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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.

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Speculative fiction tends to shine its brightest when it is given space to grow. World building is a key component to the most successful fantasy or sci-fi offerings – those fully-realized backdrops can grant the reader the immersive experience they often seek from this sort of genre offering.

Alternate history – a personal favorite – benefits no less from such world-building efforts, though a higher degree of delicacy is required, thanks to the real-world foundation upon which the narrative realm is built. If it goes awry, it can rudely yank a reader out of a story. But if it’s done right, well … you’re in for a treat.

And S.M. Stirling does it right.

His new book is “Theater of Spies” (Ace, $16), the sequel to last year’s excellent “Black Chamber” and – one can only hope – just the latest installment in what deserves to be an ongoing series. It’s the continuing tale of an alternate World War I and the espionage agency – also named the Black Chamber – tasked with protecting the United States and her interests both home and abroad during wartime.

Marrying meticulously-researched alternate history with a spy thriller sensibility, “Theater of Spies” is both propulsive and compulsive in its readability. Like the best work within the subgenre, it strikes that oh-so-delicate balance between fact and fiction and creates a world both fascinating and familiar.

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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.

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