The Bear’s Claws – Writing a Different War

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual book for me. I guess it’s an unusual book full stop, a story of a war that never happened, concerned as much with the politics and traumas of that war as with its action. It’s picking up the “what if World War Three comes?” genre that was popular during the Cold War and running with it, even though we know that war never came.

So where did this book come from? And what did we do to make it stand out as something different?

The Origins of the Story

This story starts out in the real world, with my friendship with co-author Russell Phillips. Russell and I have known each other for over twenty years now, ever since they came to Durham to visit their partner, who was part of the same live roleplay club as me. We got to know each other through games and student socialising, then went off our separate way, as often happens.

Years later we reconnected over writing and became accountability partners, meeting online once a month to check in on progress, celebrate our achievements, and push each other to write more. Russell has done a lot to keep me motivated over recent years, and I like to think that I’ve done the same for them.

Russell and I write in very different genres. While I’m away in my imagination creating worlds of fantasy, steampunk, or science fiction, they’re grounded in reality, writing non-fiction about military history and technology. But we were keen to collaborate on a book and so Russell came up with an idea.

We would write a story set during the Cold War, using the technology and tactics he was familiar with, but altering history, creating something that headed away from reality. We’d both enjoyed Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, the best-known story about a Cold War turned hot, and it was the sort of story we were both interested to tell. Between Russell’s technical knowledge and my creative writing, we felt we could create something cool.

The seeds of the story came from Russell. While there’s a whole sub-genre of books telling Cold War turned hot stories, they wanted to do something different from the rest. They wanted to tell the story from the Soviet point of view instead of the Western one. It would give us a different angle and a unique hook with which to entice our target audience.

And so a story was born.

Writing Differently About War

Both Russell and I have an unusual perspective for people writing war stories. We’re lefty, liberal, pacifistic types who would rather everybody just stopped shooting each other, but we were also raised on war stories and feel the thrill of those tales. Personally, I’ve never been near war but I know plenty of people who’ve served in the military, and respecting their perspective and experiences is important to me.

This creates a difficult balancing act. Writing a war story that will show the skill and courage of individual combatants while trying not to glorify the war itself, trying to get away from narratives of good guys versus bad guys, is difficult, especially in a conflict as ideologically charged as this one.

To that end, The Bear’s Claws tries to show different sides of its characters’ experiences. There are moments of skill and daring, but there are also more troubling ones. There’s sudden and arbitrary death, soldiers struggling with the trauma of war, problems of discipline and corruption. Most of all, there’s the experience of war as an ideological challenge.

As Vladislav Rakovich and his men head west, they find that neither the world nor the war they’re fighting in is as they were promised. While the outcome of the war is a central question of the book, so is the outcome for Rakovich. Can he hold true to his beliefs as his world is shaken? Should he?

The Other Side of the War

When Russell sent me their first draft for the start of The Bear’s Claws, I found something surprising – a scene away from the war. Following Rakovich’s sister Anna, this showed reactions to the war back home in Leningrad.

When I started expanding out a plot from those starting scenes, the strand around Anna grew. She provided an interesting contrast with her brother, as well as a different perspective on the war. After all, wars transform nations, even away from the fighting front. Politics, industry, culture, it’s all affected. The history of a war isn’t just military history.

Anna’s strand is about rebellion and resistance. Looking back, we know that the Soviet system was on its last legs in the 1980s, but at the time that wasn’t clear. Speaking out against the government was dangerous, and that’s the risk that Anna eventually takes.

Writing this section let me get into one of the great issues about how societies respond to war. There are many examples that show nations pulling together, with an external threat used to distract people from internal dissent. But other examples also exist, most notably in the latter half of the First World War, when the strains of war encouraged revolution. So do wars inherently pull people together, with only defeat undermining this effect, or can they go the other way? Can war become an opportunity for dissent?

We decided to go with the path of revolt. This was partly a storytelling choice, to create drama in the home front chapters. But it’s also a reasonable speculation based on the state of the Soviet Union in 1982. The strains of a broken system were starting to show. It’s not impossible that people would have taken a great disruption as an opportunity to push for change.

