by S.M. Stirling
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
S.M. Stirling’s latest book is Conquistador, about parallel Californias. One of them, FirstSide, is basically the California that exists in our world. The second one, The Commonwealth of New Virginia, exists in a land in which the Europeans never discovered North America. The two worlds are linked when John Rolfe VI accidentally opened a Gate between the worlds just after World War II. Stirling has elected to set his story sixty years later, when Rolfe has managed to build up a reasonable-sized population in New Virginia.
The primary story focuses on Tom Christiansen, a warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, who stumbles upon the Gate following a failed bust of a condor-smuggling ring. His investigation brings him into contact with Adrienne Rolfe, the granddaughter of the founder, who is investigating the ring from the New Virginia side of the Gate. Although the New Virginians do their best to keep the Gate a secret, Tom’s tenacity and ability to accept the unimaginable allow him to connect the dots.
Conquistador shares much with Stirling’s Island series. Both deposit modern day men in “primitive” surroundings and provide them with the ability to create their own society. Unlike the Island books, Conquistador is set far enough after the founding of New Virginia that Stirling does not have to focus the book on the early settlers’ battle for survival. Nevertheless, a series of interludes allow him to present important aspects of New Virginian history.
Although Rolfe is extremely careful in some areas, when it comes to immigration, he has a blind spot which not only precludes the admission of blacks, but welcomes the discontented and criminal, often without regard for the interaction they will have with current settlers. Most notable among these is the inclusion of the von Tirpitz family which needed a place to hide when Nazis were being hunted after World War II despite the established presence of Sol Pearlmutter.
Of course, a successful novel is more than just world-building, and Stirling's characters, particularly Tom Christiansen and Adrienne Rolfe, come across as likable, although they seem a little too pat in their camaraderie and relationship with each other. Similarly, the historical and technical knowledge of all of Stirling's characters is more than most people have, giving the reader the impression that his world is full of Renaissance men and women. Nevertheless, the story Stirling tells with these characters is as enjoyable as the characters themselves.
Once Christiansen has determined what is really going on, he finds himself enmeshed in the hidden politics of New Virginia. Along with his partner, Roy Tully, and possibly blinded by love or infatuation for Adrienne Rolfe, Christiansen must decide which side is made up of the good guys and which side are the villains. Stirling makes the process more interesting by having Christiansen be very up front about the weaknesses he sees in the "good guys." Perhaps one of the biggest questions in the novel is to what extent Christiansen will be willing to embrace their cause and ideologies and turn his back on his own beliefs.
Conquistador is an intriguing combination of conservation and conservatism, which seems rare in an age when conservatism often means placing corporations in charge of their own ecological policing, however, Stirling makes the combination work. While his characters do not seem to have any need for liberals, Stirling is able to show how social liberalism has made inroads into modern society over the last sixty years in a way that demonstrates it as a cause for the positive, even as his characters espouse other conservative ideals.
The novel stands on its own, yet one of the strengths of world-building, which Stirling has clearly shown, is that several more stories can be told about New Virginia and the people who inhabit it. The reader is left having enjoyed the novel and wishing that he could still be immersed in its strange culture that is an improbably mixture of Antebellum South, mid-twentieth century outlook, and twenty-first century technology
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