Monday, 12 December 2011

Sideways in Crime

This book features alternative history and mystery! "Sideways in Crime" is a brand new anthology of all-original stories from some of the genre's foremost writers. Featuring an eclectic range of alternative history crime stories, from Jacobean power-plays to far future empires, this new anthology explores the darker side of the alternative history genre. It includes new stories by Kage Baker, Stephen Baxter, Tobias Buckell, Pat Cadigan, Paul Di Filippo, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Theodore Judson, Jack McDevitt, John Meaney, Paul Park, Mike Resnick & Eric Flint, Mary Rosenblum, Chris Roberson, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and SM Stirling.

I've always been fascinated by alternate history and I love mysteries so this anthology caught my eye right away.

As with any anthology the quality varies from story to story with some that really stand out and some you wish they hadn't been included by on the whole there are more hits than misses in this volume.

Running the Snake by Kage Baker - Oh my! Kicking the book off with this one was a good move on the part of the editor as it is, in my opinion, far and away the best. Set in an Elizabethan Britain where the Romans never conquered Britain and with the role of Elizabeth filled instead by a descendent of Boudicca it is a very cleverly written whodunnit with a generous sprinkling of references which will make any history geek laugh. Our hero is Will Shaxpur, a street entertainer/con artist, who finds himself mixed up in intrigue, politics, and murder. This story alone is worth buying the book for!

Via Vortex by John Meaney - I've not come across this author before but I'll certainly pick up anything with his name on it from now on. While not as outright enjoyable as the first story this was one of the more thought provoking entries in the anthology. On the surface it's a straightforward police procedural with a scifi twist, but to read it purely as a murder mystery would be a crime. It has layers upon layers of meaning and questions in it. The method of travel which it focusses around is fraught with moral questions - I won't say more as I'd hate to spoil the story - but there are other things designed to make you think as well. Amerika was on the side of the Germans in WWII in this universe and the casual reveal of the plaques on the street in Brooklyn and the meaning behind them took my breath away. On one hand I'd love to see more in this universe, but on the other this story was so perfectly complete I'm worried that to do so would spoil it!

Fate and the Fire-Lance by Stephen Baxter - The setting on this one was intriguing - a world where the Roman Empire never fell and a Europe balanced on the brink of war - but for some reason it didn't grab me. I did like the heroine and the mystery was well constructed and cleverly revealed but on the whole it was only an average entry and I had expected more from Baxter.

The Blood of Peter Francisco by Peter Park - I just had to google this one to remind myself what it was about even though I only read it two days ago, which pretty much sums up my reaction to it. It wasn't bad, just eminently forgettable. The story is set in an America where the American Revolution had failed and features a murder committed by a member of an anarchist group. Really there was very little mystery involved and what there was dealt with motive rather than who the murderer was and while that can make for an interesting story, it didn't here. You could skip this entry without missing a thing.

The Adventure of the Southsea Trunk by Jack McDevitt - Not so much of an alternate history feel to this one as the events which changed were personal rather than internationally important but it makes up for that by being a cleverly done mystery. Although the solution is fairly obvious the story is so well written that you don't care and the journey is the important part rather than the destination. Definitely not to be missed if you're a Holmes fan, but enjoyable for anyone.

G-Men by Kristine Kathryn Rusch - Absolutely loved this one! Interestingly this isn't dealing with alternate history, so much as telling us the story of the crime that caused the changes in history. If you like modern American history and/or conspiracy type tales then this is the story for you. I felt the voice was perfect both for the era and the type of story the author was trying to tell and yet at the same time it felt very contemporary, kind of Law and Order, the 1964 edition! As much as I loved the actual investigation into the crime I have to admit my favourite scenes were the ones involving Robert Kennedy and LBJ.

Sacrifice by Mary Rosenblum - This one has a lot in common with the first story in the anthology, not so much in the setting but in the politics and intrigue involved and maybe that's why I loved it so much. The setting was in an Aztec empire that had never fallen to the Spanish and although our hero and investigator is of European origin I would reject the claim that I've seen in some reviews that the Aztecs were portrayed as incapable of solving the crime on their own. On the contrary I believe the Emperor knew what was going on probably before our hero did and the ending proved what a shrewd politician and leader he was. I think if you come away believing he didn't you've probably missed some of the subtleties - like who really committed the crime ...

Murder in Geektopia by Paul di Filippo - This was by far the worst of the lot in my opinion. The alternate history seemed ... dodgy at best and the story seemed like it was merely a vehicle for the author to try and throw in as many geek references as possible. I'm a proud geek but this just failed to appeal to me at all. I think there was a kind of geek take on the Sam Spade type voice, but it fell far short. Another one to skip.

Chicago by Jon Courtenay Grimwood - Interesting premise to this one and a very clever plot, but it didn't quite work as well as it could have. Still as a fan of gangsters I did enjoy this one and would love to see this world explored in more depth in a full length novel. It just lacked a certain sharpness which would have lifted it into a higher class.

The Sultan's Emissary by Theodore Judson - Another exercise in politics and intrigue as much as detection and another favourite of mine. The world created by the author seemed entirely possible and I enjoyed the fact that the main characters were recognisable historical figures, albeit in a slightly different form. The changes seemed to flow naturally from the setting and I could certainly believe that if the world had developed this way then the characters would have been who we see here instead of who we know from our own history. I would love to see a series set here, if only so I can see more of Fairfax!

Worlds of Possibilities by Pat Cadigan - This wasn't really alternate history in my opinion since it dealt with alternate universes, but it was an enjoyable enough story. It was a little confusing at times, which is one of my pet hates unfortunately. If you don't mind being confused along with the characters though then you'll probably really like this one.

A Murder in Eddsford by S M Stirling - This is set in the author's Emberverse, but you don't need to know anything beyond the fact that the Change (which happened two or three generations before this story does) killed off all modern technology. It therefore has the feel of a kind of Industrial Revolution era police procedural. I very much enjoyed reading this. The characters were well drawn and, in the case of the heroes, likeable, and they mystery itself was intriguing. The Emberverse books are in my TBR pile and after reading this I think they will be moving to somewhere near the top of it.

Conspiracies by Mike Resnick and Eric Flint - Another one that I wasn't completely happy with but it's an enjoyable enough comic romp through recent American history and politics with a hefty sprinkling of aliens and a very funny portrayal of what happened when Jimmy Hoffa was abducted!

The People's Machine by Thomas S Buckell - Another universe based on the idea that the American Revolution failed. This story was really carried by the characters. I wasn't all that interested in the plot or the setting but the two main characters, especially the Aztec hero, were interesting enough that I wanted to read to the end even though I didn't really care whodunnit or why.

Murder on the Crosstime Express by Chris Roberson - This is another multiverse type story, but much more enjoyable than the first one. Set on the Crosstime Express (which felt like a cross between the Zeppelins of the 1920s and the Transatlantic liners of the 1910s) it's a very clever murder mystery involving characters from many different universes. The characters are all fascinating, especially the POV character, and the plot is just clever enough that the heroine is a step ahead of you most of the time but not so convoluted that you can't follow it. Another that I highly recommend.

VERDICT - Some hits, some misses, but over all a solid 4 out of 5.

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