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Russian Amerika by Stoney Compton

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I first heard about Russian Amerika on Baen's Bar, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. Not only am I a longstanding fan of alternate history (hardly surprising, considering I have an MA in history), but my undergraduate major was Russian language and literature, so I'm always interested in stories about Russia as it might have been. Especially stories of a Russia in which the Bolshevik revolution was somehow forestalled and the Russian people were spared the horrors of forced collectivization and the Great Terror.

However, when I actually got hold of it and began to read, I was sorely disappointed. I didn't get beyond the first couple of pages before I'd hit five major errors, including incorrectly structured Russian names and Sovietisms anachronistic in a world in which the Romanovs have ruled uninterrupted into the 1980's. When I had to stop and do something else, I put it on the shelf and felt no great urgency to resume reading. So there it sat while I went to reading other books.

Fast-forward several months. My local public library sends me a notice that they are changing their lending policy, drastically reducing the number of books that can be out on a given library card at one time, and I'm way over the new limit. Suddenly I need to either read this book or give up on it and return it unread. So I pick it back up and decide to just grit my teeth and plow through it.

The errors in the Russian still read like fingers scraping down a chalkboard, but I forced myself to look past them and actually see the story of a native people's struggle for independence against imperial overlords, and even to notice the glints of humor here and there amidst the desperate struggles that so terribly often turned tragic (I loved the cameo appearance of Jimmy Carter at a tribunal to determine whether the protagonist is guilty of war crimes, not to mention the alternate version of Ronald Reagan's famous "bear in the woods" campaign ad). The characters' names may have been malformed, but they were engaging enough that I was rooting for the good ones (especially Grisha, who's gotten a whole series of big-time raw deals from the Czar's government, and has plenty of reason to throw his lot in with the Dena people) and thoroughly detesting the bad ones (although the fate of one particularly nasty double-dealing weasel of a villain left me with a squirming unease that maybe Colonel Jackson of the Republic of California Special Forces had gone too far). And I found that there was actually a fairly good story in there, however unpolished it might have been. It's really a shame that the author couldn't have found someone with a strong background in Russian language and culture to help him correct all those awful bobbles and make that part of the story sing.

Or clarify some of the worldbuilding, so that it doesn't seem quite so poorly thought out. The Czar's government often seems to have no motive for doing the various rotten things it does, and at times those evils seem to be a cross-temporal projection of the actual horrors of the Soviet GULAG system to a world in which there never was an October Revolution. The Soviet secret police (under its various names of Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD, MGB and KGB) was not a lineal descendant of the old Imperial Okhrana (spelled with an "r" which is consistently left out in every appearance of the word in this novel, yet another error that grated incessantly upon my nerves -- the word is not an acronym like the alphabet soup of Soviet security agencies, but literally means "bodyguard unit" and is still used as a common noun in modern post-Soviet Russia), and in fact pre-Revolutionary Siberian exile was often a relatively light sentence, particularly for political prisoners, who were generally allowed to work out residence arrangements with the locals and left with considerable freedom to go about their lives. It was only after "Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky organized the Cheka in 1917 that being sent to Siberia meant prison camps and hard labor, often in regimens so brutal that they were compared to slavery. Yet for some unexplained reason Imperial Russia's punitive organs have adopted policies that seem more reminiscent of the worst part of the Great Terror, when those who were not shot outright were sent to camps where they were routinely worked to death for the simple reason that there were so many prisoners coming in that any given prisoner was effectively disposable.

And it's not just the portrayal of the Imperial Russian government that suffers from poorly thought-out worldbuilding. The entire world political situation seems rather muddled and murky, such that I'm not sure exactly where things began to diverge. The obvious point would be the United States not buying Alaska from Imperial Russia, presumably because it lost the Civil War (there is an independent Confederacy). However, the extreme balkanization of the North American continent suggests the possibility of even earlier divergences -- for instance, both Texas and California are independent nations,, which suggests that they never joined the United States in the period leading up to the Civil War, although it is conceivable that the failure of the Union in the Civil War lead to further splintering, with Texas walking out on the Confederacy and California walking out on the US. However, Canada is also divided into French and British Canada, but there is no suggestion of any historical rationale for the situation, making me wonder whether the French managed to win the Seven Years War. But if that were the case, the British would never have acquired the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, which would have led to a completely different American Revolution (assuming that the Revolution happened at all, since a continued French threat might well have made the Thirteen Colonies much more likely to put up with various annoyances in order to retain the protection of the mother country's army and navy).

In fact, what this novel really makes me think of is Tom Kratman's freshman novel, A State of Disobedience. It had different flaws, and arguably more extensive ones, but it too was a frustrating read not so much because of those flaws, but because there was so much promise, so many hints of what it could have been if only the author's skills had been more fully developed. Kratman subsequently paired up with established author John Ringo for two novels in Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata universe. The experience clearly paid off, because when Kratman's original-universe novel Caliphate came out, I could immediately see the improvement in the level of his writing. Characterization and worldbuilding were much more sophisticated, and while there were still some infodumps, they had acquired a tone more like those of Robert A. Heinlein which actually made them interesting reads instead of merely Necessary Information to Assimilate Because You'll Need It Later.

Especially given that Russian Amerika ends in such a way that it really looks like the beginning of an open-ended series, I really hope that Baen decides to team Stoney Compton up with one of the senior authors in its stable for at least two or three collaborations, to master some of the skills that will help to make his next book in this fascinating universe really shine like it deserves to. It may be too late to undo the damage of some of the poorly thought-out worldbuilding, but at least maybe some of the later novels in this world can at least develop a plausible rationale for how the various nations of North America came to be as they are portrayed in this alternate 1980's.

Review posted November 1, 2009

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