1634: The Baltic War by David Weber and Eric Flint
Cover art by Tom Kidd
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
At the close of 1633, Grantville and her downtimer allies had won key victories, first the naval battle of Wismar and then a more subtle political victory in the streets of Magdeburg, capital of the new nation they are hammering out. But as Michael Stearns was warned at the end of the original 1632, winning a battle is not the same as winning the war. And it was still all too very possible to lose the real war they were fighting, the long-term one to change the fundamental structures of European society in order to extend fundamental freedom and dignity to everyone.
At the beginning of this novel, the third in the "mainline" series, Grantville and the young United States of Europe it is midwifing are surrounded by enemies who would be more than glad to see them crushed. Grantville's ambassadors to King Charles I of England remained comfortably imprisoned in the Tower of London, held with the utmost of courtesy to be sure, but most definitely not permitted to leave. And things are not going well on the home front.
Human cultures may be more resilient in the face of contact with technologically superior civilizations and the resultant social changes than the Prime Directive in Star Trek gives them credit for, but they are neither infinitely nor instantaneously plastic. There will be rough spots as they adapt new ways of doing things to their own society, particularly when they are doing things in a monkey-see monkey-do fashion rather than learning the principles that underly the procedures they are being required to follow. Sometimes those gaps in understanding can have disastrous consequences.
And we get to see just what one of those disastrous consequences can be in the second chapter, in which a seemingly harmless modification in a coking plant intended to make it easier to feed raw coal into the furnace leads to a buildup of coal tar inside a critical pipe and a consequent explosion. Except it doesn't stop there. Given the extreme density of Magdeburg's industrial development, it starts a chain reaction of catastrophic failures that threaten to destroy the entire city, until Mike Stearns himself uses his uptime knowledge of the industries involved to direct the firefighting efforts to the most critical problem, light coal-tar oils that have a potential to run through the sewers and burn everything to the ground. Of course his solution involves dumping the entire vat into the Elbe, making it burn like the Cuyahoga, but the city is saved.
But Eric Flint never lets us see the city merely as a unit, a faceless mass of population. No, a city is made of individuals, each struggling in their own way to make their livings and live their lives. And those people will each encounter the disastrous industrial accident in their own ways.
Among them is Thorsten Engler, who saw far too much of those first moments when things started going wrong. Because of his involvement in those early moments, and because he was officially holding a management position, he has lost his job, which is a difficult situation for a man of his background to be in. Thus, when he begins to have nightmares of the accident and it begins affecting his search for a new job, he's encouraged to contact the social workers who help deal with difficult situations.
And then springtime comes, and with it renewed hostilities. And in keeping with a firm principle that both co-authors share, that the best way to deal with a problem is to get off one's butt (and but's) and do, Thorsten joins the army. Not only does it give him a job, but it offers him the possibility of striking a concrete blow against the distant powers whose machinations led to the forced-draft industrial growth that was the root cause of the accident.
So off he goes with the field artillery, on a journey that will take him far beyond anything he had previously experienced, not to mention out of the social circles in which he grew up. For he is about to encounter the precocious, athletic Princess Kristina, only daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who is also Emperor of the United States of Europe. A little girl who's been getting some very big ideas from all the fascinating uptime books she's been reading, and who is hoping to do some world-changing of her very own.
But that's only one thread in a very complex novel. We also have the problem of Eddie Cantrell, who was left badly injured and in Danish hands at the end of 1633. He's recovered as well as can be expected given the medical technology that exists in the era, and has discovered that being a prisoner of war in the 1600's is quite a bit different than what it meant in the 20th century wars the older men of his family experienced. Since he's an officer, and a fairly high-ranking one in the USE's tiny navy, he's effectively an honored guest of the Danish king, albeit one not free to come and go at will. Thus he's rapidly developing some rather awkwardly familiar relationships with several of the king's children, who are quite close to his own age. For instance Prince Ulrik, who's got an astonishing fascination with science and technology, and who has a mysterious buddy who may or may not be a stone-cold killer. And then there's Prince Ulrik's half-sister Anne-Catherine, whose mother was not of equal birth with her husband and who thus does not enjoy the title of "princess," only the designation of "king's daughter." A most fascinating and intelligent young woman.
Were their respective countries not at war, they'd probably all soon be fast friends, never mind the difference in their respective social status. But they are at war, which adds the uncomfortable wrinkle that he should not be treating with the enemy. But he doesn't have much choice, not unless he wants to be cast into a real dungeon with chains and rats and suchlike horrors.
And of course there's the situation of Mike Stearns' sister, Rita Simpson, who's sitting in the Tower of London with the rest of the American embassy to England's King Charles I. A king who was never overly strong mentally, and who has steadily been growing more unstable as he struggles to regain control of the situation by using the information brought from the uptime history books, not understanding that every action taken in response to knowledge of the history that would have been works changes upon that very history, until it will soon be completely unrecognizable and thus render the very information useless that one was depending upon to manipulate it.
But Rita and her companions have found unexpected allies in the Yeoman Warders who guard the Tower. They are fiercely loyal in their service, but they also have a stern code of honor that is not all that dissimilar from that understood by the folk of the West Virginia mountains. A code such that the behavior of the king and his ministers is not sitting well with them, and they are becoming increasingly ready to question the rightness of their continued service, particularly when these mysterious Americans have been careful to treat them honestly and forthrightly at every turn.
However, they are not yet ready to enter into open rebellion, certainly not to the point of assisting the Americans in escaping the Tower when it becomes clear that the king has no intention of ever meeting with them or opening serious diplomatic negotiations. Not even when the king is badly injured in a foolish attempt to abandon the capital over icy streets.
Into this volatile situation comes Harry Lefferts, covert agent extraordinaire to Mike Stearns. His intention was to bust the Americans out of the Tower, but as soon as he makes radio contact, Rita and Miz Mailey make it very clear that they're going to be breaking out a much larger group. No ally of theirs will be left behind to face the wrath of a king gone mad, or worse, of a well-meaning prime minister who feels the necessity to prove his own loyalty through an offering of innocent blood.
On the whole, this is a remarkable conclusion to the story arcs that were set up in 1633, simultaneously tying off most of the major threads and leaving us with a situation sufficiently complex that we know there will be still more stories. After all, King Charles and his ministers have not been exactly left over-enamored with the Americans or the USE, nor has Cardinal Richelieu of France. And then there is the problem of the East, of Poland and Bohemia and the horrible pogrom that is going to be happening in just a few years. A pogrom Mike Stearns hopes to avert, just as he hopes that the changes that he is making in the social structure of Central Europe will prevent the development of the conditions that led to the most terrible pogrom of all human history, the one that gave us Final Solution as a code-word for mass murder.
Review posted January 1, 2010.
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