaped by the choices we make.


Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel is an example of the latter category. In it she offers a fictionalized account of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life, one that is altered from the one we know by her decision to break off her relationship with her soon-to-be husband Bill just after his failed election to Congress in 1974. No longer tied to his fate, Hillary Rodham goes on to forge an independent life of her own as a law school professor, activist, and United States Senator. These changes are chronicled in a narrative centered around three key periods of Rodham’s life: her time with Clinton at Yale and in Arkansas, the point when her political career begins while that of her former lover’s ends, and her climactic bid for the presidency. In each of them, events unfold involving a mix of historical, fictionalized, and fictional characters, with Hillary Rodham at the center of them.


In most works of alternate history, the focus of such a story would be on how a change in one moment transformed the subsequent course of history. In Sittenfeld’s hands, though, her premise becomes a means of providing a new look at a long-known personality. So many of the controversial associations are stripped away: gone is Whitewater, the Rose law firm, the health care plan of her husband’s presidency, and everything that follows. What’s left is the author’s assessment of who Hillary Rodham is as a person and the choices that person might have made free from a decision so pivotal to the arc of her life. Some of what happens is familiar, much of it is not, but all of it is true to that conception. In this respect Sittenfeld manages something extremely difficult to achieve: a fresh take on an ostensibly familiar figure.


Yet this novel isn’t just a reexamination of the Hillary Rodham we think we know. As Bill Clinton once declared, we get two for the price of one, as we see how her decision impacts his fate as well. In the first part of Sittenfeld’s novel, we see Clinton at his most charming, affable, flirtatious, and stimulating. Not only does it define his character, but it helps us to understand what Rodham saw in him as well, as well as why she agreed to become Hillary Clinton. Absent that choice, Bill Clinton’s life undergoes a different trajectory as well, one that illustrates the role she played in his success. Without Hillary, certain aspects of Bill Clinton’s character emerge in ways that define his life very differently from the history people remember, which then goes on to have its own impact on the events described in the novel.


Nevertheless, while Sittenfeld’s commentary on Bill Clinton is oftentimes sharp, her focus never wavers from her protagonist. The result is a novel that gives its readers a discerning meditation of one of the most important figures of modern times, one conveyed through the story of a life that she very well could have lived. In the process, Sittenfeld demonstrates one of the underutilized possibilities of a genre better known for using counterfactuals to consider different outcomes of major events than to better understand controversial personages. I doubt that others will follow her example, though, as her achievement in writing an alternate history novel that is both a perceptive character study and an entertaining work of fiction will be extremely difficult for others to emulate.

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review 2020-06-06 18:05
Lives lived in alternate worlds
The Coming of the Quantum Cats - Frederik Pohl

Dominic "Nicky" DeSota is a Chicago mortgage broker in trouble. Arrested by the FBI, he is accused of breaking into a nearby government lab — only at the time, DeSota was on a weekend trip to New York City. This isn't good enough, however, for a moralistic and oppressive federal government, because if it wasn't DeSota, who else could it have been?

Dominic DeSota is a United States senator enjoying a romantic night with the world-renowned violinist with whom he is having an affair when he is asked to fly to a military research lab in Sandia, New Mexico. When he arrives he learns that the military police have Dominic DeSota in custody, a man who is the senator's exact double. Under interrogation, the captive DeSota provides only cryptic answers — just before vanishing right before them.


Dominic DeSota is a United States Army major who has been assigned to an assault team invading another world. Their mission is part of a larger plan designed to use the newfound ability to cross over onto parallel Earths to defeat the Soviet Union and win the Cold War. This plan begins to fall apart, though, when the America they invade proves less than cooperative. And then there is the growing problem of ballistic recoil . . .


Frederick Pohl was one of the grand masters of science fiction's Golden Age. During a career that spanned over seventy years he wrote or co-wrote nearly five dozen novels, some of which endure as classics of the genre. This book is not regarded as one of his best works, in part because of its focus on a particular time and place. Set in the then-contemporary world of 1983, the novel follows the different incarnations of three characters as they discover the existence of their counterparts. As their worlds come into conflict with one another, these characters confront their alternate selves and ponder the differences suddenly before them.


While Pohl uses his premise to address the allure of the life unlived and the degree to which we are defined by the world around us, his main interest is on commenting on the growing conflict between the various Americas he describes. For the most part these worlds are satirical takes on the America of his time, consisting of a police state run by religious fundamentalists, a thinly-veiled military dictatorship, and a complacent self-obsessed superpower. What makes Pohl's novel stand out from similar works of its type is in how he presents these worlds, not by scattering extended infodumps in his text but through the differences between the characters from them. By showing how the lives of Dominic DeSota, Nyla Christophe, and Larry Douglas differed because of their circumstances, he provides a work of alternate history that is among the best of its type. This is why, for all of its datedness, it is still a novel that is very much worth reading.

