by Stoney Compton
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
An Alaska still owned by a Russian Czar in 1987 is the setting for Stoney Compton's debut novel, Russian Amerika. Not only does the Czar still rule in Russia, but North America is splintered into nine independent nations in addition to Russia's holdings. Compton's novel opens with former Russian officer Grigory Grigorievich taking on a mysterious charter, which quickly leads to him being on the run from the czarist authorities and finding himself among Native American separatists, the Dena, who want an Alaska ruled by Alaskans.
The majority of the novel follows Grisha, as Grigorievich is known, as he gets to know the Dena and moves through their ranks and against the Russians, most notably against Bear Crepov, who has sworn vengeance on Grisha for killing his comrade, and Lieutenant Valari Kominskaya, who helped frame Grisha for murder and drove him into the interior, although nowhere in the book is Kominskaya given a motive for her actions against Grisha.
Compton has spent a considerable amount of time in Alaska and knows the territory, which comes across quite well in the novel which is able to depict the region without seeming like Compton is merely reciting what he has learned from research. Compton's depiction of the Dena make them come across as an actual tribe of people with a background and history in the Alaska rather than an anonymous group described by an author. That the Dena are a real tribe does nothing to lessen Compton's ability to portray them in such realistic terms.
In addition to his realistic portrayal of the culture of the area, Compton also provides a detailed look at the armaments, strategy, and tactics of his rebels. At times, this attention to detail bogs down the action for any but the most military-minded reader. This actually raises one of the intriguing areas of alternate history. Frequently, no matter how far along the scenario is from the break point, and Compton's story is set at least 120 years after his point of departure, no matter how different politics and society have turned out, military hardware has followed the same path in our own timeline, even down to the nomenclature.
Although the novel starts out with a good focus, specifically on Grisha's character, as the novel continues, Compton begins to jump around between viewpoint characters and settings in a way which is disconcerting. The shifting viewpoint means that often activities around Grisha are only referred to tangentially, especially as he rises in the esteem of the Dena. Furthermore, the shifting viewpoint results in numerous characters dying off-stage. This has the effect to minimize their deaths, not only in emotional terms, but also in terms of how numerous they are and important in the rebellion's overall outcome.
Russian Amerika's shortcomings are not enough to derail the novel. Compton has created an interesting world in a venue which has not been fully explored by science fiction or alternate history authors. His attention to detail generally works in his favor, although there are times when he should have spent more time on his characters then he does. The characters are likable even when their relationships seem a little too dimensional. Similarly, the Dena's struggle moves a little too briskly and successfully, even if they do suffer losses which are not felt by the reader as much as they, perhaps, should have been.
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