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V-S Day by Allen Steele

V-S Day by Allen Steele

V-S Day by Allen Steele (Ace, 2014) is an alternate history version of World War II. This time, the “what if” is potentially very interesting. Rather than go for the major change of outcome as in P K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, this has the German leadership change their scientific priorities and shift the war effort in a singularly unexpected way. In the real world, the Manhattan Project began in 1939 and matched the German group Uranverein. Both groups aimed to exploit uranium as the basis of a weapons program. The rest as they say, is history. In another part of Germany, Peenemünde under the direction of Dornberger began a military program to develop rockets as weapons. Thanks to the work of Wernher von Braun who borrowed many patented developments produced by American physicist Robert H. Goddard, a program was authorised by Hitler in 1942 to devastate London. Except Allen Steele has Hitler authorise the development of a suborbital bomber capable of attacking New York. Needless to say, when spies bring word of this project to the Allies, Goddard is tasked with putting together a team to develop countermeasures.

So, as a paper-based exercise, we have ourselves an early space race. The German approach is to achieve escape velocity using a rocket-sled system to slingshot the rocket-powered bomber into the air, and then bounce along the atmosphere like a stone skipping across a pool of water. The Americans build a rocket-launched fighter that can match the orbital path and then intercept. From a technological point of view, the mechanism for this interception proves one of the highlights of the book. I’d been assuming the American approach would be a suicide mission, but in this alternate, the word kamikazi obviously does not cross the Pacific. US technology comes up with a most interesting solution. Anyway, a race usually means excitement and I was looking forward to a white-knuckle scientific thriller. But it never arrives. This is a book which is never more than interesting. It never catches fire because, in a sense, both sides work in a kind of vacuum and it’s not not outer space. For there to be a race or a fight, you need a choreography of attack and defence, move and countermove. In this book, the scientists and engineers are sequestered in carefully protected environments and apart from one remarkably ineffective attempt to assassinate Goddard, and the historically accurate bombing raid by the British on Peenemünde, little disturbs the calm atmosphere in which both sides work.

Allen Steele

Allen Steele

Well, that’s not quite right. Wernher von Braun is portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience. Forced to join the Nazi Party and pay lip-service to the political hierarchy, he’s troubled both when he learns Goddard is to be targeted and as he sees slave labour used to build the launch track. Other than that, his progress is relatively serene as he overseas the production of this silver bird. Both sides have the same intellectual and engineering challenge. Before they are tapped by their governments, their rockets tend to explode shortly after the engines are fired up. A few seconds of flight is all that’s been achieved. Now both teams are given a one-shot chance to build a manned craft, one as a passive bomber, the other as an active interceptor. So they are to go from abject failure to instant success because lives depend on it. In Germany that’s both the scientists’ own lives and all the slaves whose lives are, and have been, instantly disposable. In America, our heroes are defending the people of New York from an incineration attack that’s only theoretically possible. This decision to invest American treasure in a project to defend against a purely theoretical threat is never really explored. There’s a quick meeting in the White House and the green light is lit on the basis of a renegade scientist’s assertion the German threat could be real.

During the book, there’s no mention of the Japanese or other German military manoeuvres. Nothing disturbs the focus of our group on beating the von Braum challenge. You might at least have some discussion of whether the technology could be adapted to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. What better way of delivering the atomic bomb to Tokyo or Berlin, for that matter? This is distinctly odd. We’re watching the militarisation of science without exploring how other weapons might be developed. In Germany, we’re supposed to assume the High Command would never authorise construction of a second bomber. They have the technology and the launch track. Why would they not want a back-up? It’s not credible to assume they would simply kill all the scientists who had presided over this failure and then forget about their work. Later in America, after they had won the war, they went into space for peaceful purposes. What about the Russians? In the real world, they had spies in the Manhattan Project. What happened to the Cold War after this version of World War II ended? Everything is fudged into the background with none of the political and military context to make it believable. Sadly this leaves me thinking V-S Day is seriously underwhelming.

