“Black Chamber” by S. M. Stirling is part alternate history and part thriller involving spies, secret identities and daring acts. The historical timeline deviates after President William Howard Taft dies, allowing Theodore Roosevelt to win the presidency instead of Woodrow Wilson. The difference between having Roosevelt at the helm can be felt throughout the book as America considers entering World War I in 1916.
It is obvious the author admires Theodore Roosevelt.
“I wrote much of who Roosevelt was through the main character’s eyes,” Stirling said. “Teddy was the first president to drive an automobile, fly in an aircraft and to go down in a submarine. Teddy was very different than Taft, who he described as a ‘walrus on legs,’ and Wilson as a ‘prissy, sissy Princeton professor,’ a dry stick who is a man dominated by theories. If the facts do not agree with the theories so much for the facts. He was really a ‘wus,’ and quite a contrast from Teddy who really knocked out a gunman with his fists shot Grizzly Bears, and arrested bandits. His adversary, Kaiser Wilhelm, had Teddy envy. He wanted to be everything Teddy was: a real soldier, reformer, and a great popular leader. The Kaiser imitates Teddy a lot. In my ‘BC’ universe, he believed in government scientific research and the development of a spy organization.”
Black Chamber is a CIA-type organization, a secret spy agency to protect America. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, the cunning spy, is assigned to find how the Germans plan on preventing America from coming to the rescue of Allied nations. She boards a flying vessel, a Zeppelin airship, destined for Amsterdam. Her mission is to go deep undercover, portraying a Mexican revolutionary. She meets with the German contact, Imperial Sword, who turns out to be a, good-looking German by the name of Baron Horst von Dückler. Finding out that the Germans are planning something nasty, Luz uses all her skills to get the information and thwart the horrific danger to America.
It appears to be in the German DNA to gas people.
“During my research, I found out Germany invented chemistry and poison gas, and being better than Hitler’s Nazis is a pretty low bar,” Stirling said. “The Germans started WWI and drove the brutalization and radicalization during the War. They had no conception of how to deal with a beaten opponent except grab them by the throat and squeeze until their eyes popped out. They shot hostages and deported people for slave labor. In this book, Germany developed nerve gas. A pint of it could kill hundreds of thousands of people. It is the DDT for people.”
Luz is a great character that uses Sherlock Holmes traits of deduction and action type talents of James Bond. Coming from an Irish-Cuban American heritage she speaks numerous languages that allow her to infiltrate the enemy’s circle. She is tough, clever, charming, and has a thoroughly modern outlook.
Stirling noted, “She is an exceptional person who did extraordinary things. Luz is an only child whose father was an Irish American engineer and her mother Cuban. Luz goes deep undercover, portraying a Mexican revolutionary after her parents were brutally killed by radical Mexicans. She wants revenge and decides to join the Black Chamber. She enjoys riding, shooting, and climbing, skills she uses as a spy. Luz is an American nationalist, highly intelligent, adventurous, and frivolous. She is almost invincible as a spy because she is a woman, thus is underestimate.”
Readers learn about the culture, setting, and values of America during that time period. For example, a scene on how Luz dresses, “There were situations where a woman could wear trousers without attracting too much attention.” Acceptability comes from Roosevelt, a Bull Moose Progressive Republican, having Congress pass the Equal Rights Amendment instead of “just” women’s suffrage. Although Stirling takes author license with dates and issues of the day the way he infuses these historical events allows for a more interesting story.
The secondary characters are very well-developed. Ciara is a woman that understands mechanics and technology who becomes an ally of Luz. The German Horst is a very powerful man, strong, smart, and charming. Theodore Roosevelt is more of a background character and his views and insights are understood through Luz’s thoughts.
Stirling offers readers a carrot, the fabulous engaging protagonists, and a stick, the power of the plot. He employs Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big stick diplomacy,” through the many intense action-filled scenes. After reading this first in a series of “Black Chamber” novels, people will look forward to reading the next novel involving these believable and gripping characters.