Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2021
Tales From Alternate Earths III is an anthology of 14 short stories. Whenever I read anthologies I find that certain stories stand out above the others. In this collection the stories were each imaginative in their suggestions for alternative versions of actual historical or cultural events, for example what if aliens invaded Earth during the time of Jane Austen’s writing, or if Jack the Ripper turned out to be someone completely different than we think, if certain historical figures had not died when they did, how would the word as we know it have been affected? These ideas were intriguing and fun to read.
My favourite story was the alternative story of Guy Fawkes, Gunpowder Treason, by Alan Smale. Starting off the anthology with this engaging story was a great idea as it draws in the reader nicely. Told from the point of view of a ‘tart with a heart’, and actual figure from history, Mary ‘Moll Cutpurse’ Frith who dresses as a boy and thieves from the local toffs, the main premise is that the gunpowder treason plot was actually successful and the Houses of Parliament were blown up. Moll is a fantastically feisty and endearing character, falling in love with ‘John’ a character who tells her to move away right before the deadly blast occurs. Surely he must have had inside information? Moll loves him, but cannot put aside her suspicions. John’s character is well-developed as that of a weak man, easily swayed to do the bidding of others and his church, despite any misgivings he might have. Will he give into his guilt and confess?
I also thoroughly enjoyed the Regency period Jane Austen style story by Rob Edwards, full of stilted conversations, proper behaviour and formal introductions, Ops and Ostentation had a depth of characterisation unexpected in such a short story. I really enjoyed the widow, Mrs Constance Briggs, who gradually fell in love with someone who was a lot more than he at first seemed to be. The scene was set expertly with balls and gentleman callers and the language was very convincingly of the period. The unexpected twist in the story was well-executed and a big surprise.
Dust of the Earth by Brent A Harris was another great story – that of Jess, a paleotologist trying to find evidence of a link between dinosaurs and birds in a world where Jurassic Park does not exist and people are no longer interested in dinosaurs. Jess is brave and intrepid, going into the desert to dig for fossils on her own and unfortunately suffering as a result. She is really not having a good day!
“Whether it was from the sun, dehydration, the fall, her broken leg or her snake bite, the world spun away…”
I found myself rooting for her every step of the way.
To Catch a Ripper by Minoti Vaishnav was an intriguing alternate version of the well-known Jack the Ripper story, set in the same location and time period as the actual story, but with a very different ‘Jack’. The main character is a vigilante East Indian woman who is dead set on finding the Ripper and delivering him to her detective friend. She is a wonderful character, brave and vengeful, following the murder of Mary Ann, one of her close friends. In searching for Jack she is putting herself in danger but also manages to find and bring to rights many other criminals as well. The descriptive language of the story evokes the atmosphere of the dark, dangerous back streets of Whitechapel nicely.
I think I would have enjoyed the African inspired Woza Moya by Christopher Edwards more if I had known the background history on which this story relies. I found it enjoyable, and could empathise with the poor coach trippers stuck on a tourist bus with an incurable know-it-all named Alan, but I felt like I was missing something due to gaps in my knowledge. The ‘alternate’ part of the story was presented as a kind of vision brought on by an African witch doctor, which I thought was a nice device which, worked well, and was different to the other stories in this anthology.
Second Chances by Aaron Emmel pits Homo sapiens against Neanderthals in a technologically-empowered futuristic battle for the survival of the species – but which one will win this time? This story is fast-paced and action packed and I really enjoyed it. The main character, a sapiens, is in peril when he is caught spying on his Neanderthal boss. Will he survive and be able to save his species? This was an amazing idea which really grasped my imagination.
Levski’s Boots by Daniel M Bensen is a longer short story of wartime espionage and revolution. It tells the life story and political machinations of Levski, a revolutionary bandit and begins with a breakneck dramatic chase as Levski flees across country:
“…called Levski “the lion” by Bulgarian separatists in three countries, had borne the revolutionary standard in battle, organized dozens of secret committees, and generally humiliated the Ottoman authorities for a decade. He was a haiduk, a bandit, and if they caught him this time, they’d hang him.”
I found this particular story a little bit too dry for my taste, but I’m sure lovers of history and political intrigue will enjoy it.
Not My Monkey by J.L.Royce is a private detective story with a twist. Will Shakespeare P. I. is a pan-human – a genetic mix of human and chimp whose appearance is that of a chimp but on the inside he still feels exactly like a man. An intriguing, futuristic sci-fi concept with a likeable protagonist, Will is approached by an FBI operative to help find her missing colleague. I found the way Will lusted after the female human FBI agent a little distasteful, although I suppose it served to help the reader understand the tragedy and frustration of his situation.
Heaven Above, Hell Below by Leo McBride is a space race story which follows on the heels of the Challenger disaster. A space elevator has been built from Earth up to a space station. This story takes place right before it is due to be launched for the first time and is quite the thriller. The woman making sure everything goes smoothly, Ellie, is a great character – determined that nothing will go wrong on her watch. A highly enjoyable tale!
There are also stories by Matthew Kresal; Ricardo Victoria; Jeff Provine; D.J. Butler; E.M. Swift-hook and Jane Jago.
I would recommend this anthology to people who like historical fantasy/sci-fi with a twist. People who do not want to commit to a novel and like a fascinating story to read that will get their mental gears turning while taking a break. They certainly got me thinking about all the ‘What ifs’ from our history and their possible consequences.