1635: The Dreeson Incident by Eric Flint and Virginia DeMarce
Cover art by Tom Kidd
Maps by Gorg Huff
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
As the series that began with the novel 1632 has developed, it has branched out in numerous directions as various writers have chosen to explore the stories of minor characters who typically get at most a line or two in a novel, and often are lucky to even be mentioned by name. The "far trees, to at most become nearer trees," as Tolkien put it in On Fairy Stories, have instead become near trees, to be closely examined, thanks to the many hands that have been set to the work of exploring the world created by the Ring of Fire.
Thus it is rather hard to place this novel precisely in the sequence of the 1632-verse -- it is not precisely a sequel to any one book, but picks up threads from several ones. The most obvious one is exactly what happened to Michel Ducos, the Huguenot secret agent who attempted to assassinate Pope Urban VIII using the Venice Committee of Correspondence as patsies in 1634: The Galileo Affair. Yet at another level it winds up one thread left dangling at the end of 1634: The Bavarian Crisis, namely getting Veronica Dreeson and Mary Simpson back home after their misadventures. And then there are the various minor stories that have been woven into the novel which had their beginnings in short stories from the various anthologies.
And all of them are woven together into a truly impressive tapestry. One of Eric Flint's greatest talents is his ability to illuminate the ordinary side of extraordinary people, never forgetting that no matter what high rank or station his characters may attain, they still have their ordinary human relationships and the hopes, dreams and desires that spring from them -- things as simple as Veronica Dreeson's concern about her husband's frail health and the risks he accepted when he came to accompany her home, or his own stubborn determination to hold on to as much of his independence as he can for as long as possible in the face of the infirmities of age in a world where many of the medical advances he once took for granted may well take decades to recreate.
Or the various "little people" of Grantville who are sucked into the exiled Huguenots' plans, each as a result of their own various petty resentments, some going back decades in the world they left behind. However world-shaking the scheme may be, it still ends up operating on the various petty resentments of the people who become involved in it.
And resentment is one of the overarching themes of this novel, whether it be the petty, cranky Mrs. Grundy-ism of Veda Mae Hardesty, forever grousing about old enmities from another world and not realizing that the French who many well have been our allies in World War II are not necessarily friends in a world where Cardinal Richelieu sees American-style democracy and technological advancements as the greatest threat to the stability of aristocracy and monarchy, the two foundations of the world as he regards it, or the angers of abusive husband Bryant Holloway, whose resentment of having to assist downtime German fire departments in organizing against what he should see as their common enemy (destructive fires) leads him to assist a human enemy of his own people.
There's an old game called "let's you and him fight." When you know that your enemy is too strong for you to take on directly, and you don't have any scruples about harming other people, what better way to take out your enemy than to get him crosswise with someone even stronger? And that's exactly what the Huguenot exiles are planning to do -- commit a number of terrorist acts and fabricate evidence that will put the blame for them on Richelieu. After all, it's known that he was the mastermind behind the Croat raid on Grantville way back when the West Virginia coal-mining town was first transported to the Thirty Years' War, so it's completely plausible that he'd try again, but just be more subtle. Instead of using armed regular troops and outright violence, just throw some sand in the gears.
Things like a mass demonstration against vaccination or autopsies at the medical center, or an anti-Semitic incident at Grantville's synagogue. Or even a few assassinations. Nobody really major, because their aim isn't to destroy the USE's leadership, but someone important enough at a symbolic level to rile the people up to march against Richelieu and the perfidious French.
But organizing things like that, especially large "spontaneous" demonstrations, takes a lot of work. You've got to sound people out and find out who's already predisposed in that direction, but not so fanatical that they're apt to go wild instead of creating the nice little disruption you'd planned. And that is going to leave trails all over the place, not to mention all the records and documentation it takes to run an operation, no matter how covert. And Grantville is not exactly blind to the fact that it is not loved by everyone in this strange new/old world in which they live.
Don Francisco Nasi, the redoubtable intelligence mastermind who has served Mike Stearns almost since the beginning, has plenty of eyes and ears on the ground throughout Grantville and the entire USE. And very few of them fit the James Bond stereotype of the suave, fast-shooting secret agent. Far from it, a number of them are merely young people who are willing to make a difference by keeping their eyes and ears open and letting him know about any odd things that go on. Or even hiding their brains behind a mask of ditziness in order to get a crotchety old woman to open up and spill all kinds of interesting gems while she is in the midst of gossiping about everyone she despises.
Or simply someone who isn't going to stand by and do nothing while other people beat the drums of hatred. Certainly Mayor Henry Dreeson and Reverend Enoch Wiley never thought of themselves as heroes when they went over after church services that Sunday to see what was the ruckuss in front of the synagogue. They were both up in years, and heroing is a young man's business. But when they saw the ugly mood of that crowd, they knew that it was time to do something, and so did the rest of the Presbyterian congregation. In the world they left behind, the Holocaust happened because far too many people who weren't active anti-Semites chose to turn the other way and pretend to see nothing as their neighbors vanished -- but in this new world, they don't intend to repeat that mistake.
But they don't know that the demonstrators are in fact patsies of conspirators who couldn't care less about Jews, who are themselves Calvinists and therefore hold the same theological position as modern-day Presbyterians in regards to the Jews -- but find anti-Semitism a useful tool for achieving ends that have nothing at all to do with the Jewish people. And in exposing themselves to danger so fearlessly, these two elderly gentlemen unwittingly set off a chain of events that will work fundamental changes in the structure of society in this alternate Europe they have been helping create.
A number of readers on Baen's Bar have complained that the last section seems rather rushed, with events told as much as shown. But in this case, I think it's a good artistic choice. What would the novel have gained by having the actions of the Committees of Correspondence against the various anti-Semitic and witch-hunting groups recounted in tender loving detail? This is a story about social upheaval and its roots in the discontents of ordinary Joes and Janes on the ground, not a horror story or a military gore-fest. Even John Ringo and David Weber, both of whom are renown for the high body counts of their military science fiction, know when to suggest rather than detail.
Instead, my only real concern about this novel is how well it stands on its own. Given that it is the culmination of threads that have been developing across a number of novels, how intelligible is it going to be for someone who is picking it up as their very first introduction to the Ring of Fire universe? I have been keeping up with most of the novels and anthologies, but there were several points at which I felt as though I were missing something. An event would be referred to, and I had the impression that it had been told in much more detail in another volume, but I had no idea which -- for instance, the death of Velma Hardesty's daughter Tina and her friend, which was mentioned several times in passing, but each time in a way that seemed to assume the reader was already in possession of the facts concerning the case. While it's possible that it was brushed over in this way merely because understanding of the events was not essential for enjoying this particular story, it still gave me the feeling that there was another story that I should have already read.
Review posted February 18, 2009.
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