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review 2020-05-23 15:47
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow - Natasha Pulley
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow - Natasha Pulley

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which I re-read in preparation for this book and I think actually enjoyed more than when I first read it - at the time, I said I didn't think I'd want to re-read that book but clearly was incorrect, so make of that what you will. It's pretty safe to say that the things I found a little vexing about that book are also present in this one, hence I've given it the same rating.


Instead of London, most of The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes place in Japan - as we start the book, Thaniel Steepleton is now pretty much fluent in Japanese and gets told he's being sent there on behalf of the British government. Meanwhile Keita Mori has been in Russia and his country is more than a little suspicious of what he's been doing, which becomes even more reasonable behaviour on their part when his role as a spymaster starts to be revealed. Mori's knowledge of possible futures is a massive asset to that role and when he and Thaniel end up in Japan, Mori is walking into a trap to try and test and/or control his powers. 


The book is set at the time of massive naval expansion on the part of the Russians and the Japanese, with the latter buying a bunch of new ships for their navy from the British. On arriving in Japan, Thaniel discovers that not only has Mori been cagey about his past there, he's also married - struggling with his health, Thaniel decides the best thing to do is leave Mori behind and concentrate on his work. This is a particularly attractive option for Thaniel when it becomes clear that Mori is disturbed by his still being alive, since he can see a number of possible futures where that's not the case. 


All of this relationship drama is happening alongside all sorts of electrical experiments which are creating 'ghosts' of past and future events, mimicking what Mori can do with his mind and throwing the local population into turmoil. There's plenty going on here and Mori is at the heart of it, unsurprisingly, having set into motion a chain of events that we later discover is mostly aimed at preventing an all-out war Japan is likely to lose at that point and also helping find a cure for Thaniel. At one point, Mori is believed dead and a former friend of his tries to pin his murder on Thaniel, before fortunately everything is resolved (though not without loss of life). 


As with the previous book, the one area in which the author falls down a little is still the characterisation of the women in her stories. While Grace Carrow, who played a major role in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, also appears here, it's Takiko Pepperharrow who is the main female character - she's a little better fleshed-out than Grace was, so it's a shame how things play out for her when there seemed to be other directions it could have gone. Anyway, if you can get past the role of woman as barrier-to-relationship where our protagonists are concerned, then you'll probably like this book as well.  

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review 2020-05-13 23:55
Weighed down by the author's need to show his research
Dominion - C.J. Sansom

Much like American history, British history seems to have a default setting when it comes to alternate history novels. For U.S. history, that setting is the Civil War, for which innumerable stories playing around with different outcomes and their consequences. For British history, however, the default to which authors keep returning is 1940, as they hypothesize how very different things might have turned out had Winston Churchill not become prime minister and fought on. Invariably the outcome is worse for Britain and the world, as the story's protagonists have to cope with the jackbooted heel of the Third Reich pressing down upon the nation's neck.


C. J. Sansom's book is just one example of this. Set in 1952, it imagines a world in which Lord Halifax was selected as prime minister in May 1940 instead of Churchill. The result is grim: after the German triumph in France in June, the British agree to a treaty that cedes domination of Europe to the Nazis. With their empire increasingly straining for independence, fascism steadily takes root in British politics. Yet a resistance movement headed by Churchill fights back against the slowly settling authoritarianism of the British government. Among their number is David Fitzgerald, a veteran of the "1939-40" war who supplies intelligence to the Resistance from his post as a civil servant in the Dominions Office. But when a friend from his years at university reaches out to him, Fitzgerald finds himself drawn into far more dangerous work. Before long Fitzgerald is on the run with his friend, with both Special Branch and a Gestapo agent hard on his heels.


The best alternate history novels tell gripping stories within a plausible world. Sansom succeeds brilliantly in the latter respect, as he has envisioned an alternative outcome that is distinctively different without being unrealistic. Yet the considerable amount of work Sansom put into detailing his ahistorical setting proves a weakness, as the author succumbs to the temptation to display his research in the text, Few chapters go by without details dropped about recent history or headlines from the contemporary world, all done in clunky bits of exposition. Though it demonstrates the impressive amount of thought Sansom put into his book, the sheer weight of it drags down the text. So too does Sansom's laborious retelling of his characters' backstories, which often drain any momentum from the plot. The combination causes Sansom's novel to collapse from its own weight, making it one of the more disappointing examples of a genre from which readers have an abundance of alternatives from which to choose.

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