Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

Conquistador by S.M. Stirling

(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 52.)

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Conquistador by S.M. Stirling
Roc 2003, 596 pages

S.M. Stirling has made a reputation for himself with a series of alternate-history novels, akin to what Harry Turtledove has been doing for years. Stirling’s novels seem to fall into two broad categories: future histories where he changes something in the past to create a different future, or current histories set in an alternate world where something in the past has changed.

Conquistador is a bit of an odd duck in the Stirling opus in that it deals with the real world unchanged but also has an alternate world. In this case, World War II veteran John Rolfe in the early post-war years is mucking about with a wireless set in his San Francisco house when he mysteriously opens up a portal to another earth where, because Alexander the Great never died an early death, the New World was never discovered by Europeans and is thus almost perfectly unspoiled. An entrepreneur at heart, Rolfe quickly realizes the fortune to be made bringing the mineral wealth of an unspoiled North America to a resource-depleted twentieth-century Earth.

By the closing years of the twentieth century, however, Rolfe’s Commonwealth
of New Virginia has been around long enough to develop a faction that wants to break the rules and bring prohibited items to ‘Firstside’ Earth to make more of a profit, but jeopardize the secrecy of the Commonwealth. On Firstside, fish and game warden Tom Christiansen discovers a new strain of the near extinct California condor during the bust of a smuggling operation. He quickly realizes something odd is going on. As he digs deeper and deeper, he gradually uncovers the truth about the Commonwealth and the woman he knows as Adrienne Rolfe.

After discovering too much about the Commonwealth, Tom and his partner Roy are kidnapped over to the Commonwealth’s side of the interdimensional gate where they find themselves fighting on the side of their kidnappers to help maintain the secret that they were previously trying to expose.

I’ve been reading a bit more military SF recently and I have to admit that Stirling is probably the best militaristic writer I’ve discovered so far. Even though he has a penchant for lovingly dwelling on weapons details, only occasionally does he go overboard and derail his story. In addition to this problem, though, the plotting of the story also stalls midway through as there’s a huge middle portion of the book where the plot basically is put on hold as Stirling goes into intimate detail about the Commonwealth and how it is set up to be a combination of agrarian and industrial economies. Once the plot gets back on track, though, it’s a breakneck adventure told with great pacing and lots of detail.

Even though there are problems, this is still a captivating and enthralling story that is a joy to read. The characters are real enough that you find yourself rooting for them as they face their enemies and sad when some of them don’t make it. The greatest strength, though, has to be Stirling’s ability to write battle scenes on a grand scale. He keeps all the details in the air like a master juggler, not dropping a single piece. The cumulative effect leaves you almost breathless. Thankfully, Stirling leaves the ending open enough for sequels without committing himself to such. I hope, though, that he will return to the Commonwealth of New Virginia sometime soon.

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