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Ring of Fire II edited by Eric Flint

Cover art by Tom Kidd

Maps by Gorg Huff

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Eric Flint originally set forth to write 1632, he thought of it in terms of a single novel. But as he began the project, he soon realized that he simply didn't know all the things that he needed for a novel of such scope. So he appealed to the fans at Baen's Bar, commonly known as the Barflies, for help on some of the more difficult and obscure aspects of history and period technology. The result was an embarrassment of riches -- not only did he get lengthy essays on various issues, but some correspondents even chose to illustrate their points with bits of narrative, even entire short stories.

When 1632 attained sufficient success in the marketplace that it became possible to discuss a sequel, Eric Flint also wanted to be able to publish some of the shorter works that people had created. Thus the anthology series for the Ring of Fire was born, of which this volume is the second. Like the first, it explores various "sidestream" stories, including things that happened between the scenes of the main novels or the stories of characters too minor to receive more than a passing mention in the main novels. However, it also includes continuing storylines that originally developed in the anthology's companion e-zine, the Grantville Gazette, of which the first several have also seen print in dead-tree format.

Thus this anthology has a sort of crazy-quilt feel at times. The stories connect to one another and to the other anthologies and novels in various complex ways, reinforcing one another by casting light on aspects of characters and events that might otherwise be ignored. Unfortunately, it also means that many of the stories do not stand on their own to the same degree that the stories of the original Ring of Fire anthology did. In many cases, one really needs to have read the stories or novels that are set before them in the internal chronology of the universe to really appreciate them, and in a couple of cases it is very possible that a reader who had happened upon this anthology as their first introduction to the universe (say grabbing up a copy in the book rack in an airport duty free shop) could feel quite thoroughly lost.

Karen Bergstralh starts the anthology off strong with "Horse Thieves," a stand-alone story of some young downtimer mercenaries who have come into the employ of an uptime horse breeder and the travails they endure while bringing some fresh stock to their employer. It does a good job of illuminating the nature of prejudice -- in this case the prejudice of the Club 250 crew against downtime Germans -- and how such prejudice will lead people to regard legitimate self-defense as murder.

In "Second Issue?" Bradley H. Sinor gives us a Russian exile reporter and a humorous story of maskirovka that illustrates Roosevelt's comment to Stalin at the Tehran Conference that in wartime truth is often so precious that it must travel with a bodyguard of lies. In this case, it involves the creation of a one-shot newspaper along the lines of the supermarket tabloids, full of stories so silly that the one true story in it will be discredited by association. I found it particularly amusing because I have long suspected that the UFO stories about Area 51 are in fact a maskirovka to deflect attention away from very real advanced military aircraft trials at Groom Lake.

"Diving Belle" by Gunnar Dahlin and Dave Freer is another humorous look at the use of misdirection and even outright deception to protect wartime interests. In this instance, they are trying to distract a French secret agent in Stockholm while they are attempting to raise the wreck of the Vasa, or at least salvage some useful material from it.

In "A Gift from the Duchess" Virginia DeMarce tells a side story to the plague episode in 1634: The Bavarian Crisis. Although having read the novel will increase the reader's appreciation of the story, it does stand alone.

Similarly, Andrew Dennis continues the storyline dealing with Jules Mazarin that he began in the first Ring of Fire anthology and carried on in 1634: The Gallileo Affair in his short story "Lucky at Cards." In our own timeline it was said that Mazarin won the admiration of Queen Anne through his skill at cards. However, given that in the Ring of Fire world Mazarin's association with Grantville and such characters as Harry Lefferts would have exposed him to uptime card games such as bridge and all the various forms of poker, it is certainly interesting to see how that knowledge will affect Mazarin's strategies, even in playing downtime card games against his contemporaries in the court of Louis XIII, particularly the king's notorious brother Gaston.

In "A Trip to Amsterdam" Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett continue the story of the teenage financiers that began in "The Sewing Circle" in the first edition of the Grantville Gazette. In this story the kids become involved in international high finance, specifically the rescue of the Dutch guilder after the Dutch fleet is destroyed and Spanish forces besiege Amsterdam (events described more fully in 1633, Eric Flint's collaboration with David Weber). I found the reference to David Bartley's fiscal responsibility rather bitterly amusing in this post-Maidoff world, but when the story was written and published, the disastrous events of the last months of 2008 and early 2009 were hardly a blip on the radar of anyone but a few economists.

