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The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy'

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Humor, action abound in debut novel

Alternate history has long been a mainstay in the realm of speculative fiction. History is rich with tipping points, pivotal people and actions whose impacts resonate long after they've become memory. Writers have been using simple 'what if' questions to imagine wholly different worlds worlds similar to, but not exactly like our own for generations.

But none of them has had quite as much fun as Jacopo della Quercia.

His debut novel is 'The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy (St. Martin's Griffin; $15.99); once you've read it, you'll never look at American history in quite the same way again. Part sci-fi, part action-adventure, part comedy it is historical fiction like you've never seen it.

In the year 1910, President William Howard Taft isn't necessarily spending his time behaving in a Presidential manner. We first encounter him in an English pub, where he is the 'one' in a four-on-one bareknuckle boxing match (a match he wins handily, by the way) His wife Nellie the real power behind the throne is in Washingtonalong with an automaton built by Thomas Edison to serve as the President's proxy when he's off on his high-tech zeppelin (designed by Nicola Tesla) or punching random Brits.

But when Taft's old friend Robert Todd Lincoln eldest son of Abraham Lincoln appears with a highly-advanced gold pocket watch that once belonged to the elder Lincoln, the President is thrust into the midst of a mystery. The watch is an entry point into a generations-long conspiracy a conspiracy that involves figures at the highest level of global politics and business. From Alaska to the depths of the Congo, Taft and Lincoln along with erstwhile Secret Service chief John Wilkie and a host of other familiar names from history's annals (including appearances by everybody's favorite Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt) must get to the bottom of one of the most far-reaching and potentially deadly plots in all of human history.

'The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy' is an absolute delight. Any attempt to synopsize the book does it a disservice, simply because there's a multilayered richness to the narrative that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated. Of course, if you're the sort of person who can get past bareknuckle-boxing Taft and not immediately want to read this book, then I apologize and hope that someday, you can once again find some modicum of joy in life.

Seriously, this book is flat-out great. Not just because of the jumbled juxtaposition of real historical figures and outlandish situations although that's a big part of it. Nor is it just because of the well-crafted characterizations that offer truthful-feeling connections to those real-life figures though that's a part of it too.

No, the most striking reason for this book's success is della Quercia's meticulous and painstaking research. It's remarkable, really; he has immersed himself in the history of the period, following the lives and careers of each and every one of his major players. From there, he has constructed a behind-the-scenes narrative, a secret history that aligns perfectly with the official story. His in-depth understanding of that actual history is the foundation on which he builds this fantastical tale.

And it should be noted, the book is legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. Humor is mined by way of both character and situation; Taft in particular is endearing and engaging a brilliant buffoon. While della Quercia provides an exceptional tale, filled with dramatic tension and carrying a steampunk sensibility throughout, that humor is what transforms this book from a good read to a great one not that we should expect anything less from one of the movers and shakers at Cracked.com.

'The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy' creates a combination of scholarship and slapstick that simply doesn't come around all that often, so you'd do well to take advantage. For fans of humor, history or both, this book should immediately be placed at the top of any must-read list.

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