Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: Russian Amerika by Stoney Compton

I have been having some bad luck with alternate histories published by Baen lately. First, there was the major disappointment that was Germanica by Robert Conroy and now there is Russian Amerika by Stoney Compton. While this is probably not the worst alternate history I have ever read, it is near the top...or the bottom in this case if you want to be precise.

The story primarily follows Grigoriy "Grisha" Grigorievich, a half-Russian, half-Native American charter boat captain in Russian controlled Alaska, in a world where Russia is a world power still ruled by the Czar. He was a major in the Troika Guard (Russia's French Foreign Legion), but he was kicked out after "disobeying an insane direct order". Since I only finished half of the book before I set it aside (and I didn't feel too bad about that since I paid for this book with my own money), I can't exactly say what that order was, but since it wasn't important enough to mention in the fist half of the book, I guess it couldn't be that insane.

Things just keep getting worse for old Grisha. He believes his marriage is ending ever since his wife got the hots for the handsome Russian officer who was quartered with them. Worse yet, what he thought would be nothing but a simple smuggling cruise for a boorish Cossack and his companion, Valari, becomes deadly when the Cossack tries to rape Valari and he dies after Grisha intervenes. Valari seduces Grisha and convinces him to run away with her to the southern republics of North America, only for Valari (who turns out is a Russian spy) to betray him to the authorities once they pull back into Grisha's home port to pick up some cash before they were to leave forever. Grisha is sentenced to hard labor building a hotel for tourists, which is a likely death sentence until he is rescued by the "Dena'".

I believe Stoney is referring to the Athabaskan people known as the "Dena'ina" or "Dene" in Canada, although in the paperback copy I read its just "Den" with a dot coming right after the "n". My guess is that when the publishers printed this book the "a'" got replaced by the dot, because the e-book version of Russian Amerika doesn't have this problem. This means there is a major typo on what has to be dozens (if not hundreds) of pages. In fact my copy had a lot issues, including ink splotches on several pages that made it hard to read the text. Also there was a character who was called "Ambrose Ambrose". At first I thought it was another typo, but after the name came up again I wasn't so sure. No one commented on him having the same exact first and last name, so either that is an oversight on the author's part or that typo was repeated more than once.

Okay, if I keep stopping to complain I am never going to get through the rest of the plot summary. To make a long story short, Grisha decides to fight with the Dena' to kick the Russians out of Alaska. He trains with them, helps them infiltrate a major Russian base and even manages to find a new lover. Meanwhile, Valari works with the Russian military to undermine the Dena' separatists from the inside. I would love to tell you how Russian Amerika ended, but like I said, I stopped reading it at page 276. The plot summary from Wikipedia and the description for the sequel, Alaska Republic, suggests that the Russians were kicked out of Alaska so its likely that the good guys won and the bad guys lost. Yay...I guess.

To be fair, Russian Amerika is not all bad. I actually thought Stoney presented the alternate history of his universe fairly well. Its a standard balkanized North America timeline with several popular tropes include the Confederate States of America, the Republic of Texas and Deseret. Admittedly the First People's Nations seems like it is just space filler for fly-over country and the fact that Mexico and Central America are part of "New Spain" raises more questions then answers, but those are minor quibbles.

What is strong about this timeline is that Stoney never really explains how this balkanized North America came about. In any other genre that last sentence would be a criticism, but with alternate history, it works. It avoids the "As You Know, Bob" moments where the characters have to spend a page or two discussing the specific historical event that diverged this timeline from ours. Instead, Stoney just has the characters live in the world as is and don't take unnatural breaks to discuss history. It is refreshing actually and with the references to a "World War", a Russian military action in Algeria, the North American Treaty Organization (get it?) and the fact that technology doesn't seem to be more advanced than the 1940s (despite being set in the 80s) it leaves room for the fun speculation that alternate historians enjoy the most.

That all being said, lets see how either Stoney or Baen decided to visualize this alternate North America:
O my God. That has to be one of the ugliest maps I have ever seen in a printed book. Its nothing but arbitrarily straight line and curved borders. Why are our timeline borders so much clearer than the alternate borders? Why does the First People's Nations just randomly jut out into Canada like that? What is up with Arizona? Its color looks somewhat like the First People's Nations, but it has "Deseret" written across it. Why put the name there when it is obvious that Utah and eastern Nevada is Deseret? You want to know what is even worse about this map? Compare it to the map of Alaska that was also included with the book:
This is actually a fairly well done map. I like the perspective of putting Russian Amerika on its side and how the shading reflects how the influence of the Dena' or "Dene", as they are called on the map, (Consistency? What's that?) extends into Canada. So if they can do Alaska right, why phone it in for all of North America? The first map just looks cheap, which makes me angry when I think of all of the amazing alternate cartographers out there who I feature every week on Map Monday who could probably make a better map in their sleep. Advice to Publishers: spend some time on AlternateHistory.com or DeviantArt the next time you need to find someone to make a map, instead of handing it off to your stoned, unemployed cousin.

Typos and bad maps, however, are not enough to get me to stop reading a book only halfway through. Bad writing and a poor story, however, will. The dialogue was stilted and unnatural, plus there was rarely any time given to character development. People became friends and lovers without any real explanation. Additionally, the book is full of pointless philosophical debates that don't go anywhere and really just sound like two strawmen arguing. There is also several pages showing the step by step process on how the Dena' created a provisional government, just so the military leaders could say there is nothing for them to do until the war is over. One could perhaps argue that the military wing of the separatists just wanted a civilian government to exist to give them legitimacy, but this could have been removed from the book without hurting the story in the slightest.

