A French journalist encounters the American Civil War—and something even stranger—in 1861 Kentucky.
Edouard de Grimouville, a supercilious French stringer for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, travels to the town of Somerset, Ky., on the eve of the Civil War—a conflict in which the neutral state is coveted by both sides. The newspaper’s better-known, more diligent and more talented (monsieur is somewhat lackadaisical) reporters are covering the higher-profile areas of the state, leaving de Grimouville free to gather background by interviewing the colorful locals, including Susannah, the hilariously filthy minded girl he impregnates and mildly likes; Mr. Graham, the enigmatic old coot who lives on the edge of town; and Nick Bromfield and his friends, who challenge their visitor’s conception of politics in the course of many spirited, and endearingly readable, late-night debates. These same friends also challenge de Grimouville’s concept of reality by revealing to him a mysterious instrument that manufactures odd little stones; when someone holds one of these stones and so wills it, an invisible force field springs to life around that person. Light passes freely through the field, but nothing else does, including sound—and bullets. In a daffy turn of events that is nevertheless convincing and entertaining, these gentlemen spend as much time philosophizing about how the existence of a perfect defensive device alters the nature of societal relations as they do strategizing about how best to use the device against the loutish Southern soldiers who occupy and despoil the town. Civil War fantasies, such as those of Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, are here given a far more idiosyncratic and thoughtful twist, in chapter after chapter of sharply intelligent and pithy prose.
A delightfully playful cross-genre novel whose science fiction is every bit as enjoyable as its historical fiction.