A Different Take on World War Three

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual war story in a lot of ways. It’s co-authored. It’s about a war that never happened. It walks a delicate line in its treatment of war. It’s a war story that’s also about the civilian side.

It’s not a book that’s going to be for everyone, but if any of this has intrigued you then you can find it as an e-book in all the usual stores or as a print book from Amazon.

Background To The Bear’s Claws

To mark the release of our new book The Bear’s Claws, here’s a little something from Russell Phillips on the alternate history he created so we could justify a Soviet army marching west…

Background to The Bear’s Claws

During the Cold War, many in the West thought that Warsaw Pact forces might invade West Germany at any time. That never happened, so when we came to write The Bear’s Claws, we needed to find some reason for the war to take place. It’s never directly explained in the book, but for those that are interested, here’s a little background.

The North Atlantic Treaty: Article Five

The first part of the hook is article five of the NATO treaty. This states that an attack against any one or more of the signatories in Europe or North America will be considered an attack against them all. In that case, all the member nations would assist the attacked nation to defend itself.

It’s important to note that this only applies in Europe, North America, and the Atlantic Ocean north of the Tropic of Cancer. In our book, the invasion of West Germany happens during the Falklands War. Since the Falklands are much further south than the area covered by the NATO treaty, the UK government couldn’t invoke article five to secure assistance from their NATO allies in fighting Argentina.

Only the initial attack needs to be in Europe, North America or the North Atlantic. Once article five had been invoked, NATO forces could find themselves fighting elsewhere. This is why NATO forces operated in Afghanistan, after the US invoked article five following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001.

The Sinking of HMS Ariadne

After Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, Admiral Jorge Anaya, part of the ruling military junta in Argentina, sent four men to Spain to sink a British ship in Gibraltar harbour. In reality, the operation was foiled when the men were arrested by Spanish police. In our alternative history, the attack succeeded, and the frigate HMS Ariadne was sunk on the 3rd of May 1982.

Gibraltar is in the area covered by the NATO treaty, and so the UK government took the opportunity to invoke article five. When the task force sailed to the South Atlantic to re-take the Falkland Islands, the land forces were all British, as was the bulk of the naval forces. But in this alternative history, an American aircraft carrier was included, and they also provided B-52 bomber support. Other NATO allies provided naval assets. Argentina responded by calling on other South American countries for support, characterising the conflict as the old colonial powers trying to re-establish their empires.

War in Western Europe

NATO land forces in Western Europe were not directly affected, since the British forces sent south were not intended for deployment there. The reduction in naval forces available to North Atlantic convoys would mean reduced escorts for any convoys reinforcing Western Europe, however. The Soviet Union, recognising this, and that the Western powers would have to fight a war on two fronts, took advantage of the situation and invaded West Germany.

Of course, we’ll never really know what would have happened if the Argentinians had succeeded in sinking a British ship in Gibraltar harbour. It’s entirely possible that the UK would not have invoked article five, preferring to fight alone in the Falklands. But it did allow us to base our fictional war on real events that could have had a much bigger impact.


To see how that fictional war plays out, check out The Bear’s Claws, available at all good e-book stores and as a print book via Amazon.

Rise – a flash alternate history story

Leningrad, 1982.

Just not the one you know.

Nastasia stood in the shadows of dirt-smeared street lamps, clutching a roll of posters in her hand. She could feel the edge of each one beneath her fingers, an edge that could as easily slice her skin as crumple beneath it.

It was a midsummer night, yet Nastasia felt an icy hand gripping her chest, freezing her to the spot where the comforting shadows would give way and expose her to the light.

“Come on,” Kirill hissed, gesturing down the street with a broad paint brush. In his other hand he held a bucket of paste, flour and water and a little cheap glue. Good enough for propaganda. Good enough when it was all they had.

Nastasia took a deep breath and forced herself to take a step forward. She had chosen this. While the Red Army marched west against the capitalists, people were struggling and starving back home. It wasn’t right and Nastasia had been brought up to do what was right.

She had also been brought up hearing stories of the gulags and KGB cells, stories whispered behind closed doors, warnings to act and dress like everyone else, to keep her head down or face the most terrible punishments.

