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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"1636:The Saxon Uprising" by Eric Flint + 163* Series Overview (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Eric Flint Website
Order "1636: The Saxon Uprising" HERE or HERE (ebook)
Read "1632" and "1633" free at the Baen Free Library
Read Most of the 163* series free at the unofficial but approved Baen CD Repository

INTRODUCTION: The 163* series has debuted quietly in 2000 with the standalone 1632, a book that nobody expected to take off in the huge way it did, spanning a series that consists of 7 mainstream novels, 4 side (sort-of) novels, 2 main anthologies with a third upcoming in July and 30+ Grantville Gazettes, a mostly electronic journal dedicated to the series and consisting of both fiction and non-fiction.

While Eric Flint is the creator of the series and keeps general control, quite a few people contributed to the universe in the Gazettes and Anthologies, while some of the novels have been co-authored with David Weber (1633, 1634 The Baltic War) and Virginia de Marce (1634 The Bavarian Crisis and 1635 The Dreeson Incident) in the mainstream series that consists so far of 1632, these four and the one big volume split into parts: 1635: The Eastern Front and 1636: the Saxon Uprising.

The side novels (some are structured as a collection of related series following one another to achieve the unity of a novel) have also various authors but are less important and of varying degrees of quality and interest, so I will focus on the mainstream story threads here. Before discussing the series, I would like to add that this thread that follows the major characters is also treated in some of the Ring of Fire I and II anthologies, but the necessary backstory is recounted in the 7 novels above which form the backbone of the series and are as superb as anything in sff today.

If the series would consist only of those 7 plus the aforementioned stories, it would rank as a co-#1 ongoing sff series for me alongside the Honorverse and Safehold, but the generally lower quality of the side novels and the amateurishness of many Gazette stories takes it down a little. Eric Flint often mentions the experimental nature of the 163* project including all those amateur contributions, so it depends on how you look at things - as a sf series for the ages, keeping it to the 7 so far mainstream novels and related stories would have been much better, but as a fictional recreation of a different 17th century the experiment is quite interesting.

In the following overview, I will present only the "big picture" that results from the first 5 main books (1632, 1633, 1634 The Baltic War, 1634 The Bavarian Crisis, 1635 The Dreeson Incident). In this way you can jump directly to 1635: The Eastern War and its second half 1636: The Saxon Uprising and follow the action there. If you plan to read the series from the beginning, be aware that what comes below will have massive spoilers for the first 3 books especially.

SERIES OVERVIEW: The fundamental premise of the 163* series is that a cosmic event - The Ring of Fire - exchanged a small portion of modern day West Virginia, USA containing the mining town of Grantville and its nearby surroundings, cca 1999-2000, with an equivalent portion in 1631 Germany. This was due to accidental space-time manipulations by ultra-advanced human race offshoots from the far future and resulted in the split of the historical line at that date so now we have a new universe with an Earth that was the historical 1631 one plus the up-time Americans and the physical stuff that came through with Grantville, while "our regular" universe continues on its way from 2000 on...

This is as good as an explanation for the series premise as it gets and from now on we are plunged in the middle of the action which will see a complete remake of the 17th century history as we know it...

At the time Germany was in the middle of the terrible 30 Year War (1618-1648 our timeline), the most devastating continental war until Napoleon and for Germany until WW2 actually - and in 1632 and 1633 we see how Grantville survives and then thrives by accepting as more-or-less equals and mixing with all "down-timers" that appreciate its tolerance and 20th century values, leveraging its technology and allying with the most enlightened local king, the Lutheran Gustav Adolf of Sweden, to essentially create a modern federal German state that will later be named The United States of Europe (USE) under the Swedish (now) Emperor and essentially bring peace to Germany and ending the 30 Years War "early" in 1633 with several crushing defeats of the catholic Imperial armies of Spain and Austria.

But Gustav Adolf's patron, the powerful Cardinal Richelieu of France - who despite being a high ranking prelate of the Catholic Church was the main financier of the Protestant cause in the 30 Years War as prime minister of a France that had as goals breaking the (Spanish and Austrian) Hapsburg "encirclement" of France and keeping Germany weak and disunited - is deeply unhappy with all of that as per the second goal above, so he manipulates all of Gustav Adolf's many enemies into the league of Ostende (catholic France and their avowed enemies the Spanish, protestant England and Denmark and various smaller fish) which starts hostilities by a spectacular smashing of - USE allies - Dutch naval power by treachery.

However the USE did not sat idly and created a modern volunteer army and a powerful ironclad navy and in 1634 The Baltic War, the USE navy destroys the allied fleets of Spain, England and Denmark, while its army smashes the French in battle leading to a peace congress in Copenhagen 1634 that enshrines Gustav Adolf as the most powerful monarch of Europe with a triple crown of Sweden (more or less absolute king), USE (constitutional Emperor) and the Scandinavian States (Emperor and suzerain).

