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Book Review: The Rivers of War

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Eric Flint’s new alternate history, The Rivers of War, charts the paths that might have been taken in order to avoid the Trail of Tears. Flint doesn’t ignore realities&#8212as one character points out, very little could realistically stop the westward expansion of the nascent new nation, with its ceaseless influx of immigrants hungry for land. But in his vision, it might have been possible for the Cherokee to present a united front, united with escaped slaves and free men of color, and even “influential” white allies, and thus avoid the harsh, devastating effects of their ultimate relocation. If, that is, they moved themselves first.

This novel&#8212the first in a projected two volume “series”&#8212is set against the backdrop of the War of 1812. In March of 1814, General Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Militia, together with their Cherokee allies, fight a decisive battle against the Creek Indians, a battle which puts young Sam Houston at the forefront of the conflict and elevates him in Jackson’s eyes. Flint’s subtle break from history begins in this battle, as an injury that nearly proved fatal in reality becomes merely a flesh wound&#8212and thus alters the course of what is to come.

In the north, General Winfred Scott fights British regulars in a battle that sees one of his finest fighting men, Sergeant Patrick Driscoll, severely injured. Driscol’s wounds cost him his arm, but earn him something he never desired: a commission as a lieutenant. Scott sends Driscoll, together with an enlisted man nearly shot for desertion, to Washington, D.C., to recover from his wounds under the care of his personal physician (a “real doctor,” something that terrifies Driscol, as he has little stomach for bleeding).

Jackson, meanwhile, wants to cement relations with the Cherokees and sends Sam Houston and a delegation of Cherokees to Washington. With Houston comes Tiana Rodgers, the beautiful daughter of an Indian chief who thinks she wants to marry him. Houston and his party arrive just as the British are attacking the city. Houston and Driscol&#8212the battle-hardened veteran of the Napoleonic Wars&#8212lead a spirited defense of the Capitol building, beating back the British. James Monroe, emboldened by their bravado, slips back into the city (and the Capitol itself) and thus meets both Houston and Driscol. After their successful defense of the Capitol, the men are sent to join Jackson in New Orleans. And it is in that battle where alliances will be formed, plans will be drafted, and lives will be altered so as change the course of history&#8212or so it appears, even as the book closes with Jackson victorious and the new nation celebrating its ability to force the British into a stalemate.

When I was growing up, Marvel Comics had a series called “What If.” In each issue, they’d pose some sort of question&#8212for example, “What If Peter Parker wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider?” And then they’d tell a story that would be, at least for me, rather uninspired. Usually because they got to largely the same place in the end, or because it was simply a validation of the original storyline. I’ve often felt similarly about alternate histories: they frequently seem like an exercise in second-guessing or wishful thinking and the simple fact that you know events unfolded differently in real life rather undercuts the appeal.

That said, I thought Flint did an excellent job of seamlessly blending fact and fiction, and his deft characterizations make the story memorable. There is a fair amount of wit in his story (including, for example, how Francis Scott Key must alter his memorable song). Of course, some of the more “enlightened” characters may seem somewhat anachronistic, and I didn’t see as much of the sort of embedded racism that existed during much of the period (even those who championed the rights of other races frequently touted their racial superiority). And the story starts rather slowly; it takes a while for it to truly engage the reader’s imagination. But once it does, it is quite a ride, complete with compelling battle sequences, a solid grasp of military tactics, and fascinating historical characters.

Author’s Note: This book review was originally published at Wallo World.

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About Bill Wallo

  • The more I hear about this book, the more I realize I need to read it. Sounds like a vacation/beach book to me.

    And great call on the “What If?” comics — I loved those things! They re-started the series when I was in college, and had some great titles then as well. I miss those books!

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.