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Conquistador

by SM Stirling

(Roc, $23.95, 440 pages, hardcover; 2003.)

cover scanFans of S.M. Stirling don't need to read this review. If you haven't already bought this book, you certainly will. Stirling is right up there with Harry Turtledove when it comes to the sf subgenre of Alternate History, and Conquistador will no doubt continue his rise in this growing field.

The basic premise is that back in 1946 John Rolfe, a WWII veteran, stumbles upon a gateway to an alternate universe (thus mining the same golden territory as Robert A. Metzger's Picoverse, Robert Sawyer's Hominids and many other recent novels). In this particular world, Alexander the Great lived to be an old man, and this set off a series of events that resulted in the Americas never being discovered. Rolfe sees all this untouched, fertile land and he gets a greedy idea. He brings in his war buddies and begins mining all the gold in California (since there were no settlers there was no Gold Rush).

Flash forward to 2009. Tom Christiansen, a former Ranger, now works as a Fish and Game Warden. While investigating an animal-smuggling operation, he comes upon a condor (and later a dodo) that has no business even existing.

Well, one thing leads to another and Tom discovers the gateway and learns of all that has changed and is forced into living in this alternate world and must help fight those who seek to overthrow the Rolfes to take control of both worlds and so on and so on. I don't want to give it all away, and the plot isn't necessarily this book's selling point anyway (please don't hate me for writing that, Mr Stirling).

Let's face it, the big selling point in alternate-history stories is the desire to see how well thought-out the alternate history is. It is here that Stirling shines. His plot works OK and the characters are for the most part complete (though Christiansen gets off to a bumpy start). In fact, Stirling shines so brightly that it makes me wish he had put the same effort into the rest of his story. But detailed world-building is what this is about and that's what we get.

The novel is written in two structures. The basic structure is a simple Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., with what the author calls "Interludes" in between each chapter. The main chapters follow the 2009 storyline, while the Interludes follow the alternate world's history from 1946 onward. It is an interesting way to build the story and works well. That's structure number one.

What is most interesting is the second structure to the novel, the one that I'd be curious to learn if the author intended. This structure I liken to that of Moby Dick.

In the case of the great white whale, the novel is broken into three unspecified sections. The first part details the opening plot, characters, etc. The last part concludes this tale with action and character and plot and so on. But the middle section of Moby Dick, though sprinkled with bits of plot, is truly a detailed explanation of life aboard a ship. The reader feels each pull of the ropes, smells the galley, and sways with the waves.

Stirling's Conquistador pulls off the same trick. The opening and closing thirds of the novel tell the story. A huge chunk in the middle, however, gives us the detailed world that Stirling has built. No nook or cranny escapes his consideration. Every aspect from how these "modern" humans live in this ancient world to how this ancient world lives with the "modern" humans is explored.

In another novel, this would be deemed a fault. Often, authors spend tremendous efforts building their worlds and researching their science. They want to share everything with their readers -- sometimes to the detriment of their stories. In an alternate history, however, this angle can be turned around. Here, the detail is what draws the reader.

After all, when two readers discuss an alternate-history novel, do they really talk about the characters and plot? Or do they debate the reality of events based on the historical changes made? It's the same with other sf subgenres at times; time-travel stories come first to mind. Don't we spend more time arguing the effects of this or that method of time travel and the shape of time itself than the merits of the characters and their growth?

Ah, but put away that angry pen, you letter-writers. This is not an attack, for I love a good time-travel/alternate history debate as much as the next guy. And I realize that while, as readers, we do desire good stories, good characters, good plots, we also want the kind of detail Stirling provides.

And that, ultimately, is the good and the bad of Conquistador. The story is only adequate but the world-building is superior. The combination makes for an entertaining read, but left me wanting more from this author. Stirling shows great power in his writing at times, and I wanted that to follow through into every aspect of the novel. I wanted more of him in it.

Luckily, Conquistador should do well enough that Stirling's publisher will keep publishing him. It's a good enough book for that. Me, though, I'm waiting for him to write a great book. It's in him, and it'll level us all when it comes. Thar she blows!


Review by Stuart Jaffe.

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