Instead, my biggest difficulty with this story is the sense that the conclusion comes too easily. Yes, it is in Don Fernando's long-term self-interest to take Amsterdam intact and prosperous rather than a hollowed-out ruin destroyed by years of punishing siege. But it would also make sense for him to throw it back in the teeth of his enemies and tell them they are the ones who must give way, not him, and that they need to decide whether they are going to cut off their noses to spite their faces or do the sensible thing and surrender on his terms. Otherwise it feels rather like the heavy hand of the authors at work -- whether Huff and Goodlett or Eric Flint himself, someone wants Don Fernando to be portrayed sympathetically to modern readers, even if it cuts into the realism.

Unfortunately, it was followed by what I personally feel is one of the weakest pieces in the anthology, Walt Boyes' "This'll Be the Day..." I spent most of it rather puzzled, and while Friedrich Spee's recognition that it's t he day he would've died in the original timeline gives me a neat little frission down my spine, it really doesn't make up for the confusion. For instance, I never did figure out exactly what song Spee was rehearsing. While I can understand that it would've been almost impossible to cite lyrics due to the copyright issues involved, it would've been really nice to drop enough hints that I could've at least had a good idea of the title. I think it's Don McLean's "American Pie," given the title of the story, but other hints make me think it's one or another song from Godspell.

"Command Performance" by David Carrico continues his ongoing series of stories about Marla Linder and Franz Sylwester, taking them to the big city of Magdeburg, where Mary Simpson, the grand dame of the USE's developing high society, has decided that it's time to get the downtime music world introduced to the piano and the styles of music that would be developed over the next several centuries. Of course the process of getting a piano from Grantville to Magdeburg is no small matter, given the primitive state of transportation once one leaves the bit of West Virginia time-shifted by the Ring of Fire. Perhaps it would have been simpler to have moved one of the smaller console pianos, but Marla insisted that nothing less than a proper grand piano would suffice for such an august gathering, one that would likely include the Emperor himself. And once they arrived, there were all the awkward little cultural surprises, including a close call with a ruffian who made assumptions about Marla's conduct, not realizing the freedom enjoyed by American women as a matter of course. But once the initial misunderstandings are ironed out, Marla is having far more pleasant encounters with various luminaries of the Italian music scene who for various reasons have been lured northward. And then it's show time.

That long piece, almost a novella, is followed by a brief little gem by Russ Rittgers, "Ellis Island." It is a poignant story of determination in the face of overwhelming odds as a family follows the faint gleam of promise through a ruined landscape to the hope that is Grantville. Although the ending is bittersweet rather than completely happy, there is a definite sense of emotional release when you reach it.

In "Malungu Seed" Jonathan Cresswell-Jones tells the story of the man who very nearly became the first black Jesuit priest, and how his life was changed by the Ring of Fire. This story also has a bittersweet poignance, and not just for the fate of Mbandi. Dr Nichols muses on how eliminating the scourge of the slave trade from the new world they are creating will also mean that a number of art forms will never develop, or at least will develop only through those exemplars brought from another world by the Ring of Fire.

"Trials" by Jay Robison is a crime drama, but a most unusual one, involving as it does Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most famous women painters of the early modern era, and quite possibly of all time. She had come to Grantville as a result of meeting Father Mazzare, now Cardinal Mazzare, in the aftermath of the disrupted trial of Galileo in 1634: The Galileo Affair. But she has hardly more than arrived than she becomes entangled in the messy domestic affairs of some of the less reputable citizens of that town, the sort that hang out at the Club 250.

In "The Chase" Iver P. Cooper tells of the further adventures of the kids of the Barbie Consortium, only this time on the tennis court. But with the modern tennis balls brought through with the Ring of Fire rapidly loosing their bounce, the kids are wondering how they are going to be able to continue to play their favorite game. When William Cavendish, third earl of Devonshire, arrives in the company of his tutor Thomas Hobbes in the course of the Grand Tour, these august gentlemen take the opportunity to introduce the youngsters to the ancestor of their favorite game. Royal tennis is a very different game, played in an elaborate court with all manner of strange architectural features that allow for an interesting game with a ball that has relatively little bounce. And of course the joke in the final scene is absolutely hilarious for anyone who follows a certain comic strip.

