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‘Black Chamber’ engaging alternate history

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My affection for the alternate history subgenre of speculative fiction is no secret. I’ve always been enamored of the answers to “what if?” questions that these sorts of stories can provide. The idea that one small difference can cause ripples that lead to larger and larger divergences – it makes for fascinating fiction.

S.M. Stirling is one of the foremost practitioners of alternate history; his latest is “Black Chamber” (Ace, $16), the first in a series about a World War I that was significantly different than our own, from the enemies being fought and the institutions doing the fighting. It’s a strong introduction, one that hints at the many differences – large and small – between that history and this one.

The year is 1916. Teddy Roosevelt is the President of the United States, having made his way back to the White House after years away. His latest foray into the Oval Office has resulted in some bigger, bolder initiatives – both domestic and international – that are leading toward an America that is much more progressive in some respects, yet considerably more conservative in others.

In this world, rather than wait until WWII for a covert agency (i.e. the OSS/CIA) to spring up, Roosevelt created the Black Chamber, a secret organization devoted to espionage and other unsavory work that the powers that be would prefer to see confined to the shadows.

Luz is an agent of the Black Chamber, highly educated and highly skilled; she’s one of the best they’ve got. Her assignment is to infiltrate the upper echelon of the German effort to wage war on Europe and beyond. Posing as a Mexican revolutionary with an anti-American bent, Luz uses all of her skills to with the confidence of a German agent code-named Imperial Sword; said agent has been in America for reasons that Luz’s superiors would very much like to know.

But when Luz succeeds in gaining the necessary trust and proximity, the plot that is ultimately revealed to her far outstrips anything she could have anticipated. For in the remote mountains of Saxony, a plan is being set in motion to ensure that the United States will be unable to enter the looming conflict – a plan that has potentially horrifying consequences for not just Luz and her contemporaries, but possibly the entire nation. And she has to trust someone … but who?

“Black Chamber” has a lot going for it. There’s a richness of detail with regards to the world building that is quite nice; when it comes to this sort of thing, I tend to lean more toward the “less is more” attitude. That is, I’m not someone who needs exposition dumps – a handful of organically provided moments of specificity beats the hell out of text blocks of authorial hand-holding. Stirling trusts the story and trusts the reader, allowing for a feeling of discovery.

Granted, it only works because of a solid sense of characterization. Luz makes for a fine heroine – smart and capable while also flawed. She serves the foundation of the narrative without ever feeling like she’s invulnerable; despite her status as the main character, she never feels 100 percent safe. That balance is VERY hard to pull off.

And of course, when you’ve got someone who knows how to put together a spy story doing the telling, it’s tough not to be sucked in. It’s tense and propulsive for the most part; there are a couple of stretches where the action lags just a bit, but the narrative rarely loses much steam. You’ve got the requisite sharp turns and surprising developments – it’s just a good espionage yarn.

Granted, there are a few things I would have wanted from “Black Chamber.” I’d have liked a bit more Teddy Roosevelt – the flashes we get certainly whet the appetite. And it gets a little crowded and abrupt in the third act. But those are relatively minor criticisms – it’s definitely a page-turner.

If “Black Chamber” is any indication, we can expect this newest series from S.M. Stirling to offer the same level of historical veracity and adventuresome storytelling that we’ve come to expect. It’s a strong start – one whose continuation I anxiously await.

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