Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Sometimes, it seems as if every other alternate history which is being published deals with World War II or the Civil War. It is refreshing, therefore, to see authors mining other areas of the vast tracks of history which present themselves for play. In her debut novel, Suzanne Allés Blom has chosen to look at a reasonably little known period of (South) American history and provide it with its own tweaks in the novel Inca: The Scarlet Fringe. In this book, Blom has elected to change the events surrounding Francisco Pizarro's conquest of the Incas and his execution of Atahualpa.
Because the period is not as well-known as many other periods of history, Blom has a greater need to explain the real history to her readers. She does this by including short historical notes at the beginning of each chapter to let the reader know what happened in our own timeline. This allows Blom to present her story of Atahualpa (Exemplary Fortune) and the Spanish without resorting to large patches of exposition.
Instead of explaining history, Blom can take her time building up her civilizations, both the civilization of the Inca, who rule a literal empire made up of several different people and their cultures, and the Spaniards, who have come to South America in order to exploit the people and resources in the name of Spain and God. At times, Blom spends a little too much time on this look at society and the reader wishes for a little more action than Atahualpa traveling from Kitu Dove to Recognition to Navel with the Spanish prisoners Tamed Ocelot and Ginez. However, Blom does look at other events occurring along the western coast of South America to provide a broader picture of her world.
While Blom’s decision to translate all of the place and characters’ names into English makes it more difficult for the reader to bring along any baggage based on previous knowledge of the Incas and Atahualpa, it also gives the novel the feel that it was translated into English by someone who didn’t understand what a name was and what a phrase was. The strange naming convention tends to get in the way of the flow since they are far outside the standard for English readers.
Blom's characters act rationally within the constraints of the societies which she has outlined. In this, she has created alien cultures, because the years which separate these characters, whether European or Incan, make them as alien to late twentieth, early twenty-first century sensibilities as any alien culture invented by science fiction authors. Her Atahualpa is driven by both his political understanding of the realities following the death of his father and his own curiosity about the invaders. The Europeans enter the situation with their own ideas of the order of the universe, desiring to know about the Incas for tactical and strategic reasons rather than for any real understanding.
While Blom has written Inca as an alternate history, the book stands as a novel of first contact. The fact that both civilizations involved in the first contact are human civilizations does not detract from the fact that Inca looks at the effect of two cultures clashing with each other upon their introduction. Blom ends the novel in a manner open ended enough that future sequels, while not necessary, would continue to story in a manner which could continue to build on the themes of alienness which pervade this novel.
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