In England an imprisoned Oliver Cromwell (everyone has read the histories of the future so took measures accordingly) escapes from the Tower with American help and is ready to start the English revolution some years early, in France, Richelieu has to use his only modern surviving troops under young Turenne to face the challenge to his power from the treacherous king's brother Gaston and Spain's success in the Netherlands ironically leads to a break of all the Low Countries from the Spanish rule under a Hapsburg prince true but with strong protestant support and leading to the creation of another powerful buffer state, a reborn Burgundy of yore.

In the meantime, former enemy general Wallenstein (who read the future histories too and saw his assassination on his boss, the Austrian Hapsburg Emperor's orders and obviously did not appreciate it) made allies with the USE and carved an independent Bohemia with capital at Prague and started expanding into the east with USE support in return for religious tolerance and the end of serfdom.

So this is the big picture at the beginning of the duology 1635: The Eastern Front and 1636: The Saxon Uprising when Gustav Adolf decides to deal with some of his treacherous former allies in Saxony and Brandenburg (Prussia), theoretically part of the federal USE but who tacitly supported the Ostende League.

Unfortunately, Gustav Adolf has a thing with the Polish king too - a cousin of the same Vasa family, with the two lines having deeply felt grudges against each other - while the progressive Fourth of July Party has just lost the USE election of 1635 to the Conservatives and the new PM is busy playing politics. Against strong up-timer (American) opposition, Gustav Adolf is ready to invade Poland at the head of the powerful USE German army, despite that Poland was the only major European power that did not meddle into Germany during the Thirty Years war.

However, the Polish-Ukrainian Commonwealth of the time is a huge if ramshackle state and defeating it is a different kettle of fish than smashing a concentrated opposing army on the field of battle as many would-be conquerors found out when marching into the vastness of Eastern Europe...

So of course the invasion of Poland starts to go wrong soon and the resulting events combined with the clear lines of conflict in the USE between the ultra-conservative nobility and the progressives inspired by American ideals - conflict that was mostly subdued when the USE fought for its life against the Ostende League but which now after the decisive victory is coming to the forefront and of which the issues of citizenship eligibility/voting rights and established church are the main focal points - create the backdrop against which the dramatic events of "1636:The Saxon Uprising" take place.

ANALYSIS: The 163* series is such a big time favorite of mine for three main reasons. The most important ones are the superb cast of characters and the pitch perfect integration of the Grantville brought modern elements into the 17th century we know from history and the consequent creation of a coherent and very interesting alt-history path. I discussed the second point extensively above, though I will add that the research that goes into the books - a lot of which is published in the non-fiction part of the Grantville gazettes - is staggering as it covers all aspects of 17th century life, from religion, social mores, politics, to technology, science and art.

Almost anyone who is known from the period appears at least as a cameo and personages like Rubens - artist and diplomat - play a pretty major role here and there. In recent volumes there is a clear trend towards a fusion of the modern technology and scientific knowledge brought by Grantville with available 17th century methods of production and of course the speculations incline towards massive use of steam power - internal combustion engines are just too dependent on modern infrastructure - hydraulic computers - semiconductors dependence on the whole infrastructure of today is even clearer - and other "what ifs" of technological history that have been relegated to footnotes or hobbyist interest by the path our civilization has taken.

Let's move now to the characters and in 1636: The Saxon Uprising most of the major favorites appear and play important roles, while many of the rest have at least a cameo. First and foremost of course it is Mike Stearns - the former union leader who took charge of Grantville after the Ring of Fire, defeated and then co-opted his political adversary, in-law and ex-CEO John Simpson, so insuring that Grantville became the seed for the United States of Europe not for a racist apartheid state in which the American up-timers lord over the German down-timers, became Gustav Adolf's valuable ally, first prime minister of the USE until his recent electoral defeat upon which he accepted a major-general commission in the USE army and started learning the ways of war guided by a superb handpicked staff and his former semi-pro boxing instincts...

Then of course his wife, the highly educated Rebecca Stearns nee Abrabanel of the renowned 17th century Jewish international finance family, former secretary of state of the USE and current leader of the Fourth of July Party - the main progressive party of the USE as the name indicates. Mike and Rebecca are also the proud parents of 3 children, with the adopted three year old Barry just stealing the show whenever he appears (aka the little boy who would have become Baruch Spinoza in our timeline and whom the Jews of Amsterdam had expelled for heresy as a baby handing him to Becky when she was helping the besieged city before the peace - as mentioned, everyone read the future histories...).

