Tor.com, September 2011
“Lee at the Alamo” by Harry Turtledove
“Day One” by Matthew Costello
“The Night Children” by Alexander Gordon Smith
Reviewed by Caroline E Willis
“Lee at the Alamo” by Harry Turtledove is an Alternate History novelette in which Robert E Lee ends up fighting for the North in the Civil War. In our history, Brigadier General Twiggs was commander of U.S. Army forces in Texas when Texas succeeded from the Union. General Twiggs surrendered to the Confederacy, resigned his position in the US Army, and was immediately made a Confederate general.
However, in “Lee at the Alamo,” General Twiggs was unable to take up his command due to illness, thus then-Lieutenant Colonel Lee is in command in his stead when Texas decides to secede. It is important to note that Virginia has not yet succeeded, and in our own timeline Lee did not side with Confederates until Virginia did. Thus, Lee defends US property- particularly the munitions and supplies being kept in the Alamo- from being taken by Colonel McCulloch, a Texan who insists that Texas now owns those supplies. The outcome of that altercation ultimately leads Lee to continue his service with the North.
Turtledove portrays Lee as an ethically conflicted but staunchly professional officer throughout the affair. Lee’s characterization is one of the real treats of this story. Turtledove uses a third person limited perspective to call to our attention the very details a military man trained as an engineer would notice: the “badly planed floorboards” of the Alamo, for instance. Turtledove is known for his excellent attention to detail, and he uses it to create an intricate and accurate world that manages not to distract from the characters or plot. This piece in particular would be an ideal introduction to the Alternate History genre at large.
“Day One” by Matthew Costello is a Horror/Thriller set in modern day New York City, specifically Staten Island and the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. It follows Jack, freshly graduated from the police academy, on his first day. He and his partner, Schiller, get a call about a noise complaint. Specifically, a scream.
They arrive at the residence to discover a body that appears to have been killed and then partially eaten.
There have been food shortages all over; Costello makes that clear. However, he also makes it clear that Jake, being fairly middle class, thinks of these shortages in abstract terms. Jack can’t get his favorite beer. The people who live in Redhook can barely feed themselves at all.
Jack and Schiller see a person fleeing and chase it. The results of the chase lead Jack to seriously wonder what is going on- to confront the idea that the shortages might not end, and people might not handle it well. This story is set in the same universe as Costello’s upcoming novel Vacation, and the ending is very much an invitation to wonder what will happen next.
“The Night Children” by Alexander Gordon Smith is creepy. It’s set in World War II, near Bertogne, Belgium. Four US Army soldiers and one RAF pilot are being hunted by a patrol of German Special Forces, and something else. Something that shrugs aside bullets and giggles when grenades go by. A Hungarian with the Germans knows them from stories: they are the night children.
This story is a prequel to the Escape from Furnace series by Smith. Furnace is a prison specifically designed to hold teenagers, and the night children are the precursors to the things that live there. The German officer, Kreuz, will grow up to be the warden of that prison. “The Night Children” shows how he begins that path.
Smith uses the horror of war to contrast with the horrors of the forest. It’s like watching the water approach the high water mark on the town flagpole. You already know the flood’s bad, but when it rises over that line, you realize you are experiencing something no one else has. And it scares you. Like the night children.
The ending is telling, though; not everything is lost. “The Night Children” is a thriller with strong horror elements, but it is not horror outright. The ending has just enough adrenaline and panache to give the reader the thrill of success and the rush of survivor’s guilt all at once. For me, it means I’ll have trouble falling asleep, but I won’t have nightmares. Well worth a read.