She hadn’t had the courage to join when the protests started. But then she’d seen the march in the print district and felt her heart lift, only for it to be trampled with the protesters the army beat and dragged away. That was when she had known that she had to do something, or live the rest of her life in shame.

One arduous step after the other, she walked over to Kirill. With trembling hands she peeled a poster from the roll and held it out while he applied the paste. Then they spread it across the wall and flattened it, the paste dripping in pail globs around the edges.

She stood back and smiled at her work.

“POWER TO THE UNIONS!” it read above a picture of a raised fist. “LET THE TRUE SOVIET RISE!”

The cold hand loosened around her heart and she shifted a little lighter on her feet.

“Let’s do another,” she said, laying a hand on Kirill’s shoulder.


“Over there.”

They stuck a poster to the leg of a bridge, another to the wall of a shop. The wet brushed slapped against paper, paste dripped, and words of defiance claimed the streets for their own.

Then a brute voice sounded behind them.

“Who’s that? What are you doing?”

Nastasia turned, heart hammering. The posters tumbled from her hands and unravelled across the road toward the approaching policemen.

Her pulse raced. For a moment she stood frozen again.

The stories returned unbidden to her mind. Stories of cells. Stories of gulags. Stories of torture and death. Stories of the police and the KGB. So many stories.

Then she was running, and Kirill beside her. Running like a hunted beast. Running because her life depended on it.

They raced along side streets and alleyways, through pools of pale electric light and stretches of shadow. The policemen ran after them, their boots hammering the ground, their shouts the barking of a hunter’s hounds.

Nastasia wanted to wail and to scream. Tears slid down her cheeks at the thought of what must come. She felt every cobble beneath her feet, saw every passing scrap of litter, the city flooding her senses, revealing itself to her one last time.

And then those heavy footfalls faltered. Snapping and snarling gave way to wheezing, which faded as they left the policemen behind.

Still she ran, muscles aching, legs stretching for every inch of distance she could gain.

At last, Kirill sagged into the mouth of an alleyway. Nastasia flopped to the ground beside him and filled her burning lungs with deep, soothing breaths.

A dizzying wave swept through her, left her shaking and hysterical. Not tears now but laughter. The sensation that had seemed like dread was transformed, becoming the thrill of survival. She gloried at her triumph in the chase.

“Guess that’s it,” Kirill said, his voice caught between disappointment and relief. “We should get off the streets.”

“No,” Nastasia said. This feeling was a revelation and she could not turn away from its light. “More posters, more paste. We still have half the night.”

“But the police…”

“We’ve outrun them once, we can do it again.” Just saying it made her grin, though she trembled as she pushed herself to her feet. She raised her fist. “Let the true soviet rise.”

Leningrad, 1982.

Just not the one you know.

Not anymore.


This story is set in the same divergent history as my new novel, co-authored with Russell Phillips…

The Bear’s Claws: A Novel of World War III

It’s 1982 but not as we know it. The Cold War has lost its chill and World War III has arrived, threatening to send the whole planet into meltdown.

Vladislav Rakovich is a young, idealistic communist. He dreams of being an officer, leading his soldiers on a mission to free the world from capitalism. But as the Soviet armies roll west, he gains his first bitter taste of command and reality hits. Can he stay focused on his aim in the face of undisciplined troops, a corrupt superior officer, and NATO’s military might? As conflict rages around him, Rakovich finds that his biggest battle comes from within as his faith in the communist cause is shaken by the horror of war.

Back home in Leningrad, Rakovichs beloved sister Anna has other things to worry about. Drawn into a world of trade unions and protests, Anna finds herself driven by a new purpose, although her beliefs introduce her to a dangerous world where dissent can lead to disappearance or even death. Will this war birth the second revolution the nation is crying out for? Or will the people be trampled underfoot by the establishment once more?

The Bear’s Claws is a compelling and powerful story of how family, courage, and conviction can survive in a world torn apart by war.

The Bear’s Claws is available at all good e-book stores and as a print book via Amazon.

Out Now – The Bear’s Claws

I have a new book out!