Also playing a huge role in the novel is the leading revolutionary of the day Gretchen Richter, who has seen a large part of her family massacred in the war by mercenaries and was forced to become a "camp follower" of one of their leaders to protect the survivors and whose quick seduction of and marriage with young Jeff Higgins - currently the CO of the "Hangman" Regiment in Mike's division - was the first test of how Grantville will co-exist with the local people and gave us such memorable scenes in 1632.

And let us not forget the 9 year old Christina of Sweden, heir of the triple crown , her betrothed Ulrik, prince of Denmark and their retinue - the Norwegian adventurer Baldur and the up-time German-American Caroline who became by chance Kristina's governess and surrogate mother as well as being the future Countess of Narnia as Kristina's whim was approved by an amused father...

Other main players in the books are Colonel Hand the cousin of the currently incapacitated Gustav Adolf, while from the villains Prime Minister Wettin gets a better role than I expected, though the Swedish Chancellor Oxiensterna is shown considerably stupider than he seemed - though of course the rush of events can make anyone lose it.

In bit-roles, Mad Max - aka Maximilian of Bavaria who makes such an entertaining villain in the Bavarian Crisis and whose turn is next as we are promised in the last pages of the book and the brutish Swedish General Baner are also superb in all their scenes, while there is a chilling moment with the young Sultan Murad just fresh from conquering Baghdad with his Janissaries and his aerial blimp fleet, announcing to the cheering soldiers the march on Vienna and the West in the spring...

Of course the above just scratches the surface of a huge cast and for more details you can check the Wikipedia page of the series where 80 characters, fictional and historical, have biographical sketches though the cast of the series is considerably larger considering the Gazettes.

The book is also very entertainingly written with so many moments that make one laugh out loud, with action galore, but also with tragedy, suspense and the occasional heartbreak. Just to name some random scenes that show the breadth of the action - Kristina and her retinue cooking at the Magdeburg "Freedom Arches" for cheering crowds or blithely announcing "I am having a party at the castle, everyone is invited" to the consternation of the "brass" aka Rebecca, Ulrik, mayor Gehricke - Magdeburg is the USE capital and a modern rebuilt city after its 1631 sack by the Catholic Imperial armies - or Mike sending a telegram to General Baner that starts like:

"To Johan Banér, general in command of the Swedish army besieging Dresden
From Michael Stearns, major general in command of the USE Army Third Division
Your assault on Dresden is illegal, immoral, treasonous, and ungodly.",

message that is followed on the next page by:

"Banér was not a particularly large man, but he was quite powerful. That blow and the ones that followed with the leg of the shattered stool that remained in his fist were enough to reduce the desk to firewood.“I’ll ***** kill him!"

All in all "1636:The Saxon Uprising" (A++ together with its first half 1635: The Eastern War) show why the 163* epic series has been so successful, but it also contains a powerful message about freedom, equality, progress and how hard is to bottle them when unexpected events open the door, message that is quite relevant today...


Joel said...

Can you please post the reading order for what you consider to be the "core" books and stories for the series? Thanks!

Liviu said...


1632, 1633, 1634 The Baltic War, 1634 The Bavarian Crisis, 1635 The Dreeson Incident, 1635: The Eastern War, 1636: The Saxon Uprising

These follow one another and while the 4th and 5th book are less Mike Stearns centric than the rest, they cover the elections, the Dutch settlement and a lot of other in-between stuff.

The anthologies Ring of Fire I and II have some main stories too - Wallenstein in Bohemia, the Siege of Amsterdam, the Austrian/Turkish stuff, but all are recollected in the books

Liviu said...

Some more tidbits for people unfamiliar with 1632:

- Grantville is in the 5k range of people from what I remember to start with and while most stay loyal to the USE, a bunch "defect" to various powers as time goes;
also despite ceding an immediate tactical advantage, Mike Stearns fundamental open door policy allowed for example anyone to access all the available modern books - maybe except the very few dealing with modern weapons - so they get copied and spread everywhere fast and this has lots of repercussions - eg Cromwell is arrested and imprisoned by Charles II, Richelieu makes the 22 or so Turenne marshal of France on the spot and promotes Mazarin too, Wallenstein breaks with the Habspurgs, Lutzen does not happen so Gustav Adolf survives...

- the Ring of Fire occurs just after Mike's younger sister marries Tom Simpson, so a bunch of people from the outside are in Grantville for the wedding, including his dad John Simpson (whom Mike puts in charge to build the USE navy after he defeats him politically) or Caroline Platzer, the future "governess" of Kristina, who was a friend of the bride, but most people were local so they get "transported" to 1631 with their families and that's a big help so to speak


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