A Pleasant Surprise – The US Planned Invasion of Canada

 

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My wife and I went to Barnes and Noble two weeks ago.  I don’t spend a lot of time in bookstores…usually because I am writing books, not looking for them.  I hadn’t been to a B&N in a long time, at least two years. I had to admit I found myself wondering just how long the place would stay open – there were more employees than customers.

I wandered through the genres I write about, just seeing what was on the shelves, when I finally drifted to the magazine rack.  There I spotted “What If… Book of Alternate History.”  I love this genre so I scarfed a copy.  In line with my wife, I opened it and saw there was a section on What if the US had invaded Canada?  Wow.  I wrote about that (twice) in my book NeverWars (Fonthill Media).  War Plan Red covered this much better in the 1930’s, but the earlier plan, for the 1904-1916 version was a fun read.  So I wondered if the author had used any of the same sources as me.

I flipped to that page and was surprised.  I was the author.

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I remember writing it for a British history magazine years earlier and it never dawned on me that they would reprint it.  What a weird surprise.

I do recommend the magazine – there are some wonderful articles in it as well as a list of the best alternate history novels.

Review of Wild West Exodus – Miniatures Game

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For two GenCon’s now I have seen the exquisite displays for this game – so I broke down and played a quick demo and bought a copy of the rules.  I have to approach this review from two perspectives – one is the game – the other is the universe itself.  I don’t know much about Warcradle Studios, but I am impressed with aspects of this game system.

The game is solid as a miniatures tactical game.  My own little playtest at home taught me that if you have more than a dozen or so minis, it can get slow.  Otherwise, the flow is good.  Players use Activation Decks (of cards) to determine initiative which adds a bit of Old West flare to the game.  The Action Card deck uses a system of points (1-5) to activate miniatures.  There is an Adventure deck where a player draws a number of cards based on the size of the scenario and these can be used for Guts and Glory.  Glory improves your accumulation of victory points – where Guts is the other end of the spectrum or provides some unique quirks to the game such as interruption of another action.

From a game perspective, the minis have statistics that are very close to those for a RPG game (which the rules strangely lack).  You have Quick, Mind, Limit, Fight, Aim and Grit.  I won’t bore you with the details, but each factor into play.  I get the feeling that the designers were on the verge of doing a RPG, but opted for a minis game instead.

Fortune factors in as well – measured with poker chips.  You can spend Fortune on things like aiming, re-rolling failures, etc.  You’re limited with these but my own experience at GenCon taught me that these can change the course of a gunfight.  Other things that factor in are artifacts and magic portals…more on that stuff below.

The miniatures range for Wild West Exodus is outstanding and exquisite and one of the key draws for the game.  I picked up a couple of the minis and was impressed with their detail.  The ones I got were hard plastic.

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Overall, the game has solid mechanics and game flow.  The pace is pretty fast once you go over the basics.  The rules are, for the most part, straight-forward and easy to digest.  There’s a lot of diversity about weapons types and impacts that give the game a good flavor of play.  I love how they baked in the lingo of the old West into the rules for flavor.  Hats off to the designers for their writing.

The universe itself as “The Dystopian Age.”  Most alternate history games change one thing, like the South winning the American Civil War, then the universe is the result of things that happen after that.  I was expecting that.  Wild West Exodus does not follow this model.  Instead it changes dozens of things to craft a crossover between steampunk, Wild West historical, magic, and alien technology. More than half of the rules is dedicated to the background.  Some of the writing here is pure genius, where other parts are hard to follow.

What emerges from this background is nothing like the American Wild West – a dizzying blur of faint historical context and a dollop of incredible imagination. In the end, I like playing the game more than I do digging into the universe background on this set of rules. There were parts of the complex background that I did not like, but parts of it are brilliant.  There are no good or bad guys here, every faction has a dark side to it which I like.  There are a lot of factions to choose from.

The game itself is very good, the background is something you and your players will have to pick and choose from as to what you like.  Overall, I give this an eight out of ten, mostly because I have not warmed up to the background of the universe just yet.

Review of Fallout by Harry Turtledove

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I’m going to try and keep this a spoiler-free review of this novel, so it will be relatively short.  In his first novel in this series, Bombs Away, Turtledove laid an intriguing twist…what if we had used nuclear weapons in the Korean War? How could that have played out?

The answer is a world where B-29’s drop bombs fresh from the factory.  This is not Wargames version of global thermonuclear war…it is slow, grinding, ponderous and painful. It is a bomber war.

In book two, Fallout, we see the results of this war lumbering forward.  There is no quick victory here for the characters.  As with all Turtledove novels I’ve read, he’s got multiple story lines and perspectives in play.  The nature of the war shifts in Fallout, bringing rise to the use of nukes on the battlefields.  Several of the story line characters are on those fields of war and experience first-hand the kind of war we only speculated as children.