In "Eddie and the King's Daughter," K. D. Wentworth develops in detail a story that received only a glancing mention in 1634: The Baltic War, namely, exactly how Eddie Cantrell became involved with a certain fascinating young Danish woman. Anne Catherine is not officially a princess, since her mother was not of sufficiently high birth to be queen. Instead her title is King's Daughter, but it still means that becoming emotionally involved with her is a very risky proposition. Particularly considering that her father has plans for an advantagous marriage for her -- with a fat and ugly man several decades her senior. Which of course sets Eddie a-scheming, and soon they end up far more deeply entangled than is really safe for either of them. Particularly given that King Christian has a major fascination with the technology of the uptimers, and especially its potentials for such nasty things as gruesome executions.

"Second Thoughts" by Virginia DeMarce is a story about which I am extremely ambivalent. On one hand, she's really captured the intricate interpersonal politics of a small town, and how grudges can persist for generations and drag whole families into long-running feuds, simply because people constantly talk. Having been raised in a small town in central Illinois, I immediately recognized the patterns I'd grown up with, of people who were all interrelated over multiple generations -- and in fact it made me wish I'd paid better attention to all the stuff that was going on around me in those days, rather than answering rejection with rejection and keeping my nose in a book all the time.

However, for all its strengths, I still have to ask how much it really works as a Ring of Fire story, as opposed to a hillbilly soap opera. How much of the interpersonal politics really depend upon the events brought about by the transportation of this West Virginia mining town to Europe in the midst of the Thirty Years' War, and how much of it could have continued unchanged had everybody stayed in their original temporal place? Not to mention my severe reservations about how well the story really stands on its how, and how much readers really need to have already read 1634: The Ram Rebellion to be able to understand it. I know I kept wanting to re-read that particular book to try to sort out all the various complex relationships that were referred to off-handedly, with the presupposition that of course the audience would understand the history behind it.

At the same time, it does provide some lead-in to the final work of the anthology, much as K.D. Wentworth's "Here Comes Santa Claus" by K. D. Wentworth led into the final piece in the first Ring of Fire anthology. And like "The Wallenstein Gambit," "The Austro-Hungarian Connection" is written by Eric Flint himself and is long enough to be a novel by Nebula award guidelines, although it is too short to be published as a free-standing book in today's publishing climate. The title clearly invokes The French Connection, the famous non-fiction book and movie, but while those dealt with drug smuggling, this novel deals with a different sort of contraband being transported over international borders. Specifically, technology transfers which have the potential to blunt the edge that Grantville and her allies have over the hostile monarchies that surround them.

In 1634: The Bavarian Crisis, Ferdinand II of the Holy Roman Empire died earlier than he did in our time line. However, the consequences of that change were at best peripheral to the main storylines of that novel, and thus got minimal attention. Not so in this new work, in which his son Ferdinand III, now styling himself Emperor of Austria-Hungary, is one of the most important figures. And he's a man very interested in American technology and what it can do as part of his plan to transform not only his country, but the nature of the Habsburg monarchy, in hopes that his descendants will not be devoured by the conflagration that was World War I in our timeline.

His agent, Janos Drugeth, is a relative of Pal Nadasdy, son of the infamous Blood Countess Erzsebet Bathory, whose depredations were an important part of the background of the short story "If the Demons Will Sleep" in the third issue of the Grantville Gazette. And of course this bit of icky family history will come into play once Noelle and her friends come investigating his efforts to shepherd some very difficult uptime defectors through the mountains to Vienna. There's adventure and derring-do, but there's also humor.

On the whole, the gems in this anthology outweigh the few weak ones, so I can heartily recommend the purchase. However, I'll also warn you that you'll probably want to re-read the other novels and anthologies of the series to refresh your memories of various characters and events, because the experience is far richer when you can really appreciate all the interconnections between the various storylines.

Table of Contents

  • "Horse Thieves" by Karen Bergstralh
  • "Second Issue?" by Brad Sinor
  • "Diving Belle" by Gunnar Dahlin and Dave Freer
  • "A Gift from the Duchess" by Virginia DeMarce
  • "Lucky at Cards" by Andrew Dennis
  • "A Trip to Amsterdam" by Gorg Huff and Paula Goodltt
  • "This'll Be the Day" by Walt Boyes
  • "Command Performance by David Carrico
  • "Ellis Island" by Russ Rittgers
  • "Malungu Seed" by Jonathan Cresswell-Jones
  • "Trials" by Jay Robison
  • "The Chse" by Iver P. Cooper
  • "Eddie and hte King's Daughter" by K. D. Wentworth
  • "Second Thoughts" by Virginia DeMarce
  • "The Austro-Hungarian Connection" by Eric Flint

Review posted March 8, 2009

Buy Ring of Fire II (v. 2) from Amazon.com