For reviews of other books by Allen Steele, see:
Angel of Europa
Coyote Horizon
galaxy blues
Hex

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

April 25, 2014 1 comment

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

Here we find ourselves pitched into an increasingly confident area of historical mystery. The conventional mystery or thriller writer picks a time of relative calm as the setting. This leaves the history as contextual background information, with the foreground free for the hero to investigate the wrongdoing. But some authors prefer times of great conflict as the setting, and the period just before, during, and after World War II is proving a fruitful area for authors to explore. J. Robert Janes has a long-running series set in Occupied France featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté. The interest, of course, lies in the question of whether St-Cyr is a collaborator and therefore worthy of contempt, or does he earn some latitude because he pursues wrongdoers regardless of nationality or status? Philip Kerr also has a long-running series featuring Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective. The first book starts in 1936 at the time of the Olympics, then moves forward to 1938 with him given the temporary rank of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, and later moves into the war years and the period immediate afterwards. Luke McCallin has his second book featuring Captain Gregor Reinhardt coming out later this year and J Sydney Bounds has one book set in post-war Nuremberg, see Ruin Value.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is the third book in the series featuring Martin von Bora, an officer in the Wehrmacht who continues to work with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi (in the first book, Bora is teamed with Father John Malecki, a Polish-American priest working directly for the Vatican). The consistent themes through the three books are dark and complex. First in Poland and then the two remaining books in Italy, we’re required to think about how different groups form and maintain alliances. Standing slightly outside the more conventional political power structure, there’s the overarching relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Third Reich. As part of the plan to deChristianise Germany, catholics had been specifically targeted which led to the increasing marginalisation of catholics during the 1930s. However, the relationship with the Papal See was complicated when Italy formally joined the Axis. As Germany began its expansion across national borders, it immediately found itself having to hold areas still deeply religious. As if invasion was not hard enough for the occupied people to stomach, it would further antagonise locals if priests were arrested and the people were prevented from worship.

Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor

Much of this book is taken up with Germany’s difficulty in reconciling its presence in Italy with the entrenched power of the Pope and his cardinals. Bora is a useful honest broker because he’s a trusted catholic whose university study was guided by a man now serving as a cardinal. This book is set in 1944 as the Allies are pressing their advance through Italy towards Rome. So the alliance with the Italian Fascists is failing as patriotic fervour dims in line with military failures. The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS is also strained as the practice of retaliating for German deaths by executing multiples of local citizens is encouraging the emergence of increasingly confident resistance fighters. Final efforts to deport Jews and others deemed socially undesirable are also producing real political disagreements between the different groups. It would be a serious understatement to call this a time of danger and uncertainty. And Ben Pastor does not make the mistake of leaving these events in the background. In many senses, this is a work of military fiction or a political thriller which just happens to feature an army officer who gets sucked into investigating politically sensitive deaths.

The initial hook for the investigators is the death of Magda Reiner who worked in the German Embassy as a secretary. She was found dead on the pavement outside her apartment block. It could have been suicide, but the Roman Chief of Police prefers that a political opponent be guilty of her murder. Much later there’s what may be a murder-suicide with a society lady well-known for her charitable works found dead in bed with an elderly cardinal. Obviously all three deaths are sensitive albeit for different reasons. As a serving officer, Bora is already deeply committed to defending what Germany holds in Italy. The investigations must therefore be fitted around his military duties. He’s also conscious of the fact that Germany will lose this fight and be forced out of Rome. If Guildi is positively involved in this investigation, he may be damned when the Allies take over and the locals can take their revenge against known collaborators. Independently, Guildi finds himself walking a narrow line through the infighting between the Italian factions as the Communists begin to take a more active role. In the end he will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to risk staying in Rome as the Allies arrive, or going north with the partisans.

A Dark Song of Blood is a powerful novel about lives under pressure. With every individual wondering whether he or she will be able to survive, it falls to the few with a conscience and a sense of honour to defy the prevailing power structures and do what they believe to be right. Bora has been emotionally scared and physically damaged. He’s no longer fit for active duty on the front line and so finds himself fighting a different type of war both with himself and many of those around him. As the novel progresses, he proves to be a proactive survivor, i.e. once he realises he’s falling into the pit, he decides to fall with as much force as possible and hope to produce at least one small change for the better before he dies. The outcome for Rome as a city is a matter for history. The different outcomes for Bora and Guildi are completely fascinating, making this a genuinely impressive novel.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Hunter From the Woods by Robert McCammon

April 10, 2012 6 comments

When I was growing up, the dominant form of fiction was labelled generically as “adventure” in which clean-cut heroes would fight the mostly good fight and beat the bad guys (badness often prejudged based on their racial characteristics). Now I find myself in a postmodernist world — no peace for the wicked. For those of you who missed modernism, it was one of those rather curious intellectual movements which preferred to reject the realism of the more traditional forms of art. What began life as avant-garde slowly persuaded artists to stop painting what they saw. Instead, we were all eased into expressionism and abstracts. When we got tired of all that, there was no going back to the representational schtick, so we had to become postmodernist, i.e. invent new conceptual ways of describing what would sell, first to the elites whose superior taste was backed up by cash in the bank, and then to the masses when their tastes became educated enough to appreciate the “new” approach to art.