The Bear’s Claws: A Novel of World War III by Andrew Knighton and Russell Phillips

It’s 1982 but not as we know it. The Cold War has lost its chill and World War III has arrived, threatening to send the whole planet into meltdown.

Vladislav Rakovich is a young, idealistic communist. He dreams of being an officer, leading his soldiers on a mission to free the world from capitalism. But as the Soviet armies roll west, he gains his first bitter taste of command and reality hits. Can he stay focused on his aim in the face of undisciplined troops, a corrupt superior officer, and NATO’s military might? As conflict rages around him, Rakovich finds that his biggest battle comes from within as his faith in the communist cause is shaken by the horror of war.

Back home in Leningrad, Rakovichs beloved sister Anna has other things to worry about. Drawn into a world of trade unions and protests, Anna finds herself driven by a new purpose, although her beliefs introduce her to a dangerous world where dissent can lead to disappearance or even death. Will this war birth the second revolution the nation is crying out for? Or will the people be trampled underfoot by the establishment once more?

The Bear’s Claws is a compelling and powerful story of how family, courage, and conviction can survive in a world torn apart by war.

The Bear’s Claws is available at all good e-book stores and as a print book via Amazon.

Coming Soon – The Epiphany Club

If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’re probably familiar with the Epiphany Club. They’re a band of Victorian steampunk adventurers I invented for a short story, reflecting my interest in Victorian history, strange machines, and old-fashioned adventure stories. In the decade since, I’ve written five novellas exploring their adventures. And now, at last, those novellas are collected in one place.

The Epiphany Club isn’t just my biggest self-publishing project yet – it’s also the first time that I’ve dared go into print. Previously, my books have been purely digital, but now, for the first time, you can also get a physical version. A preview is currently sitting on my desk and I have to say that it looks pretty awesome. I’m very proud of this project.

So what’s it all about? Well…

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

But Dirk and his colleagues aren’t the only ones following the trail. Faced with strange machines, deadly assassins, and shocking betrayal, can they survive the perils confronting them? And what will they find when they finally reach their destination?

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

You can pre-order the e-book now, and if this is a story that appeals to you then please do pre-order. If you want to read a sample before you buy, the first novella is free from all good e-book retailers. Sadly Amazon won’t do pre-orders for the paperback, but I’ll provide details when it’s available.

Welcome to a world of curiosity and adventure. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed the writing.

The Daimyo of Dust – a flash steampunk story

Kato crept along the forest path, katana gripped between white-knuckled fingers. A single beam of sunlight pierced the gloom and drew his eye to gears that gleamed amid the flattened grass.

The sign he had sought. A piece of the Daimyo of Dust.

He held up one hand.

The other samurai stopped. The only sound was a single heron, calling out from the nearby river.

Kato pointed at the gears, then at more lying beyond them. His comrades gathered around.

The Daimyo might not bleed as men did, but this was surely a sign. He was damaged from their last fight, vulnerable, weak. Ukon’s life had been well spent if it gave them victory now.

One cautious step at a time, they followed the trail of gears toward a clearing. As they approached, they heard an erratic clatter, the dying noises of a broken machine.

At Kato’s signal, the warriors fanned out. Swords drawn, they approached the clearing from every side. If they were quick and careful, they might defeat the mechanical warrior and earn the pardon the emperor had promised, their past failures forgotten. If not, it was more noble to die in battle than on their own blades.

The leaves parted to reveal a figure lying in the clearing, his back to Kato. Armoured plates bound together by the elaborate agemaki bow. A broad helmet with crests down its sloped sides. Leg guards and sandals drawn in close. All made of metal, unlike the leather and lacquer Kato wore. All edged with the rust from which the Daimyo drew his name.

The rattling of gears emerged from inside that armour.

At Kato’s signal, the warband advanced, blades drawn. The Daimyo might be damaged, but he could still be a deadly opponent. They moved like coiled springs, ready to burst into action if he made the slightest move.

Across from Kato, Yoshiaki frowned. Suddenly, he lengthened his stride, approaching the armoured body. He touched the helmet with the tip of his katana. It rolled back, revealing empty air.

Kato hurried to join Yoshiaki. He picked up the armour and a machine slid out – something simple, clockwork powered, its gears rattling noisily as it fell to the ground.