Both sides start to break out their WWII surplus tanks and weapons to replace losses.  I know some readers found that far-fetched but in reality, up through the 1960’s, the Soviets maintained a large stockpile of T34/85’s from WWII, just for such an eventuality.  I learned that in my research for my own military history book, The Fires of October.

Personally, I would have enjoyed more battle scenes.  There are some story lines I found myself drawn to.  The woman sent off to the gulags is an angle that is proving interesting and is something of a departure for typical Turtledove characters.  I also love the cliffhanger moments with the English woman who owned a bar in Bombs Away.  I came away from the book thinking about how cursed some people are to having bad things happen to them.

The politics of the war and the rise of Joe McCarthy get some reader-time, but don’t seem to add much to the novel.  I wish that had been explored more as a source of tension.  Then again, knowing Turtledove, he could be holding back an “October Surprise” for us fans.

The book does have a big escalation moment near the end – which I won’t spoil.  It was good – damned good.  It could have been more – but it was still pretty awesome.

People love to take shots at Harry Turtledove’s work, as one of the fathers of contemporary alternate history.  Going after his style, his repetition, his character arcs, etc., is almost cliché at this point.  I won’t go there.  People like to take shots at the people at the top of their game – there’s something very American about it.  I won’t.  I’m enjoying the series.

If you liked Bombs Away, you’ll find Fallout as a good solid novel.  Four out of five stars in my opinion.

 

Review of Amerika – Alternate History by Paul Lally

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Nazi’s, A-Bombs, and General Patton.  What could go wrong?

Spoilers below!  This was a novel that seemed to have a lot of potential but seemed to fail on delivery for me.  It’s a “Nazi’s got the A-bomb” book, with some neat twists.  The Germans attacked on the day after Pearl Harbor, nuking Washington DC and New York.  America goes all neutral on Germany’s ass.  The German’s press the war on, nuking other capital cities around the globe but get bogged down in a war deep in Russia.

The story centers on a pilot of a rundown flying boat living under the heels of Nazi dominated neutrality.  America however is not entirely on the ropes.  General George S. Patton and the Sons of Liberty are planning to send the Nazi’s reeling with a diabolical plan of their own involving using a captured German nuke on our own reactors to prevent the Nazi’s from getting our plutonium – since they have exhausted their own supply.

Hilarity ensues.

Generally I am all over a book with Patton in it.  I’m a sucker for Patton, having read many of his biographies.  Patton’s role in the book proved to be fairly limited however.

I had two issues with the book.  One, it seemed to waste a lot of text on flying airplanes.  It was buried in pointless technical dialogue that didn’t help the story along.

Second, the plot itself was clumsy.  Why bomb our own source of plutonium production?  America is a big place and hiding our stash would have been easier and faster than nuking t.  It just felt forced to me, and a bit unnecessary.  Also, we have Nazi troops landing in Washington and Louisiana, clearly violating our neutrality, but it never even seems to make the press or airwaves in the book.

The one thing I did love about the plot is it’s like watching a 1940’s film akin to Casablanca.  The dialogue is good (when it’s not about flying a plane) and it has that 1940’s spy film feel to it.  The characters come right out of central casting and each has a good arc in the story.  Paul Lally made me like some characters and hate the bad guys.

The writing is solid too. Mr. Lally is clearly talented and his prose are crisp.  He weaves in dialogue from the 1940’s masterfully.  I only wish I had subscribed to his plot more than I did.  I give this book three and a half stars out of five.  It’s fair, if you want to read another Nazi bomb story.

Book Review – Storm Front – Alternate History

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Not your typical “Nazi’s win WWII” alternate history – which is refreshing on its own. 

Storm Front (Book I of the Twilight of the Gods) is set in 1985 in a world where Germany was not destroyed as a result of WWII.  I phrased that carefully.  This isn’t your typical alternate history fare, where Germany won the war.  Yes, they defeated Russia and France, but they entered a Cold War era with Britain and the US.  On the whole, that makes for a fascinating set of perspectives of what life would be like in 1985 in the Reich.

Many books in the genre use war as the tapestry to tell the story.  Storm Front doesn’t do that, not directly anyway. There’s a war, in South Africa, a mirror to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but we are not sucked into it as part of the storytelling – something I was surprised by (in a positive way).  Storm Front takes a higher road, going along the route of Man in a High Castle.

