Thrusting a modern man into a pre-electricity parallel world, author Brown’s wiry what-if yarn could have gone the trendier, fanciful steampunk route. Instead, in simple and direct language, the novel plays it deadly straight and earnest, envisioning a new world of Civil War–era technology added to the mix of slavery, drugs, whiskey, cotton and rape. On a surveying job in his native West Virginia, Rex Knight is mysteriously teleported to what he deduces (with surprising ease) is the same region on an alternate Earth. Here, ice-age fauna still survive, and civilization took a very different path, one not completely dystopian yet disquieting enough on its own terms. The North American continent—nobody calls it that—is a semilawless frontier, awash in cocaine (now produced locally) and colonized by both a militaristic, world-circling Prussian Empire (with an emperor who claims to have descended from God) and a sinister race called the Ichneumons. The latter’s bluish blood—“due to a copper molecule, hemocyania”—and different social structure mark them as not quite human. Seeing acts of oppression and murder inflicted on the Wapiti, a docile Native American–like nation, stirs Rex to lead an insurrection against territorial boss James Donnelly, out to destroy and enslave the entire tribe in a shady deal with the Ichneumons. As he appeals to some of the more enlightened Prussians for help, Rex also has to conceal his origins, as other off-world visitors were executed on religious grounds—a side detail that’s a bit of a nonstarter in this particular installment of what the author intends to be a multivolume saga. Neither blackhearted Donnelly nor the white-knight hero is particularly compelling as a character, but the plotline and the distorted-mirror quality of the setting carry the campaign, which ends with a barn burner (literally) of a battle.
A notable kickoff to an intriguing alternate-history series.