There was a soft, wet noise.

Only then did he noticed the smell of blood.

Kato looked up, past Yoshiaki, to the edge of the clearing.

A machine stood there, shaped like a man but made of pistons, gears, and levers. Deprived of his outer layer of armour, the Daimyo of Dust stood exposed, his oiled innards visible for all the world to see.

There was blood on his katana. Two of Kato’s comrades lay headless at his feet, another a dozen yards away.

“You were damaged,” Kato said. “Bleeding.”

The Daimyo opened his hand, scattering loose gears in the grass. Gears that had no place inside his body.

“I need all my components,” he said. “I do not understand how you can bleed and yet still walk. But I only needed to understand that you do.”

His blade gleamed as he raised it.

Kato and Yoshiaki braced themselves, standing side by side one last time. At Edo, a dozen samurai had failed to destroy the Daimyo of Dust. Now they were only two.

At least it would be a noble end.

* * *


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Togas – a flash story

Korina’s smile widened as she watched steam rise from the spring, spinning delicate bronze levers in the upper reaches of her device. Below, hot water spun wheels that powered the looms. The cave was filled with the clatter of moving parts, the wondrous sound of the first automated manufactuary in all the city states of Greece, and therefore surely in the whole civilised world. A wonder to match the colossus recently raised at Rhodes. All her work.

Outside, priests were shouting like a band of petulant children, as they had done since she arrived weeks before. If this spring had truly been the divine oracle they claimed, surely it would have warned them that the people of Athens, dazzled by her work, would grant it to her to power her machine.

Oracle indeed.

At the end of the cave, freshly woven togas were tumbling off the machine and into the donkey cart that would carry them to market. Stamatia, her assistant, was picking samples out at random to try them on.

“This one itches,” Stamatia said with a frown, casting the cloth aside. “And this one…”

She squirmed and struggled as the toga shrank around her. Hastily, Korina unfastened the garment and set her free.

“I’m sure the rest are fine,” Korina said, nudging the strangely shrivelled toga with her toe.

Of course, there was no need to keep testing, these were just flukes. But out of curiosity, she picked up another toga and tried it on.

No sooner had she fastened it into place than she felt a great weight bearing her down. It was as if the cloth were made of lead. She tore it off with trembling hands and donned another. When she tried to walk, she tripped over her own feet, as she had not done since she was an infant.

“The curse of the oracle!” Stamatia said. “The priests warned us that if we meddled then the gods-”

“Gods can be appeased,” Korina said. “Keep the machine running. I will be back.”


The biggest bull Korina had ever seen lay roasting in the heart of a blazing bonfire. The smell was mouth-watering, but no human tongue would taste that flesh. It was an offering, one whose grandeur warmed her soul. Even the priests had been grudgingly impressed, though they still shouted whenever she came near.

That should be more than enough to appease the gods.

She strode into the cave and grabbed the next toga to come off the line. It stung like ice on her fingertips. Her skin went numb when she put it on.

“That wasn’t enough?” she shouted to the heavens.

Stamatia backed off, watching her with trepidation.

“Fine.” Korina picked up an armful of the precious togas. “I’ll offer them something that really matters to me.”

She stormed out to the fire and flung the togas in, bellowing a prayer to all the gods as she did so. The precious clothes, proof that her machine worked, blazed into flames. She strode back inside, grabbed another armful, and burned them too.

“Try the next one off the line,” she said to Stamatia as she snatched up the last of the togas. “Surely this will be enough.”

As fire consumed her creations, Korina heard a yelp from inside the cave. Stamatia ran out, flames flying from the toga in which she was wrapped, and jumped into a nearby stream.

Korina’s scream was born as much frustration as alarm.


Once the physician had arrived and tended to Stamatia, Korina went back into the cave. She laid a hand on the gleaming bronze of her machine. A thing of such wonder and intricacy. Years of work in design, testing, and production. Her proudest creation.

She picked up a hammer and raised it, ready to strike.

“Is this the only way to lift the curse?” she whispered, her voice cracking at the thought.

