A while back I got my hands a wonderful alternate history book called The Grassland. Today I look at the books sequel – and the latest book in the His Majesty’s New World series – The Frontier by Kenneth Tam.
For those who have forgotten HMNW is an alternate history science fiction is a world where the discovery of an alien planet changes the history of time and reshapes the struggle for resources.
In 1881, explorers in the rocky mountains on either side of the Canadian-U.S. border discovered gateways to a new planet. The British Empire and the Unites States quickly partnered to settle and exploit this rich Earth-like world…
This is the world Kenneth Tam built.
It’s now 1919 and the b’ys of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment are being sent back in the new world. Their mission is to enter a lawless hamlet known as Promised Town, use it as a Forward Operating Base, and then push forward to take a Martian building. This time the b’ys are teamed up with the buffalo soldiers of the 25th United States Infantry Regiment. The 25th were a all-black regiment in the US Army.
The Frontier can be broken down into two major events and their respective build-up. The first is Promised Town.
The 25th and the b’ys travel across the new world – into the American portion of the New World – and help impose martial law into the lawless town. This portion of the book feels like something right out of a classic western. A town full of villains, an army of good guys, and a wild fire-fight to top it all off and in the end, when the dust settled, the good guys win and brothel full of women come rushing out to show their thanks.
This battle is multi-layered in its purpose. It strengthens the book, the understanding of the characters and even the world itself. Tam shows the reader the versatility of the b’ys. In the past we only saw them fight savages – brute force creatures that charge like bulls and fight like barbarians – but as scary as a horde of savages is they don’t shoot back. The baddies of Promise Town do. The Frontier showed us the b’ys – and the 25th – in a firefight. How they react to being shot at and how they overcome.
The Battle also helps show the reader that the Wild West isn’t over. In our history Historian Frederick Jackson Turner said that in the 1980 the Wild West was long since over. In the Tam-verse (I wonder how he will take that coining a phrase?) the Wild West continues long into the year 1919. This battle, and town, showed that when the Wild West should have ended instead the frontier just kept moving west into the New World and the Wild West lived on. The New World was the New Wild West.
The second major event, and its lead up, is the battle against the Martians and their savages. The 25th and the b’ys try to defend Promise Town by fighting the blue-skins and their savage while evacuating the innocents.
What follows next is a small spoiler
The b’ys and the 25th face off against the blue-skins and win. This is the second time that Wall and the b’ys had faced off against the aliens and the second time they’d won with little to no difficulties – although Tam and the b’ys might disagree. It was about here I began to question the intelligence of the blue-skins. They didn’t seem that difficult or dangerous especially compared to one of the only other genre-similar projects – Cowboys and Aliens. But in the last few pages Kenneth Tam does something I’ve rarely seen in sci-fi. He’s given his aliens a slow burn.
Again Minor spoilers ahead.
Tam reminds the reader that the humans colonized the New World for the ability to farm their new resources. He then reminds us that the blue-skins came to the New World for the same reason.
Tam then informs us that not every person in the Wild West was a gun-slinging soldier. Most, in fact, were simply farmers and shop owners. This holds true for the blue-skins as well. This means that the blue-skins the b’ys had faced over the last two books were not warrior or solider – they were farmers.
Of course then Tam drops the big question. What would happen when the blue-skin farmers call in their military?
Giving your alien a slow burn is a brave thing to do, it’s also a risky thing. Imagine if in Predator, when Arnie was fighting for his life in the Jungle, he wasn’t fighting against the warrior class he was fighting against the Librarian class? (Your books are overdue!! Net-Gun!!) What if in Alien, when the crew of the Nostromo brought the new life-form on board, it turned out not to be a killing, feeding kind but instead it was the I’m-a-tunnel-digging-worker-ant-kind? (Stay away from her you pervy-construction worker bitch!! – wrong film but meh). While both these franchise namesakes grew bigger-and-badder as the movies progressed, they still both came to their appearance with both guns blazing. Yet the slow-burn works for Tam. Maybe it’s because at its core the HMNW, unlike Alien or Predator, isn’t about the aliens races it’s about the world and this wild west frontier attitude, making a living while fending for yourself, fits perfectly with the slow-burn approach to the bad-guys especially as Tam teases the more to come.
This book is also filled with Tam’s regular attention to historical detail. He looks closely at the minimal respect and poor reputation the US army held in that time period. He examines the harsh treatment the men of the 25th got even from their own countrymen and fellow soldiers. Tam brings our history vividly alive in the Tam-verse (see I used it again.). He makes his timeline feel real and undisputed, a rare thing in alternate history.
An obvious do-not-miss. Kenneth Tam’s book is a great successor that I found a smoother read than its predecessor. I say this not to pull anything from The Grasslands but as praise for The Frontier. Sometimes when the world has been set in book 1, book 2 just runs smoother. Yet regardless it’s a great read for those who like history or those who like aliens.
The Frontier, The Grasslands and all the book from the His Majesty’s New World series and its follow up series The Champions can be found at Iceberg Publishing. There you can also find his other series, Defence Command and Equations. When he’s not writing his Author Notes, Kenneth Tam can be found on twitter @KTam_Iceberg