Ultimately this is the story of characters who become unlikely catalysts in a revolution.  The analogy to Poland is interesting but the differences are only on the surface.  Author Christopher Nuttall isn’t afraid to draw connections to real world events but often takes them in his own creative direction.  Some of the characters are intricate in terms of their motivations – which I like.

This was my first taste of his writing and I have to admit, I’m going to dive into the second book when it comes out.  He plays homage to Harry Turtledove in the book, which seemed a little corny while at the same time was perfectly acceptable.  Even as a historian, I struggle with the the German ranks, but his only other choice was to do a Hogan’s Heroes approach to the dialogue and that would have sucked.  Kudos for making the right call Mr. Nuttall.

What was nice was that this first book had a logical ending point – without leaving me hanging without some degree of closure on key plot lines.  At the same time Nuttall has done a great job of setting up the next book in the series.

I give Storm Front 4.5 stars…not your typical fare for alternate history, which gives it some refreshing appeal.

Review of Bombs Away – Harry Turtledove – Alternate History

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I was intrigued with the premise of this alternate history novel.  In the Korea War, General MacArthur convinces President Truman to allow him to use nuclear bombs against the Chinese surging into the Korean peninsula.  I knew one thing, the Godfather of the genre, Harry Turtledove, was going to take us on a ride.

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“Harry, I have an idea.  Let’s toast a few hundred thousand Chinese…”

It is a neat period of history and Turtledove’s twist of history was going to be a good combination I felt and I wasn’t let down.  The Russians respond to the use of nuclear weapons by using some of their own.  Rather than a horrific holocaust in a blinding few minutes, this is a bomber war and both sides sparingly use their weapons of mass destruction.  It is a slow, almost ponderous and grinding war of attrition – one that is entirely plausible.

Turtledove has his usual ensemble of characters to tell us the story, right down to his traditional Jewish character.  When it comes to Turtledove, this is expected and somewhat anticipated.  The book felt like a well worn glove that fit on my hand just right.

I had no idea that this was the first book of a series, which I have to admit, left me a little bit hanging.  So you’re not left with a strong conclusion in this book, instead you’re left set up for the next book in the series.  That was a little bit disappointing but that was the only thing I didn’t enjoy.

This book is old-school Turtledove at his best.  The characters really stand out and the plot takes us on a very intricate war.  The battle of Fulda Gap, which we all anticipated in the 1980’s, is fascinating in the 1950’s.  I love T34’s tangling with contemporary American armor.

I give this book a five out of five stars.  I devoured it in a weekend and now have to twiddle my thumbs until the next book comes out in April.

Review – Germanica – Robert Conroy’s Alternate History

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What if the war continued after Hitler’s death?

We lost Robert Conroy a while back and his voice in the alternate history genre is missed.  The story concept is fairly intriguing – what if Germany fell back to the mythical Alpine Redoubt (Germanica) in WWII rather than surrender.  On its own, that is interesting.  You have the last bits of the Third Reich hunkering down and waging a war of attrition against the Allies, which is a good premise to build off of.  It is a good piece of alternate history, not stunningly great, but not bad.

This is an ensemble story with a cast of characters to give you a lot of perspective as to the conflict.  We have a seasoned officer, a grizzled sergeant, a pilot turned OSS spy, a holocaust survivor and a few others designed to round out views of this extended war.  There’s a few that stand out.  The military characters were the strongest of the mix.  You find yourself unsympathetic to the grizzled German troopers that are fleeing into Germanica which I think is a missed opportunity.

In this history, Joseph Goebbels leads the rag-tag remains of the Germany military into the alpine state dubbed Germanica.  With him are the German scientists working on the atomic bomb, because everyone writing an alternate history on Germany can’t resist the concept of a Nazi A-Bomb.  Fortunately Conroy doesn’t fall back on this as his key lever to the plot.  In fact, I found his insertion of it rather refreshing since other authors have covered this ground already.

President Truman struggles with an America that is weary of the war which is just what the Germans are hoping for.  I found that less-than-plausible, though Conroy introduces some throwaway characters to justify it.  The Swiss are less-than-neutral in this effort, indirectly aiding the Nazi’s.

The only main supporting player I struggled with was Dulles, the spymaster of the OSS in Switzerland.  I wrote about the OSS in my book, Lost Eagles.  Having researched Dulles at the National Archives II, I can say the way he was portrayed, personally staging missions, just didn’t seem right.

The ending was okay, but it could have been a much more powerful with the proper set-up.  I found myself wanting something more dramatic at the end, payout for my reading.

Germanica is a good read.  It’s not Conroy’s best, but it was incredibly pleasing to finally pick this book up and devour it.  It served to remind me just how much we’ve lost in the alternate writing community of authors.  I give it three-and-a-half stars out of five.  A solid read – worth adding to your list.