Monday, August 6, 2012

New Book Review (#1): 1636: The Kremlin Games

1636: The Kremlin Games (by Eric Flint, Gorg Huff, and Paula Goodlett)

So for those not already familiar with the series, this is part of the 1632/Ring of Fire series created by Eric Flint. The basic premise of the series is that a small West Virginian town from roughly modern times was transported back in time through mysterious means (the aforementioned "Ring of Fire") to the year 1632 (title of the series making sense now?), and also transported through space to land right smack dab in the middle of the Germanies - yes, plural: they weren't a united nation back then - and the viciously bloody 30 Years' War. Various shenanigans ensue that aren't terribly relevant right now. Right now all you need to know is that while the premise is unabashedly silly (in the prelude to the first book Flint writes an "explanation" that's basically a masterfully deadpan satirical send-up of any book that bothers trying with a supposedly plausible rationale for their "Connecticut Yankee" anachronistic transplantation scenario), the implications are generally treated seriously and intelligently.

So, what's the deal with this particular book? In particular, if this is Eric Flint's series, why are there two other authors listed? Well, it goes like this: on a couple of books, Flint collaborated with David Weber, a well-established SF/F author. On rather a larger number of books, Flint has collaborated with no-names who generally have few if any publishing credits to their names aside from their collaborations with Flint. There are a couple ways to look at this. One is that Flint is generously giving new authors a chance to break into the field a bit (which is legitimately hard as hell for most people, by the way), and flesh out some of the corners and events of his fictional universe more thoroughly than he could practically manage writing by himself. What a great guy! The other is that Flint has basically converted much of his series into a kind of literary franchise operation where Flint stamps his name on books other people write, and maybe provides some overall direction, but otherwise doesn't do much other than rent out the name of his series and collect royalties. What a... hmm.

So, probably unsurprisingly, one of the main characteristics of these "franchise" type books (as opposed to the "mainline" books that Flint still writes himself), is that they're generally not as well written. This is mostly the work of enthusiastic near-amateurs, and it shows. The prose in this book can be called serviceable, and not much more. The other thing that's often true of them is that not too much of genuine significance actually happens in them.

And this book is no exception on that front. The basic plot (spoilers alert!) is that Bernie Zeppi, an undermotivated and underemployed former auto mechanic is recruited to work for the Gorchacov clan in Russia helping them to take advantage of the "up-time" technological advances made possible by the arrival of Grantville. And he does that, while eventually (of course) discovering genuine passion for making the world better, etc. This produces such exciting developments as better roads and, after several setbacks and (ugh) "misfires" toilets. Also (inexplicably in large part backgrounded) are some political machinations and rumblings primarily over the oppressed status of serfs in Russia, that ultimately culminate in the book's Designated Villain (seriously, it talks about how he views Stalin as a wonderful role model from the future, how his whole family is infamous for corruption and oppressing serfs - you get the idea) from the upper Russian nobility overthrowing the czar and seizing power as the new "Director-General" of Russia. Bernie and the Gorchacov forces rescue the czar and escape into the east with some vague notions of starting some "New Russia" with no serfdom because since the book also needs some Designated Good Guys, then this is of course the position the freakin' czar of Russia (a class of person historically renowned for their progressive credentials, of course) naturally lands on. And then... the book ends. This is, really and actually, pretty much the whole book. Oh, there's certainly some other stuff - a Gorchacov who stays in Grantville romances and eventually marries a girl from Grantville (which has no apparent significance), there's a minor battle with the Poles that the Russians win (but that has no apparent significance, other than providing virtually the sole taste of military action in the entire book), there's a slow-burning romance (VERY slow-burning - it's never consummated or even acknowledged by either party in the whole book) between Bernie and the chief Gorchacov noblewoman - but as suggested, none of it seems to actually mean anything for the most part. I'm just going to hazard a guess here - these authors were getting paid by the word.

Now, this "New Russia" business sounds like it could potentially (emphasis on potentially, given the record thus far) set up some interesting stuff down the road. But essentially all this book is, is the set-up. The book-length, 406-pages-long, full-price setup. If there's a sequel (and I suspect the franchise will inevitably demand one), then that might be genuinely worth reading. But this one? Pretty much just for absolutely die-hard 1632 fans and people who are sincerely fascinated by the mechanics of engineering toilets.

If you wanna buy it anyway:

Or if you'd rather jump onto the (vastly superior) beginning of the series:


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