by Stoney Compton
Cover Artist: Kurt Miller
Review by Todd Baker
Baen Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 141652116X
Date: 03 April, 2007 List Price $24.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In this alternate North America of 1987, Imperial Russia still holds sway over the territory of Alaska. Grigoriy Grigorievich, known as Grisha, is a charter captain, plying the waters of the Northwestern Pacific coast in his boat Pravd<,/I>. When Nikolai Karpov, a Russian Cossack, hires his services, he is wary, but grateful for the job. They pick up a mysterious woman, apparently a Russian agent, by the name of Valari Kominskiya, who brings news of political developments throughout the rest of the balkanized continent.
On the return trip, Karpov and Kominskiya, who have a personal history as well as a professional one, become embroiled in a heated argument. The drunken Karpov attacks Valari and Grisha, and they are forced to kill him and throw his body overboard. Although the killing was justified, Valari betrays Grisha to the Russian authorities, and he loses his wife, his boat, and very nearly his life.
Spared execution, Grisha is sentenced to thirty years hard labor on the Russia-Canada Highway. While working in the Canadian wilderness, he is freed when a band of Dena revolutionaries attack the camp and liberate the prisoners. The band is pursued by promyshlennik<,/I>, mercenaries in the employ of the Czar, but manages to make it to the rebel camp at Toklat, where Grisha and Nik Rezanov, a defector from the Russian military, are enlisted in the Dena cause. The Dena people are members of the larger Athabascan Tribe and are engaged in a guerilla war for independence.
This turn of events suits Grisha, who not only is a Creole, but is also a former member of the Troika Guard, Imperial Russia's version of the French Foreign Legion. After much training, He and Nik are sent on a final field test to reconnoiter the Toklat River. On this mission, Grisha once again encounters Valari Kominskiya, and learns an explosive secret Nik has been hiding. Now, the fight to establish the Dena Republic has truly begun.
Stoney Compton has created in this novel engaging characters in a believable political situation. Not only are the main characters and their exploits described, but so are a host of ancillary characters--Russians and Native Americans, traders and assembly delegates, mercenaries and ministers for war. And they interact in realistic ways. In a chapter describing a meeting to elect delegates to the new Dena Assembly, characters express concerns about what will happen if the independence movement in thwarted by Russian forces, and in their questioning of those who will become the high government officials, one can see the interplay between simplicity and sophistication that would surely be present in any independence movement.
Indeed, realism is the underlying current that runs through all of Russian Amerika. Imperial Russia is not portrayed so much as an evil empire as a distant colonial power that has allowed corruption and exploitation to become the currency of its administration of its far-flung territories. The technology is appropriate to a world that has not suffered two world wars, being roughly the equivalent of that existing in the early 1940's. And, of course, since Compton lived and worked there for over three decades, the descriptions of Alaska itself resonate with truth.
The realism with which the story is portrayed can result is some chapters being a bit plodding, but the only glaring omission of the book is that the divergence point of the alternate timeline is obscure. One of the pleasures of alternate history is contemplation of the skill with which the author describes the alternate world from its point of divergence with our own. In Russian Amerika, while there are many hints--both the United States of America and the Confederate States of America exist, Mexico is New Spain, Canada is split between Britain and France--there is nothing definitive. And, in fact, each of the hints could admit of a different point of divergence.
All in all, though, for a first novel, this is a true journeyman effort. Readers both of alternate history and military science fiction should find this an enjoyable book.