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Black Chamber
by S.M. Stirling
Ace, $16.00 TPB, 388pp
Published: July 2018

This is an alternate history story that hinges on President William Taft dying in office in 1912 rather than in 1930.  Because of this, Theodore Roosevelt, who served as President from 1901-1909, is inspired to run again and take back the Presidency, which he did in this story. 

This puts him back in charge during the days of WWI and he had some very definite ideas on how to conduct warfare.  One of his programs was a black ops unit called Black Chamber, a group of spies who were highly trained as operatives and assassins who could be sent anywhere.

The focus of the story was on a female operative named Luz O’Malley Arostegui.  Masquerading as an anti-American Mexican revolutionary, she made contact with a secret German agent, Horst, winning his complete trust.  Her mission was to find out what the German High Command had planned.  The mission was a both a greater success and a failure…of epic proportions. 

Due to Roosevelt’s bigger-than-life persona, and personal charisma and power, he became a somewhat mythic personage to most of the world; even the German High Command was not immune to his influence.  Because of this, they embarked on a dangerous program to develop a super poison gas; desperate to launch a first strike against America before we entered the war and demolished them.  This is what Luz discovers, while deep in Germany and unable to get the intelligence out to Washington.  Luz finds herself becoming more and more attracted to Horst, knowing all the time she’ll end up pitted against him with no surety that she’ll be the victor.  Then she meets a female Irish revolutionary, Ciara from Boston, come to Germany to lend the Irish support against their oppressors, the United States. Ciara, having seen first-hand the deadly results of the new poison gas, has reconsidered her allegiance but has no way out of the situation she is now in:  she is the American resource that will assist the Germans with their first-strike.  This change-of-heart is fortunate for Luz because Ciara is the only one who knows she is not the Mexican revolutionary she pretends to be.  If the Germans discover the deception, death would probably not be their first choice. So, now in addition to getting the intel out of Germany, she also needs to get both herself and Ciara out.  And it needs to happen before the unthinkable happens – a poison gas strike on American soil.

This was moderately fun; I found too much slowness in the plot when the two women have simple, friendly conversations.  But the character development was good and while the plot was a bit confusing, it came together at the end.  Although I felt the end to be a bit slow as well.  ~~  Catherine Book

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