A toga fell from the machine into the donkey cart. Korina took a moment to enjoy her achievement one last time. Such a tragedy to destroy it, but she was no priest, able to win back the favour of angry gods. She was an inventor and a businesswoman.

She needed to start thinking like one.


A queue stretched away from Korina’s stall at the marketplace in Athens. She could barely keep up with demand. She laughed to herself as she looked up at the sign:

“A peace offering to your enemy. A present for a relative you hate. A merry joke upon your impish friend. Cursed togas – the perfect gift for every occasion.”

* * *


During the steampunk panel at this year’s FantasyCon, we talked about other eras we’d like to see get the treatment steampunk gives to Victorian Europe. One suggestion was ancient Greece, with its inventors and early machines. This story got a little away from the tone I imagined then, but hey, it’s a start.

And if you’d like to read more experiments in short stories, why not sign up to my mailing list and get one straight to your inbox every Friday?

Steampunk – Some Missing Bits

The release of my latest book, Sieges and Silverware, together with a conversation at FantasyCon, got me thinking about new topics for steampunk. The bits of 19th-century history I haven’t seen mined by the genre, but would like to see. Things I might even get to myself one day. So in no particular order, here are seven things I’d like to see more of in steampunk…

  1. Factory life, not as a passing bit of background but as something central to the story. After all, factories were a huge part of the industrial revolution. I’ve seen this done a bit in Kate Elliot’s fantasy/steampunk work, so there’s at least some out there.
  2. The birth of nationalism, which emerged in its modern form in the 19th century. The reasons people were drawn to it are interesting, as are those early nationalist movements. More Guiseppe Garibaldi please.
  3. Speaking of romantic revolutionaries, how about some steampunk inspired by Latin America, with its struggles for freedom and identity?
  4. Colonialism. It was a huge part of what made the industrial revolution possible, but we usually ignore it in steampunk. There are some tense, complex stories to be told about those dark times.
  5. Back in Europe, there’s the rise of working-class protest movements, like the Chartists and the trade unions. It’s a rich well of drama and unlikely heroes.
  6. Getting wackier, I’d like to see worlds where some of the really weird Victorian science is true. It could be tricky to do without creating something unpleasant, but ideas like phrenology could create very different worlds if carried to their logical conclusion.
  7. Life at sea. International voyages took a very long time. Many of the people taking them were going to create new lives abroad. People stuck together for a voyage like that, on a steampunk ship, could create great drama as cabin fever kicks in.

Which of those would you be excited to read about? What unusual Victorian possibilities have I missed? Have you already found stories like these out there? Leave a comment, maybe it’ll inspire me to write something new.

* * *

And don’t forget, the latest Epiphany Club novella, Sieges and Silverwear, is out now:

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

Sieges and Silverware is available now through Amazon and Smashwords.


Triumff – Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett

I like silly adventure stories.

Don’t get me wrong. I love books of depth and passion, like the work of Guy Gabriel Kay. I like books of intelligence and extraordinary ideas, like those of China Miéville. But sometimes I just want a fun romp.

And as fun romps go, Triumff – Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett is nicely bonkers.

Explaining Triumff

It’s 2010. The Unity, an imperial combination of England and Spain, rules a large chunk of the world. Thanks to the influence of magic, much about society is the same is it was in the 16th century. The whole nation is still ruled by a Queen Elizabeth – Elizabeth XXX in this case.

Swashbuckling adventurer Sir Rupert Triumff has just returned from a voyage to Australia. Ethical concerns are holding him back from sharing details of his discovery with the world. But as he mulls over the problem, a conspiracy is at work. Soon Triumff will be caught in its tangled web.

Plot Over Character

As the Book Smugglers pointed out in their review, this is a book where plot trumps character. There are a lot of fun characters here, but none are explored in great depth. Triumff himself is a classic swashbuckling rogue. His opponents are megalomaniacal ciphers. The people he works with all stand out from each other but develop little depth.

On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun. The setting is a bonkers mash-up of details from different periods and pop culture jokes. Things keep moving at a good pace, with just enough breathing room for the reader to take it in. This… well, it’s fun.

