Saturday, 12 September 2009

Taking Liberties with history [Review: 1812 The Rivers of War]

I first came across Eric Flint as author of From the Highlands, a novella in David Weber's Honor Harrington series, from the anthology Changer of Worlds. Flint shares Weber's obsession with military fiction - 1812 is an alternative history set during the American War of Independence.

In real life this formative period in Cousin Jonathan's history was a catastrophic period for the southern Native American tribes who were drawn into the fighting on both sides but essentially squeezed out of the new nation as they lost land to the frontiersmen. Two decades later they were forcibly dispossessed and relocated (the "Trail of Tears" ).

In the novel, a small group of Cherokees are given a prominent role at the heart of the action as they accompany Sam Houston and other historical figures. The novel centres on a key battle where American soldiers rally to defend and hold Capitol Hill against considerable odds. This chapter is full of highly charged symbols - the Capitol with both the Houses are still under construction; the statue of Liberty is used as part of the defences. What's taking place is wish fulfilment: no less than an alternative formation of the USA, and one in which the Native Americans won't be ignored or excluded to the same degree.

Battles in this period often consisted of two lines of men more or less taking turns to shoot at each other. However Eric Flint's descriptions of battle are accessible and interesting - he introduces issues of morale and psychology into these deceptively simple engagements to explain why one line breaks before the other. More complex engagements involving different factions and maneuvers are also explained clearly, with just enough detail to follow the action.

This is a "pure" alternative history in that the deviation from our timeline begins with a single, seemingly trivial change. I loved trying to guess how much of this novel was imaginary. When I investigated I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by just how much was real, including all but one member of the cast. Where major larger-than-life historical figures play a part they are well researched and particularly enjoyable to read about - a lot of fun is had with the all-cussin' Andrew Jackson for example. Other non-military period details are also present and correct and there's some very historically apt doctor-bashing.

This book is a compelling read: but reading it is worthwhile for two further reasons. Firstly you may well learn more about this period in history by reading 1812 than from a regular textbook or history class! and secondly the point about exclusion of native Americans is well made.

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