Black Chamber, by S. M. Stirling (Ace)
S. M. Stirling has been writing alternate history for a long time now, and he handles the genre with ease and panache. This book is no exception; he’s created a perfectly believable world in which Theodore Roosevelt regains the presidency and is in office on the brink of World War I. Roosevelt’s enthusiasms have already shaped much of American culture and institutions, including a flowering of invention and his top-secret spy-and-assassin agency, the Black Chamber. Posing as an agent of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (the resistance movement bent on freeing Mexico from American domination) Agent Luz O'Malley Aróstegui goes undercover in Europe to infiltrate the mobilizing German forces. The contrafactual history and subsequent changes are perhaps the most interesting aspects of the story, yet all this is but a background for what is essentially a spy thriller featuring a female James Bond. There’s sex (with and without romance), tension, and page upon page upon page of exciting action.
This raises my central concern about The Black Chamber. Is it a story set in an alternate Europe, as Germany is gearing up for war with chemical weapons? Does it focus on the unfolding differences that arose from Theodore Roosevelt’s re-election? Or is it essentially a spy thriller – and one in which a woman perpetuates the roles of male spy characters in literature – that could just as easily have taken place in the real world?
The writing is strong and the action scenes and step-by-step, tension-laden revelations are skillfully handled. My reservations are two-fold, as above. I had difficulty with those aspects of Luz that mirrored the most offensively sexist characteristics in male-dominated spy thrillers. Her internal monologues felt immature and insecure as well as insensitive. She didn’t seem to have any genuine relationships until Irish revolutionary and love interest Ciara Whelan came onstage.
Secondly, I found the long, detailed descriptions of action (such as page after page, step-by-agonizing-step portrayal of Luz climbing a wall) quickly went from interesting to tedious. Action often came to a screeching halt for long expository passages of technology, history, or geography. But the biggest problem was that I didn’t find the story hefty enough for its length. It felt to me like a novella stretched out to a fairly long novel. This is obviously a personal taste issue, and fans of Stirling (of which there are many!) will likely see this as a strength and The Black Chamber as a worthy addition to his bibliography.
The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything about it. Although chocolates might be nice.