(Roc, $23.95, 440 pages, hardcover; 2003.)
Conquistador will no doubt continue his rise in this growing
of S.M. Stirling don't need to read this review. If you haven't already
bought this book, you certainly will. Stirling is right up there with
Harry Turtledove when it comes to the sf subgenre of Alternate History,
The basic premise is that back in 1946 John Rolfe, a WWII veteran,
stumbles upon a gateway to an alternate universe (thus mining the same
golden territory as Robert A. Metzger's Picoverse, Robert Sawyer's
Hominids and many other recent novels). In this particular world,
Alexander the Great lived to be an old man, and this set off a series
of events that resulted in the Americas never being discovered. Rolfe
sees all this untouched, fertile land and he gets a greedy idea. He
brings in his war buddies and begins mining all the gold in California
(since there were no settlers there was no Gold Rush).
Flash forward to 2009. Tom Christiansen, a former Ranger, now works
as a Fish and Game Warden. While investigating an animal-smuggling operation,
he comes upon a condor (and later a dodo) that has no business even
Well, one thing leads to another and Tom discovers the gateway and
learns of all that has changed and is forced into living in this alternate
world and must help fight those who seek to overthrow the Rolfes to
take control of both worlds and so on and so on. I don't want to give
it all away, and the plot isn't necessarily this book's selling point
anyway (please don't hate me for writing that, Mr Stirling).
Let's face it, the big selling point in alternate-history stories is
the desire to see how well thought-out the alternate history is. It
is here that Stirling shines. His plot works OK and the characters are
for the most part complete (though Christiansen gets off to a bumpy
start). In fact, Stirling shines so brightly that it makes me wish he
had put the same effort into the rest of his story. But detailed world-building
is what this is about and that's what we get.
The novel is written in two structures. The basic structure is a simple
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., with what the author calls "Interludes"
in between each chapter. The main chapters follow the 2009 storyline,
while the Interludes follow the alternate world's history from 1946
onward. It is an interesting way to build the story and works well.
That's structure number one.
What is most interesting is the second structure to the novel, the
one that I'd be curious to learn if the author intended. This structure
I liken to that of Moby Dick.
In the case of the great white whale, the novel is broken into three
unspecified sections. The first part details the opening plot, characters,
etc. The last part concludes this tale with action and character and
plot and so on. But the middle section of Moby Dick, though sprinkled
with bits of plot, is truly a detailed explanation of life aboard a
ship. The reader feels each pull of the ropes, smells the galley, and
sways with the waves.
Stirling's Conquistador pulls off the same trick. The opening
and closing thirds of the novel tell the story. A huge chunk in the
middle, however, gives us the detailed world that Stirling has built.
No nook or cranny escapes his consideration. Every aspect from how these
"modern" humans live in this ancient world to how this ancient world
lives with the "modern" humans is explored.
In another novel, this would be deemed a fault. Often, authors spend
tremendous efforts building their worlds and researching their science.
They want to share everything with their readers -- sometimes to the
detriment of their stories. In an alternate history, however, this angle
can be turned around. Here, the detail is what draws the reader.
After all, when two readers discuss an alternate-history novel, do
they really talk about the characters and plot? Or do they debate the
reality of events based on the historical changes made? It's the same
with other sf subgenres at times; time-travel stories come first to
mind. Don't we spend more time arguing the effects of this or that method
of time travel and the shape of time itself than the merits of the characters
and their growth?
Ah, but put away that angry pen, you letter-writers. This is not an
attack, for I love a good time-travel/alternate history debate as much
as the next guy. And I realize that while, as readers, we do desire
good stories, good characters, good plots, we also want the kind of
detail Stirling provides.
And that, ultimately, is the good and the bad of Conquistador.
The story is only adequate but the world-building is superior. The combination
makes for an entertaining read, but left me wanting more from this author.
Stirling shows great power in his writing at times, and I wanted that
to follow through into every aspect of the novel. I wanted more of him
Luckily, Conquistador should do well enough that Stirling's
publisher will keep publishing him. It's a good enough book for that.
Me, though, I'm waiting for him to write a great book. It's in
him, and it'll level us all when it comes. Thar she blows!
Review by Stuart Jaffe.
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