Entirely coincidentally, four books I’ve read in the last few weeks have featured wars that never were. I didn’t plan it that way. 2 were review copies that I was sent, each based on an interesting promise. The other 2 were books by authors that I admire, so I purchased copies of their latest work. Here then are my review of 4 stories of wars that never were.
Absynthe by Brendan Bellecourt
The premise of Absynthe reads like steampunk meets The Great Gatsby. A roaring 20s SciFi novel, featuring an unrecognizable geopolitical map, airships, sentient automata, and peculiar mind-altering bacteria.
In the world of Absynthe, the US is besieged by enemies. Canada, France, and the United Kingdom are all allied against the US in a battle for the fabric of society. The novel is set post World War I; sort of. There are obviously very many differences between Bellecourt’s world and the real-world timeline. Not least of which is why does the US stand alone?
This all becomes apparent during the novel. Absynthe features spells and speakeasies; it has a Cthulhu feel but without the monsters in the deep. Instead, we have altered realities that are reminiscent of The Matrix. The book has some stunning set-pieces and I think it would transfer to screen very well.
The plot is extremely twisty-turny, as you might expect for a novel filled with characters who can mess with people’s perceptions. It’s a little ponderous in places. Nevertheless, an intriguing cast of heroes, a great premise, and a truly dastardly villain make Absynthe worth a look.
You Feel it Just Below the Ribs by Jeff Cranor and Janina Matthewson
You Feel it Just Below the Ribs is set during and after yet another fictional WWI. In this case, the war didn’t finish in 1918. Instead, it dragged on, eventually engulfing the entire world.
The book is presented as being a manuscript from an underground publisher. They claim that the narrator is unreliable, yet wanted to bring the story into the reader’s hands. It’s the autobiography of Miriam, who was a young girl at the start of the “The Great Reckoning;” a huge sprawling war that covered the globe and decimated its population.
Miriam is recounting her life. Her survival during The Great Reckoning and her place in the world as it tried to recover in the apocalyptic aftermath.
I’m not going to lie, I found this book slow at times. It’s an in-depth autobiography of a life, though tumultuous, that was also often quite dull. Or at least as told by our narrator. That does not mean this is not a powerful novel. You Feel it Just Below the Ribs has a neat device at its center that in turn enables it to pose its central philosophical conundrum.
Miriam learns a relaxation technique that enables her to manipulate and even erase memories to help alleviate suffering. This begins a chain of events that brings about a radical rethink about the nature of family. In a curious inversion of “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” society tries to erase memories of trauma from the inhabitants of the globe. The aim is to build a society where the population does not remember the ills done against it, in the hope it will reduce the possibility of conflict.
The law of unintended consequences does of course reign and Miriam tells a story of a society broken in a different way.
You Feel it Just Below the Ribs is a thought-provoking read that questions the very fabric of everything we hold dear at the GeekFamily blogs; the nature of the parent-child bond.
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel
I really wanted to read A History of What Comes Next after enjoying Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files series so much. Again we’re treated to a war with some alternate events, or at least an alternate explanation for them. The novel is predominantly set during and after WWII and centers on the space race.
Mia and her mother are exceptional people, descended from exceptional people. Their overriding mission is to return home somewhere amongst the stars. This means coaxing humanity to discover the technology to visit space. Much of the novel is devoted to Mia traveling through Nazi Germany trying to help Werner Von Braun avoid the clutches of the Russians and guide him into American hands. She needs him to start the US Space Program.
Alongside this, we’re drip fed snippets of the backstory of Mia’s exceptional ancestors and the terrible forces that are hunting them down.
History of What Comes Next is an entertaining alternate history. Mia is an engaging narrator who is as funny as she is calculating. There’s a great blend of action and science in the book, as well as a meditation on the nature of evil and the pragmatic nature of forgiveness and acceptance. The book is the first in a new series (Book 2 is out later this year) and I can’t wait to see how Mia gets along during the Cold War.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of A History of What Comes Next you can do so here, in the US and here, in the UK
The Lunacy Commission by Lavie Tidhar
I discovered The Lunacy Commission whilst writing my review for Tidhar’s The Hood at the end of last year. It’s 5 short stories set using the same premise as used in Tidhar’s masterwork A Man Lies Dreaming. The book is worth buying for the retro “classic” cover alone.
In these books, a Jewish writer, who is trapped in a Nazi ghetto, imagines an alternate world as an escape from his nightmare. He conjures stories of a world where Hitler was ousted from power and fled to the UK, where he lives in the shadows, as a private eye. In this fictional UK, Oswald Mosely has come to power, and fascism grips England. In a 2022 where divisive politics, isolationism, and undeserved exceptionalism rules English politics, A Man Lies Dreaming and The Lunacy Commission have never felt so relevant. I urge you to read them, or in fact anything by Lavie Tidhar, who is a writer of great talent.
If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Lunacy Commission you can do so here, in the US and here, in the UK
Disclosure: I received copies of Absynthe and You Feel it Just Below the Ribs in order to write this review.