If you’re looking for a light, exciting adventure to relax with then this is a good choice. It’s a setting that’s distinct from anything else I’ve encountered, and for all their shallowness the characters are fun. There’s some weird stuff going on with the narrative voice, which for me added to the playfulness of it all.

If you want a fun read, you could do far worse.

The Man in the High Castle: WW2, Identity and Resistance

The Man in the High Castle is a gripping piece of television. It takes the ideas laid out in Phillip K Dick’s book and expands upon them to create something powerful and fascinating. More than this, it’s an exploration of morality and of why the Second World War is still so powerful in all our imaginations.

Why WW2?

The Man in the High Castle is a rarity. It’s an alternate history story that, both in its original novel and in the TV show, has reached beyond that small cultural niche and found a wider audience. Both versions have received popular and critical acclaim.

A huge part of its success lies in the choice of historical settings. The Second World War lies heavy in historical memory. For the generation before mine, it still had a great immediacy. In Europe, they grew up amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts. Across the world, they grew up with the consequences and with the war stories of their parents’ generation. As a result, the war also felt immediate for the generation that followed – my own. It was a modern event that shaped the modern world.

The scale and impact of the war are also factors. The term “World War” is a little misleading, given the number of countries that weren’t involved. But it was still a war on an unprecedented scale in the number of nations and combatants, as well as the sheer destruction. Millions died both in combat and in atrocities against civilians. The political and cultural landscape of entire continents was transformed in the space of a decade.

Perhaps most powerfully, it is a war where the sense of moral right and wrong has lingered. While all sides committed terrible acts and every nation had figures striving for good, a distinction remains. The Nazis and their allies sought to enforce their will upon others through violence. They tried to wipe out entire groups of people because of who they were. The Allies fought against that.

Trying to assert a sense of right and wrong upon history is usually misguided at best. But in this case, nothing has shaken off the sense of being in the right that the Allied nations retain.

Playing into Our Vision of WW2

The Man in the High Castle plays into this collective vision. It uses our understanding of the war and how significant it is. This is an easy shortcut to show us that the alternate world is very different and far darker.

By sticking inside the 20th century, it retains that sense of immediacy. Sure, its 1960s setting is now decades behind us. But it’s still modern enough to feel achingly familiar, painfully so when things are wrong.

Most powerfully, it plays up the moral aspect. The horrifying nature of Nazi moral values is there from the start. Characters have taken part in and borne witness to atrocities. Political murder and oppression are common. Aberrations against what the Nazis consider normal, even those as innocent as ill health, are dangerous.

On the Pacific coast too, continued Japanese militarism creates a menacing state with clear racial distinctions.

Undermining Our Certainties

But what makes The Man in the High Castle so powerful is that it questions and undermines these certainties.

Partly, this is about the significance of the war. Within the story, films of alternate realities create questions about the world the characters live in and by extension our own. If there are many other possible realities, is any one event really so significant? Don’t other events equally shape our lives? If the Axis powers had won, would the war still be the single most significant event, or would others that followed match it?

Most tellingly, The Man in the High Castle challenges our moral certainties.

By dropping the atomic bomb on Washington, it forces us to face the terrible nature of the things the Allies did to win the war. The Nazi leadership may have been villains, but can the other side still be considered heroes after wiping out entire cities?

By showing us sympathetic characters on the German and Japanese sides, it undercuts the image of these regimes as all bad. It reminds us that ordinary people can do terrible things if society leads them that way. The question for anyone watching then becomes “in what ways is society leading me to harm others while seeing myself as right?”

Darkest of all, the story undermines the image of those resisting the Axis powers as good. Resistance fighters do desperate and terrible things in the name of freedom. At times, they become antagonists to the show’s hero. They go so far that it’s hard not question whether anyone is in the right here. There are different degrees of wrong and the Nazis are clearly far more hideous in their values than anyone else. But still, the certainties fade…

No Certainties

The Man in the High Castle uses a powerful part of our historical memory to raise powerful questions. To do right, we have to be able to act. We cannot be frozen by doubt. But we still need those doubts, to be able to see when we might be wrong and to adjust our path.

This is a show that should help us to approach morality more intelligently and to examine the past more critically.

Fortunately, it’s also damn good entertainment of the most chilling kind.