I also never really understood the plan of the Dena'. I get the feeling they just wanted to win enough battles so that the southern American republics would recognize them and come to their assistance, but why would they do that? Russia is presented as a major force in this timeline. It is able to project power on other continents and, from one throw away comment I read, had a successful military intervention in Afghanistan (Something the Soviets were unable to do and the Americans are still struggling to do in this timeline. China, you're up next.). On top of that, in the early chapters of the book we learn that the North American nations had just signed a new treaty with Russia that eased tensions and opened Alaska to more trade. Why would they risk all of that just to start a world war to come to the help of some Indians? It just doesn't make sense.

I also hated the bad guys in this book. Yeah, I know they are the villains and I am not supposed to like them, but there is a difference between realistic antagonists and cartoon super villains. The Russians in Russian Amerika came off as just broad caricatures who, when not being illiterate, drinking vodka or saying Da, seem obsessed with raping, torturing and killing (not necessarily in that order). Now I may not agree with everything Russia is doing in the present day of this timeline, but even I feel this depiction of them is incredibly offensive.

Then there is the aforementioned Valari, who is a captain in the Russian military. She is perhaps the worst female character I ever read in fiction. She is an incompetent slut who is evil for the sake of being evil (like Lara from Outlaw of Gor for any MST3K fans out there). For example, after Grisha escapes imprisonment to fight for the Dena', it turns out Valari actually has a mole inside their army who is feeding her information thanks to a secret radio. What does she do with this incredibly important source of intelligence? Does she use it to keep track on the plans and movements of the Dena' so they could trap them and end their rebellion once and for all?

Nope, she just has the mole tell her when he and Grisha are going out on patrol so she can surprise him and offer Grisha a chance to rejoin the Russians and work for them. Yes, because the person who has been screwed over by his racist government (twice) would betray the people who rescued him and gave him a new purpose in life just because he was asked nicely by the woman who most recently fucked him over (both literally and figuratively) and represented the same racist government who had imprisoned and nearly killed Grisha in the first place. This ends not only with Grisha getting out of the trap without much effort, but also with the mole deciding he rather fight for the Dena' instead of Russia. Smart move, really.

What does Valari do for an encore after this? Well the radio the mole had does suddenly start broadcasting, potentially revealing the location of the Dena' forces. Since we know that her former spy is no longer trustworthy, this could obviously just be a trap and the Russians should either ignore it or perhaps send a small force of promyshlenniks (the elite Russian woodsman who enforce the Czar's rule in the Alaskan interior) to recon the location the radio last broadcasted from. Instead Valari, in her infinite wisdom, recommends that they send their few airplanes they have in the theater to strafe the position and they are, of course, chewed to bits after the Dena' light them up with their new anti-aircraft weapons. So after failing more than once at her job in a country where women are treated as second class citizens, Valari should kiss her career goodbye. Firing her would be the right thing to do, but no. Instead, her bosses promote her from captain to major. Wow...just wow. Was there still a Stalin in this timeline to purge all the smart people out of the Russian military?

You know talking about Valari reminds me that I need to mention the other female characters in Russian Amerika. In reading this book I discovered there are two types of female characters: those who are the victims of sexual assault or those who are obsessed with sex. Its actually quite uncomfortable to read at times. I can't think of a single female character who didn't either have some rape in her backstory or had strong sexual overtones surrounding her. It was weird, but considering Germanica had the same problems, this might just be par for the course with Baen's recent alternate histories.

Maybe things got better in the last half of the book, but I will never find out. Russian Amerika is bad and you should avoid it and its sequel. Admittedly the overall alternate history is handled well and at least the map of Russian Alaska is nice to look at, but the story is just barely readable. Some may argue that my review isn't complete or fair since I didn't read the whole book, but just as video game reviewers don't have to beat the game to review it, I also don't feel its always necessary to read the entire book before reviewing it. If it can't keep my attention the whole way through, then that is something that deserves to be mentioned in any criticism of the book.

Additionally, ignore the blurb on the front from Eric Flint (one of the most influential alternate historians of the modern era who authored of 1632, which started one of the longest running collaborative fictional worlds, not just in alternate history, but in speculative fiction) which called it "[a]n exciting story of war and revolution." He must have been doing someone a favor when he wrote that, because I certainly did not read anything like that in Russian Amerika.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judgeWhen not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter and YouTube. Learn how you can support his alternate history projects on Patreon.

3 comments:

  1. Concur. But I didn't make it even 50% through the book.

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    1. Glad I am not the only one who had trouble finishing it.

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  2. I should start with admitting I've read this book a long time ago (it's been 7 or 8 years since it came out and that flew by pretty fast for me) but I honestly can't remember it as being that bad as what you described.

    It was not the best alternate history I've ever read but it was readable (unlike Conroy's books on which I agree with you completely. He always seems to have interesting ideas but the realization of them is really terrible, although I always seem to get sucked in for at least a browse of the book.)

    I apparently mostly remember the second part of the book since you don't really mention any characters from the Republic of California and those I seem to remember the best ( the most clear is a plot line involving a downed pilot ending up in the Alaskan wilderness).

    Anyways, I think you were a little bit too harsh in saying avoid the book. I would say read it at your own peril :D

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