by Beth Bernobich
Reviewed by I.E. Lester
Personal opinion time - I adore novellas. I find it the optimal length for science fiction. I'll freely admit that there is much you can't do in this length. I couldn't imagine Dune (my favourite book) as a novella for instance. But this length makes for excellent concentrated bursts of sci-fi - restricted palette tales where all the action is focused tightly on a single thread and is unencumbered by unnecessary detail.
So the thought of a political espionage thriller set in an alternate Earth with lashings of steampunk overtones in a novella length tale worried me. That's an awful lot of plot content to cram into the less than weighty frame of a novella. I'll admit that I couldn't see how Beth Bernobich could pull it off. She did.
With an incredible efficiency she's delivered a whole new world. And this is not just a slightly altered facsimile of our Earth where maybe England drives on the right, or a familiar historical divergence allowing us to fill in the gaps from what we've seen/read before - no Hitler won WW2 cliché type story.
Bernobich has twisted history in a very believable manner. This Europe is a vastly different creature. Ireland was never subjugated by the British, quite the opposite, and is a powerful player in this less technologically advanced world. (Without the empire building and major wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it is logical that technology would not have advanced at the pace of our world.)
The Irish Queen Áine Lasairíona Devereaux sends an agent, Adrian Dee, to the Balkans (as troubled in this world as ours) to investigate rumours of English freedom fighters seeking foreign support for there cause - and whether there is a traitor in the Queen's court.
The steampunk retro-feel serves to heighten the tension of the main plot. Removing the high-tech gadgetry of modern thrillers returns the emphasis to one man's intuition and intellect against another's. It's kind of like comparing an episode of Columbo with CSI, although unlike Columbo we are as much in the dark as to the traitor in the Irish court as Dee.
But good though the plot is - it's the world Bernobich has created here that will interest most science fiction fans. And this is where you'll wish this were longer. What we get of the background is so compelling but there's not enough of it. You'll finish this book wanting so much more.
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