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A real curate's egg of a book in the very mixed "Ring of Fire" series
on 24 June 2014
"1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies" is chronologically the fourteenth book in a series in which a small American town is sent back from around the turn of the millennium to Germany in the middle of the thirty years war. As the title suggests the story is set largely in the West Indies in (a very alternative) 1636, and describes a mission to that part of the world in which Commander Eddie Cantrell is the most important character.
The books in this series are identified with titles which are, or begin with, the 17th century year in which the main action of each book takes place, e.g. 1632, 1633, etc and it is variously known as the "Ring of Fire" or "Assiti Shards" series.
(The "Ring of Fire" is how the inhabitants of Grantville described the event which brought their town back 370 years in time and a few thousand miles in space. The Assiti were the extraterrestial race whose thoughtless actions, described in the first book as akin to "criminal negligence," caused that event, though no human ever learns this.)
In many ways this is a follow-on story to "1634: the Baltic War" which was the third in the original trilogy and it continues the story of several of the major characters of that story, particularly Eddie Cantrell.
The books in this series differ greatly in their style and focus, and I gather I am not the only reader who liked some of them much more than others. Five of the six books to date which I did particularly enjoy and can recommend to others are the ones which Eric Flint himself, in the afterword to "The Saxon Uprising" describes as the main line or spinal cord of the series. These can be read in sequence to give you an overall view of the history of the very different seventeenth century which Grantville's arrival in Germany in 1631 creates in the stories. They are:
"1632 (Ring of Fire)"
"1634: The Baltic War"
"1635: The Eastern Front (Ring of Fire)"
"1636 : The Saxon Uprising (Ring of Fire)"
A fuller list of novels in the series to date, in chronological order, is:
3) 1634: The Galileo Affair
4) 1634: The Baltic War
5) 1634: The Bavarian Crisis
6) 1634: The Ram rebellion
7) 1635: The Dreeson Incident
8) 1635 The Cannon Law
9) 1635: The Eastern Front
10) 1635: The Papal Stakes
11) 1636: The Saxon uprising
12) 1636: The Kremlin Games
13) 1636: Seas of Fortune
14) This book: "1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies"
15) 1636: The Devil's Opera (Due for publication September 2014)
16) 1636: The Viennese Walz (Due for publication November 2014)
Incidentally, the timelines of this series are consistent but potentially confusing to the reader with an interest in the detail. The date at the start of each book indicates when the MAIN ACTION of the book takes place, NOT when it starts. For example, we are told on the first page of "1634: The Baltic War" that it starts in December 1633, although most of the action does indeed take place in 1634.
When I originally read the first book, 1632, I missed the one document which has an exact date and assumed that Grantville had arrived in Germany in the title year. Subsequently I nearly tore my hair out trying to make sense of the timeline when reading "1636: The Kremlin Games" which has its main action in 1636 but also a prologue set in October 1631. I wondered at first if this was Russia having a different calendar, but it would have to be a year different and Russia's calendar at this time was only about a fortnight out. Eventually the penny dropped that the title of the first book does not refer to the date Grantville actually arrived in the 17th Century, which if you read it extremely carefully was early 1631, but to the date when the climax of the action takes place.
Incidentally "The Kremlin Games" was the sixth book in this series , after the "spinal column" five, which I can recommend.
There are a number of short story/novella collections set in this alternative 17th century including "Ring of Fire," "1635: The Tangled Web" and several volumes in the "Grantville Gazette" series.
Flint has also written a book called Time Spike, in which a second similar event hits the 21st century world which Grantville has left behind and pulls a maximum-security prison into another time. That book is sometimes listed as part of the "Ring of Fire" series, which is not entirely unreasonable because the people who are investigating the event immediately recognise it as a similar incident to whatever caused the disappearance from modern times of Grantville. However, "Time Spike" does not impinge on Grantville's 17th century.
"1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies" begins about four or five years after the arrival of Grantville in 17th century Germany, at a point when the inhabitants of Grantville have founded a new and reasonably democratic "United States of Europe" (USE) covering most of modern Germany with the aid of an alliance with with the Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus. The Grantville leader, Mike Stearns, was the first Prime Minister of the USE: other books describe subsequent changes of government through elections etc but those do not affect this volume. Mike had appointed his former opponent John Chandler Simpson, who had been a senior officer in the US Navy and then a prominent industrialist, as Admiral in charge of the USE navy. Simpson won a subsequent Baltic War (hence the title of the third book) by building a fleet of Monitor/Merrimac style coastal ironclads.
In this book Simpson sends a fleet to the West Indies, with his former aide Eddie Cantrell as one of the senior officers, with extremely complex instructions which I am not going to explain to avoid a spoiler, as part of a series of ridiculously baroque and over-complicated plots and deceptions. The fleet is based around two ships which are roughly equivalent to late nineteenth-century steam and sail powered ironclad frigates like "HMS Warrior," but also includes a group of conventional 17th century sailing vessels from USE allied states, and a lot of the challenge for the central characters in the novel is making these disparate elements work together.
Some parts of this book are excellent and some are really awful. The worst is that the divided command arrangements, secret orders, tactics, and strategic objective of the "good guys" in the story are so absurdly over-complicated that they would never in a million years have been tolerated by a competent Commander in Chief, which Simpson obviously is, in a real world rather than a novel.
At several points while reading this I recalled the scathing tone of voice and pithy epithets with which one of my history teachers who had been a captain in the army and fought in both Italy and at the Battle of Arnheim, condemned historical command arrangements in WWII which were far too complex but which looked simple by comparison with the ones in this novel. Sending men to fight under that kind of command structure would amount to trying to get as many as possible of them killed and be the best way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Sometimes this novel makes you think that Eric Flint has a really good idea of the gulf between the technology available in our own era and that of the 17th century and then he blatantly falls back into a 21st century mindset.
For example, during meetings of the command teams on both USE and Spanish sides, the participants in the book describe the dispositions of their own and opposing forces with the detail and precision which would have been possible if they had the sort of intelligence you can get with satellite reconnaisance and radar instead of relying on 17th century scouting and the odd jury-rigged hot air balloon.
Also irritating were the absurdly convoluted plot manouvers which Flint goes through to enable him to get a very diverse collection of people he likes onto one side as the "good guys" and those he doesn't like so much onto the other side. The participants in the story include "Up Timers" from Grantville, Scandinavians, the Dutch navy under Maarten Tromp and various Dutch settlers, Irish patriots including the "Wild Geese," English colonists who in this history have been cut loose by Charles the First's goverment, Marshal Turenne who in this history was promoted many years earlier than in the real one by Cardinal Richelieu, and various Spanish generals and admirals. I'm not going to spoil the story by saying which are on which side, let's just say that the coalitions and alliances created in the novel were surprising and unlikely.
This long and convoluted story - nine parts and 54 chapters - could have done with some serious editing and pruning. Nevertheless it does have some very exciting elements. In particular the naval battles were very well created, and some of the descriptions of industrial processes which would be involved in recreating an oil industry in the 17th century from turn-of-the-millennium knowledge were quite well done. Although the Spanish had to be given one or two almost supernaturally clever generals and admirals to enable them to pose a challenge to the USE/Scandinavian fleet and their allies.
Overall I gave this book three stars because although there were some very weak aspects I did greatly enjoy some elements of the story and especially the naval battles.
If you enjoy this story of a modern community sent back many years in time, you might also enjoy S.M. Stirling's Nantucket trilogy in which that island is sent much further back by a similar event. The Nantucket trilogy consists of:
Island in the Sea of Time
Against the Tide of Years (Nantucket)
On the Oceans of Eternity (Nantucket).