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Into the ‘Breach’

November 28, 2018
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There’s probably no subgenre in all of speculative fiction that I enjoy more than alternate history. For whatever reason, the notions of experiencing familiar events filtered through an unfamiliar lens and seeing different ideas of how the world might move if there were subtle – or not-so-subtle – alterations are endlessly fascinating to me.

That isn’t to say that every effort is a good one. There’s as much lazy, formulaic writing in alternate history as there is anywhere else in the realm of genre fiction; it all comes down to keeping eyes and mind open and hoping the next one you grab is a good one.

W. L. Goodwater’s “Breach” (Ace, $16) is a good one. The first in a proposed series, this alternate history takes a look at the Cold War in a world where magic is real, a tool that has been weaponized in the service of battle. It’s a time period that sometimes gets short shrift in alt-history circles, but Goodwater more than makes up for that with a taut tale that offers a rich sense of a world that, despite the presence of magic, is not that different than our own.

In the aftermath of World War II, the city of Berlin was bisected by a wall. Soviet magicians executed some of the most complex spells ever cast by man, creating a massive barrier composed entirely of magic. It was viewed by many in the global community as an affront, but in the name of peace – however uneasy it might be – it was reluctantly treated as an acceptable price. For a decade, the battle was waged through traditional espionage rather than magecraft.

But when a breach is discovered in the heretofore impenetrable wall, the CIA is left in an unenviable spot. If the wall is failing, that drastically alters everything about the situation in Berlin. With people on both sides engaged in a staring contest, the Americans need a magician of their own to assess what needs to be done before someone blinks.

The Office of Magical Research and Deployment (OMRD) is America’s repository for magical knowledge. Karen is a researcher there, a gifted practitioner whose biggest fault is a tendency toward self-doubt. When she is chosen by OMRD head Dr. Haupt – a former German agent with a shadowy past – to head to Berlin for an unspecified job, she is surprised, but willing.

However, it’s not until she arrives that Karen is told what her mission is and learns just how monumental a task lies before her. With little assistance available to her, she is asked to determine what is causing the breach and how it can be fixed. But as the breach starts to grow and others start to appear, the danger increases. And the more Karen digs, the more she starts to think that there’s a good deal more to all of this than meets the eye.

She has no idea how right she is.

With little more than her wits and a few erstwhile allies, it’s up to Karen to find the true secret of the wall before its collapse opens the door to another World War – one where magic might go from tactical weapon to existential threat. All this while her counterpart on the other side – a Russian colonel and magician known as the Nightingale – relentlessly pursues his own country’s agenda.

As far as series introductions go, it’s tough to do much better than “Breach.” It’s a well-realized world – rich in detail while also allowing that detail to unroll organically; there’s not much in the way of the expository info dumps that often mar alternate history efforts. The reader is given a strong sense of this universe, in terms of differences and similarities alike. The groundwork is laid skillfully enough as to not feel like the laying of groundwork, a task whose difficulty is often significantly underestimated.

So you’ve got a setting – what about a story? Goodwater does great work in coming up with a compelling narrative to go along with his engaging setting. There’s a spy thriller vibe throughout that is a lot of fun to experience, particularly when you add the fantasy elements. He captures not just magical excitement, but also the all-too-human aspects of spycraft; even the glimpses of the bureaucratic machine are surprisingly effective.

All this, plus it leaves the door open without feeling unsatisfyingly open-ended – another difficult balance to strike.

“Breach” is pure speculative adventure, a legitimately fun read. Magic and espionage make a fine match; add them to a Cold War setting and you’ve got something that leaves the reader eager for more. The worst part of the entire experience is the knowledge that you’ll have to wait for the next one.

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