Book Report: Conquistador by S.M. Stirling (2003)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a Speculative Fiction category in addition to the Set in Space category, so I selected this book. The tagline above the author’s name is It’s 1946. The white man is about to discover America. So it looked alt-historyish, but it has a bit more of a science fiction vibe to it.

In 1946, a disabled (well, walks with a limp) World War II veteran is messing with a radio set in his San Francisco apartment when he accidentally opens a rift to another place, an undeveloped Bay area. We learn eventually that Alexander the Great did not die at 30, which ended up stunting Western civilization. America is still sparsely populated by natives who have not changed in centuries. He brings some of his army buddies and their families over to colonize the new found land, and over the course of the decades, they build a small, slightly feudalistic society, but they do keep the gate open so that they can travel between the places, albeit secretly.

In the modern day, a couple of department of conservation detectives come across animals that should not exist–long extinct, or greatly endangered, including a California condor with no traces of lead in his blood, and it leads them to investigate a privately held company centered on an industrial part of Oakland–the home of the gate, of course–and they are abducted to the far side where they help uncover a plot by one of the old families and some new emigres to take over the far side.

So it has a bit of flashback to unveil the backstory (although not all of it) as well as excursions the two sides of the gate and interludes where the semi-omniscient narrator follows different characters, mostly the main antagonist and the woman from the far side who has lied to him and then kidnapped him–and whom he might love.

As the main character is a conservation agent, we get a lot of enumeration of species of both flora and fauna along with great details about the topography and how it is unchanged by man; it reminded me a lot of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in that regard. We also get a little commentary about how the society is structured on the far side of the gate with more conservative values, including a bit of aristocracy, but sold as overall good–I mean, I was not entirely swayed, but it did lack some of the deleterious features of our world.

The book runs over 400 pages and includes a couple of appendices, but it could have been trimmed by about a quarter or a third to improve the pacing. And with the thick descriptions running up over the 300 page mark with the main problem only then coming into focus–the raising and training of a bunch of native mercenaries to seize the gate–I thought perhaps it was going to lead to a cliffhanger and another book, but no. Suddenly, we have a fast, Executioner-style raid on the training camp followed by a clash at the gate which disrupts it, and the book ends with them working with two physicists on the far side trying to recreate it. So a very abrupt ending with room for a follow-up that has not yet come.

So not bad, and it ticked off a box on the Winter Reading Challenge. And it gives me the opportunity to post this song by Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson which I heard at least once and perhaps more whilst reading the book and procrastinating writing the book report.

Once for sure on WSIE; also, perhaps, on my copy of the record of the same name.

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