Paradox, Issue 10, Winter 2006-2007

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"Amante Dorée" by Sarah Monette
"After the Circus" by Danny Adams
"The Qualities of a Monarch" by C. Kevin Barrett
"Marathon" by Bruce Durham
"The Duke of Bedford Prays for His Brother’s Soul" by Anne Sheldon
"The Luck of the Irish" by Brian K. Crawford
"Somewhere, Sometime on the Nile" by Stephanie Dray
Like everything else in the universe, there are two kinds of Alternate Universe (AU) stories—the ones wherein the characters are pieces on the board of the clever idea, and stories whose main focus is character exploration.  In the first, the fun is in all the different details; in the second, the background is more or less removed from historical verity, but the details are left to the reader to imagine, and the writer stays focused on the people.  "Amante Dorée" by Sarah Monette is one of these latter.  In this universe, Napoleon IV is the Emperor of France who rules, in addition to his European empire, a massive colony in the western portion of the new world called Territoire Louisianne.  (Pause to consider the delightful idea of a French San Francisco!)  Nouvelle Orléans is the capital, which makes it the primary city for spies and shady characters moving between old world powers and new.  Annabel St. Clair is a courtesan—she takes her box at the opera and entertains, as well as is entertained by, the city’s nobility.  She is also a spy for the French government, out of loyalty and not just greed, despite her American origins.  Her handler, Jules Sevier, however, is the sort of pragmatist one expects a spy handler to be.

A young man named Louis Vasquez, who claims to be Louis XVIII (I can’t quite figure out how that would happen, unless Louis XVII did not die under the hands of the Revolutionaries as a child, but lived a very long life and produced a child at the end of it), is murdered the night he leaves Annabel’s.  This brings a mysterious gentleman named Quentin to her; Vazquez’s death more than his claims is sending reverberations through the international spy world, where not just loyalties and power politics exist in a paradigmatic twilight,  but questions of gender and sexuality as well.  A poignant tale, with memorable characters.  This universe has all kinds of potential—I hope Monette will explore it further.

One subject that seems irresistible to AU writers is Nazi Germany, specifically Hitler.  If all the Hitlers in all the AU stories were brought into a single timeline, they could people their own Reich.  (And what a weird story that would be.)  Danny Adams gives us Hitler through the eyes of the badly crippled Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron flying ace—still alive in 1922.  Manfred is unable to work, but so beloved by his landlady and others around him, he is kept alive by a conspiracy of generosity despite everyone being poor.  One of his friends brings him to meet this wonderful, inspiring young man who is working for a better Germany.  Here, Manfred is introduced to Hitler and his gang.  Where Adams infuses the familiar alternate Hitler trope with interest is in showing the strong division between the old German army and Hitler’s Nazi army.  Many non-German fiction writers ignore the fact that in reality there were terrific tensions between the two, right until the end of the war, which was evidenced in how Hitler forced so many of his commanders to suicide and held their families hostage.  Adams shows us the path to glory that one of the old guard would have probably taken if he could.

C. Kevin Barrett‘s short short "The Qualities of a Monarch" was Paradox‘s Flash Alternate History Winner.  Set in 1536, at a time when the notion of kingship was changing in Europe, the story focuses on the stage set for King Henry VIII and the Queen Consort, Anne Bolyn, where a priest is waiting to oversee a death.  The crowd is tense; two men at the back are arguing the most important quality a monarch must have.  What we get is a very unexpected twist, a couple decades early, on the concept of  l’honnête homme.  Zing!

"Marathon" by Bruce Durham begins with Time Scribe Nick Sapololous in Athens in 490 B.C.  He’s 24, a new Time Scribe guided by an AI implant serving as database and monitor.  Time Scribes are sent back to historic occasions to record them.  Thus the necessity of being on hand for those occasions—but not interfering with the people who make history.  Nick is supposed to stay in Athens and report reactions from the people as his boss, Demosthenes Mouriopolis, travels with the Athenians to Marathon.  But Demo falls off his horse and injures himself, and so Nick must march with the hoplites in order to record the battle.  Despite his attempts to remain in the background, every time he turns around, he encounters yet another famous name.  How is he going to avoid changing history?  An entertaining story with vivid descriptions that evoke Thucydides and Herodotus.

Anne Sheldon‘s "The Duke of Bedford Prays for His Brother’s Soul" takes place during late February and Spring of 1493—just after Joan of Arc was taken.  The Duke of Bedford remembers his brother’s noisome death, but he believes in the Lancastrian cause.  He has to; the horrors committed by his soldiers at the command of the king must have been right.  So why is he haunted by the headless spirit of a young girl nursing a baby?  A poignant tale, tightly written: Bedford becomes sympathetic, his point-of-view alternated with very brief, evocative glimpses of the Maid of Orleans’ thoughts.

"The Luck of the Irish" by Brian K. Crawford is a nautical tale, set after the Bligh mutiny.  Three men escaped after two years of trying and are blown into Port Jackson where they take a schooner, killing the three crewmen.  Now they have assumed those men’s names and their cargo, and are sailing for freedom—when a frigate heaves up on the skyline, searching for pirates.  The ship detail is excellent, the scene vividly set, the action well-described in this tense tale with a twist.

"Somewhere, Sometime on the Nile" by Stephanie Dray is my favorite of the issue. This story, balancing between character and events, is another time travel tale.  The travelers are "time slippers" who inadvertently slide through different times through a location (the Wailing Wall) or an object (an ancient vase or jar).  Jerusalem in the story’s present is the center of a peaceful Middle East.  This is the result of careful time adjustment by the Elders Council that located Professor Ammar Abdul-Salaam years ago and trained him after his inadvertent slide through time, following the death of his father in a Jerusalem riot.  He then found and trained Maryam, a young Palestinian woman who timeslid after the violent death of her own father.  The result of the time fix cost Maryam her child, who no longer exists, and now she’s out for revenge.  And though the frail old professor is dying, he must stop her, or Jerusalem itself will be erased. 

As the professor chases Maryam, we slide back and forth in time through the major events of the characters’ personal histories, against the backdrop of the anguish and horror of events in that region. The story is thus fraught with tension; I wondered while reading it if it was really a book compressed down, for we never know Maryam’s child, for instance, but the scenes, though short, are taut; the situation of a mother denied her child certainly is immediately understandable as a cause for conflict.  And so what might well have become a vast and fascinating novel full of colorful people and dramatic events is condensed to a duel between two hurting people, which Dray brings to a very effective close.

All things considered, I thought this a thoroughly enjoyable issue with a wide range of stories, and not a disappointing or dull one among them.