Black Chamber, by S.M. Stirling (Ace 978-0-399-58623-1, $16, 400pp, trade paperback) July 2018
For the past twenty years, since the publication of Island in the Sea of Time in 1998, S. M. Stirling has been compounding an immense series of books that fall under the rubric “Novels of the Change.” But he has not focused exclusively on that series, issuing many other titles, standalone and otherwise, in that same period. If one can possibly imagine that the still-arduous task of composing a non-series novel might seem like a “vacation” from extending a franchise, then Stirling has been giving himself a vacation now and then, and most recently with Black Chamber. But maybe vacation is the wrong word, since that refers to a time of slackness and inattentiveness and lazing-off, and Black Chamber is rigorously and vigorously executed, with snap and sparks and precision and grace, wit and invention. If this is Stirling “taking a break,” then all other authors running at full speed should be jealous.
The book is an alternate history, and Stirling introduces his “jonbar hinge” right up front in a manner that will typify the rest of the tale: his favored mode is full immersion in a character’s stream of consciousness, powering an adroit blending of historical facts, cinematic realtime action, and personal memories and impressions. In the matter of the prologue, we are riding the sensibilities of Teddy Roosevelt in the year 1912. Roosevelt has decided, after bowing out of the 1908 election, to run again for President in 1912. A surprising event makes his win and the reign of the “Progressive Republican Party” a cinch. Now comes a turbocharged alternate America! And with that springboard, we jump ahead to 1916 and our real hero, the young female secret agent Luz O’Malley Aróstegui.
Luz is an agent of the Black Chamber, a kind of prototype combo of the OSS, NSA, MI6 and a dozen other clandestine-ops services. (This conceit caused me to flash back to a great overlooked story by Avram Davidson ((is that phrase not a tautology?)), “The Unknown Law,” which again posits a dirty-deeds branch of the Presidency.) We become intimate with her traumatic background–Irish dad and Latina mom slaughtered by the forces of Pancho Villa as she, a child, watched–and follow her training as an agent. Now, with war raging in Europe and the USA about to be dragged in, Luz is tasked with uncovering the details of a rumored German top-secret plan to effectively cripple America and keep it out of the conflict. Her best, but most dangerous option is to assume the identity of a captured Mexican collaborator with the Germans, one Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez, member of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, and insinuate herself into the German team that is spearheading the enigmatic “Breath of Loki.”
This she does in a spectacular manner, on an American National Airways dirigible flight across the Atlantic, becoming the lover of Horst von Dückler, an Aryan superman of sorts who is tasked with safeguarding another German on the flight, Professor von Bülow, the mastermind behind Breath of Loki. Before you can say “Modesty Blaise,” Luz has been forced to grievously and spectacularly disable some Allied agents intent on capturing “Elisa” and Horst, all in order to maintain her cover.
When the aircraft unloads in Amsterdam, events ramp up to lethal levels in an encounter with French agents after the Professor. Soon the trio are heading east, into German territory. There, in the fortified Schloss Rauenstein, Luz will uncover the nature of Breath of Loki, encounter an unanticipated ally in the form of a clever albeit somewhat naive woman named Ciara Whelan, nice Irish mechanically minded girl from Boston, and face the myriad obstacles of returning to President Roosevelt and stymieing the destruction of America.
As I said earlier, Stirling does a masterful job of integrating all the components of his tale. First we learn, through unforced, spontaneous conversations and through Luz’s musings, all about the various historical and current events that have made this world different from our continuum. Next, through the same filter of Luz’s mind, we receive sharp clear portraits of herself and of all the people she encounters–and that includes the villains, who are never portrayed as mere evil masks. Thirdly, Luz’s own poetic yet terse narration of the bang-up set piece action sequences delivers rockem-sockem thrills.
Blurbers compare the book to a spy movie, the outings of James Bond and peers, and it is that. But I discern more of an Indiana Jones vibe to the tale–at least as derived from the first film in that franchise. And actually, the closest comparison I would make is to the recent Wonder Woman movie, which of course shared the same general era. Remove the superhuman stuff, and there you go! I can easily see Luz portrayed by Gal Gadot!
This last observation raises an intriguing issue about this book and much alternate-history stuff. There is nothing in Black Chamber that involves super science or the occult. Everything hews to the technology of that period. This is not an extravagantly technified outing like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series or Ian Tregillis’s Milkweed Triptych. So is such a novel really SF–even with a kinda cameo by Hugo Gernsback–or just some kind of weird historical novel? I vote for such a book’s essential SF nature, as a thought experiment involving the science of history.
But when Luz is lobbing grenades or unfolding her deadly narvaja knife to gut someone, you will not have an ounce of attention left to be contemplating such questions at all!
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