One of the best ways of understanding the process is to follow the trajectory of James Bond. As written by Ian Fleming, he’s a terrible high-class snob much in love with both himself and the material world of casinos, high-powered cars and the leading brands he wears. In a way we forgive the sadism inherent in his behaviour because that’s the way public school boys did act and it was thoroughly British for our suave social elite to defend our sceptered isle from the depredations of foreign villains. The postmodernist Bond offered in Daniel Craig’s performance is very interesting. He’s been repositioned as a middle-class everyman, no longer caring whether his vodka martini is shaken or stirred. Yet once you strip away the class and materialism, all you have left is the amorality, that the ends justify the means. The reconstructed Bond assumes the role of the warrior guarding the gates. As viewers, we step back and let him do what’s necessary to keep us safe. That he may torture Mr White for information is acceptable so long as we don’t have to watch, i.e. after the credits in Casino Royale (2006).

The Hunter From the Woods by Robert McCammon (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a collection of three short stories and three novelettes filling in gaps before, during and after the events described in The Wolf’s Hour which first appeared in 1989. This is a fascinating venture because it deliberately avoids the obvious postmodernist approach. This hero is neither a reconstructed Bond nor a more modern creation like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. We’re deliberately taken back in time to the character basics of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay and, to some extent, the value system demonstrated by the team working for the Duke de Richleau in the early novels by Dennis Wheatley before he was seduced by the supernatural. For Robert McCammon, this is not, you understand, merely a feature of the main action being set in World War II. As Quentin Tarantino demonstrates in Inglourious Basterds (2009), realism is not required. Indeed, in today’s fiction, anything goes whether in this or an alternate reality. Rather Robert McCammon gives us a hero who demonstrates the delicate balance between supreme confidence in his physical abilities and a more innocent desire to “do the right thing”. This is based on what we might term a warrior’s code of honour. Yes, this is a man who will usually kill without a second thought but, if possible, he prefers to respect the courage of his enemies and give them the benefit of the doubt. This is most clearly on display in “The Wolf and the Eagle”. When a German air ace shoots down our hero, they are thrown together in the North African desert. Short of water and threatened by predatory tribesmen who will kill without compunction, they must co-operate to survive. National conflict means nothing when the desert is the enemy. This is a “classic” story that, to younger readers, might seem fresh. Yet it’s a common situation in fiction from H Rider Haggard through Edgar Rice Burroughs to Barry B Longyear’s Enemy Mine, the last adding the human/alien dimension and winning the 1979 Nebula Award and the 1980 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Pointing out a certain lack of originality is not a criticism. It simply sets the bar high. If a contemporary writer is going to mine the past for situations, he’s got to do very well to avoid the plot feeling tired and old.

Robert McCammon, an ex-horror writer but still in dark circumstances

So “The Great White Way” is a wisp of a story showing our young hero learning something about the the complexities of a relationship between a woman and her abusive husband, while “The Man From London” shows model behaviour from a British secret agent in surrendering himself to protect the villagers and their secret quartermaster. “Sea Chase” traps our hero on a relatively helpless cargo vessel at the mercy of a German Q-ship. Fortunately, the crew has read C S Forester’s The African Queen and so knows what to do. And, speaking of the crew, they are a pleasingly motley lot but, when the Nazis start shooting, they put differences to one side and get the job done. “Death of a Hunter” takes us to the twilight years where “foreign” villains are still out for revenge. Which leaves us with “The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs” which has our hero struggling with the impossibility of “love” in the broader scheme of things. Sexual compatibility and the initial lust that carries people through the first period of the relationship is not a firm basis on which to plan the future. When you relocate the action to war-torn Berlin with the Russians advancing ever closer, there’s no chance two people on opposite sides can ever find long-lasting happiness. Everything should be in the now, except the heart often fails to heed that reality. Such stupidity is both the strength and weakness of what it means to be human. Ah, the delicious irony of writing that because, as those of you who have read The Wolf’s Hour will know, our hero is a werewolf. Except, of course, he’s exactly the same as every other classic hero: disarmingly innocent, naturally brave and emotionally vulnerable.

