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Stirling’s WWI saga continues with ‘Shadows of Annihilation’

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If history were different, how different would it be?

That’s the underlying notion behind most alternative history stories, books and series that look into the past, alter something fundamental … and then see what happens. That forward-moving extrapolation of what changes – large and small – might come about because of that singular shift.

Like any speculative fiction, what we actually get in terms of quality varies wildly. Narrative complexity, world building, historic verisimilitude, strong characterizations of people both fictional and non – it all depends on the talents of the author in charge.

S. M. Stirling’s talents are formidable, which is what makes his latest offering so good.

“Shadows of Annihilation” (Ace, $18) is the newest installment in Stirling’s “Black Chamber” series. It’s a long look at an alternate World War I, one where Teddy Roosevelt has regained the presidency and consolidated his power and hence is at the helm during the war. One of his many weapons utilized against the enemy is the Black Chamber, a sort of proto-CIA involving espionage, assassination and a score of other below-board activities designed to fight America’s foes and advance her interest.

Black Chamber operatives Luz O’Malley and Ciara Whelan are on the move once again; while their recent efforts headed off an apocalyptic German attack against the American East Coast (one featuring the aptly-named “horror-gas” nerve agent) were mostly successful, the war rages on. It is only the threat of U.S. deployment of similar weaponry that keeps things at an uneasy and bloody standstill.

Luz and Ciara are sent to Mexico – now a U.S. Protectorate, courtesy of Roosevelt and the American military – in order to check on the progress of the Dakota Project, the under-construction U.S. manufacturing facility that will be devoted to researching and developing their own chemical agents. It’s a race against time; the German powers know that America’s current supply – confiscated from enemy forces – is decaying. So Roosevelt sends two of his most trusted operatives to monitor the situation.

But an old enemy – one motivated now as much by personal vengeance as patriotic duty – is also in country, and he has some plans of his own.

Luz and Ciara must put every one of their distinct and idiosyncratic talents to the test. One false step and their cover will be blown. One wrong choice and either or both of them could wind up dead. A single mistake could directly lead to thousands or even millions of deaths. Are they up to the task? Will even the best of the best be enough?

“Shadows of Annihilation” is precisely the sort of continuation you want from a series like this. The historical divergences are growing ever more pronounced as time passes; the clarity of Stirling’s new world continues to build. As the geopolitical sphere shifts, a new global picture comes into view – one still operating on a real historical foundation, and so plausible even in the face of the fantastic.

And just like the previous two installments, it’s a heck of a spy thriller as well. It’s packed with action, both sweeping and subtle – gun fights and spycraft, technical mysteries and undercover dinner parties, the whole bit. There’s an unwavering energy to these books, a constant push forward that makes them incredibly easy to read and incredibly difficult to put down.

In Luz, Stirling has developed a first-rate action protagonist. She is capable and smart, witty and cunning, confident but not TOO confident. Even though her abilities border on the superhuman, she still doubts and questions. She still feels fear and love. Add Ciara, whose own talents are almost impressive (and whose own flaws are a bit more overt), to the mix and you have an engaging central pairing. Of course, these two suck up most of the oxygen, so the supporting characters don’t get as much run (with the exception of President Roosevelt and – perhaps – our main baddie), but that’s a feature rather than a bug; Luz and Ciara are why these stories work.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the series moving forward. Stirling’s world-building remains top-notch, so there’s that. There are hints scattered throughout this book at some potentially darker turns that might be coming – on both sides of the conflict; one wonders if the author will continue in that direction. Regardless of what twists and turns await, we can feel fairly confident that the next book will have plenty to offer.

“Shadows of Annihilation” is a worthwhile addition to the series, a book that largely avoids the fading feeling one sometimes gets from ongoing speculative fiction. Stirling’s world is a rich and detailed one, a place that I look forward to visiting again. As should you.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 09:29

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