The Hunter From the Woods is wonderful adventure, taking on the challenge of the past and coming out with flying colours. The collection stands alone although you should read The Wolf’s Hour anyway to get the full flavour of the hero. I enjoyed the approach because, in my old age, this is pure nostalgia. Except for “The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs”, of course. In my day, stories featuring sexual activity were only available under very discreet circumstances. What completes the enjoyment is the prose which is simple, direct and rather muscular. This is also in keeping with the period feel, taking us back to times when fiction was less complicated and wanted to feature the adventure with minimum distractions. As to the title of the collection, our hero is given the name Horst Jaeger to use in Germany. Horst is a variation on the Old Saxon name Horsa meaning ‘horse’, and Jäger is the occupational name for a hunter, derived from the verb jagen ‘to hunt’. Near enough, I suppose.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings

In one sense, I suppose I should be falling over myself in excitement. Not only is Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) written about the kind of people I grew up with, but I also know this part of the world rather well, having lived for many years just a few miles away from the countryside where this is set. It creates a slightly fuzzy, nostalgic feeling when time and place coincide. Unfortunately, my excitement stops just after the conceptual level and fails to rekindle when I get to the execution. The first problem comes with the sense of place. Although it mentions local landmark pubs, hotels and a nearby hospital, there’s very attempt to give a sense of the community, although some of the xenophobic panic of the time is mentioned. In this place, being so close to the Prees Heath internment camp, the presence of so many of the 27,000 people rounded up and held as a threat to national security, would have been more dominant in local culture. At the time, the fear-mongering from the popular press had induced an irrational level of fear in all parts of the country — even those not seriously at risk from German attack. History records that the conditions under which people were detained at Prees Heath were bad. There was chaos in most of the places used for internment, made significantly worse because the military had no idea why these people had been rounded up nor what was to be done with them. Until the majority were moved to the Isle of Man, this remains one of the more shameful exercises perpetrated by the British Government during the early part of the war. The rest were deported to Canada and Australia with many of the internees beaten and robbed by the soldiers. One ship full of Jewish internees sank on the way to Canada.

Maureen Jennings skillfully hiding the loose jaw

While it would be unfair to say Maureen Jennings has completely sanitised the history, the conditions as described in the Prees Heath are remarkably humane and the military arrangements not unduly oppressive. I suppose it remains politically inconvenient to draw attention to the potential British anti-Semitism which led to this appalling treatment. In this part of Shropshire, holding so many behind barbed wire in tents and generally squalid conditions would have been well-known in the surrounding towns and villages. The police and the military worked together to keep order on both sides of the wire. So the idea that our “hero”, Detective Inspector Tom Tyler would not have had routine liaison meeting with the officers at the camp and discussed security is a non-starter. More importantly, there would have been a steady watch on comings and going at the camp. As far as I know, there were no cultural events as described until the detainees arrived in more permanent accommodation in the Isle of Man. However, since authors these days are supposed to engage in meticulous research before committing anything to paper, I suppose all this is documented and I will defer to the author on this.

We also have some importance accorded the debacle at Dunkirk, sometimes better known as Operation Dynamo as our hero’s son is still feeling the adverse effects. So, with two young men back in the small town, everyone has an opinion on the way the war is going. Except, of course, the farming community is rallying round the local monied class to help beat the food rationing system, while the Land Army has drafted in some willing young ladies to help lift local spirits. As to the story, we have the death of one London girl. She’s had the good fortune to stumble on a blackmail opportunity except, before she can really cash in, she’s knocked down early one morning and, when this isn’t immediately fatal, she’s shot in the head. Later, her best friend also disappears. As a puzzle, we’re shown early on that everything is going to turn on the relationship between the town and the camp. So the structure of the book walks us through the local community and gives us a sight of the camp and some of the detainees. Note the speed level I picked. There’s little sense of urgency. It’s not that our detective doesn’t do his job, supported with reasonable efficiency by a doctor to do an autopsy and constables to fetch and carry. But no-one is breathing down his neck with threats to draft in help from the county or even call in Scotland Yard. The investigation just makes steady progress as information is accumulated. On the way, our hero discovers an ex-girlfriend is working in the camp as an interpreter which gives him the opportunity to reassess his own marriage and wonder what it might have been life had different choices been made.

As a plot, there’s some meticulous attention to detail. Everything fits together perfectly as a puzzle. It’s just there’s no real interest or excitement in the solution. I had barely registered the ultimate villain on the way through and, by the time the more thrillerish bit comes at the end, I can’t say as I cared very much who it was. I suppose the final reveal is a nice touch but, by then, it was all too little, too late. I had given up on Season of Darkness. So, unfortunately, I can’t honestly say I can recommend this. I was hoping it would replicate the interest of the Detective Murdoch Mysteries which are a nice balance of history and police procedural. I think this fails because it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be detective fiction or a World War II historical novel or an adventure story/thriller.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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