Look To The West (Series Review)

-Tom Anderson


(Series Listing)


Alternate history, like future wars, is a genre that lends itself very well to essay-writing, in which the author writes a manuscript that reads like a history book, rather than a more standard action and adventure novel.  There are no characters, in any true sense; the author details vast sweeps of history - and conflicts - and while he may compose fictional diaries and war reports, the characters are not of any great importance.  The important issue is the sweep of (alternate) history itself.


Short essays are very common, but book-length manuscripts are relatively rare and almost always, prior to the internet, published by specialist presses.  This is, perhaps, unsurprising.  Books like For Want of a Nail, Invasion, Gettysburg and Disaster at D-Day have relatively small readerships, certainly when compared to novels written by well-known authors that combine historical scholarship with entertainment (Harry Turtledove, SM Stirling), novels that appeal to a far wider readership that isn’t particularly concerned with realism and won’t throw the book away in disgust if the Germans deploy Panther tanks in 1940.  Put bluntly, book-length essay-manuscripts are very hard sells.  It is difficult to convince editors and publishers that they’ll see a return on their investment.


The internet, and indie publishing, has changed all that by reducing the publishing costs to the bare minimum.  That has given birth to a whole new range of specialist presses, including Sealion Press, which focuses on alternate history books and publications of interest to the AH community.  Some of their productions are novels, but others are essentially book-length manuscripts like For Want of a Nail, on a much greater scale.  The Look to the West series is one of the best of them.  (Disclaimer; I know and have worked with both Anderson himself and several other people involved in Sealion Press.)


History diverges from its planned course, according to Anderson, when Prince Frederick, King George II’s firstborn son (whom, in the olde Hanoverian tradition, was detested by his father) made the mistake of sniggering when his father tripped during his coronation.  Instead of dying relatively young, Prince Frederick was exiled to the Americas in the same year George Washington was born.  Angry and ambitious, Prince Frederick plotted his return to London with the aid of the colonials, eventually taking the throne after his father died and his brother (the historical George III) was assassinated.


This alone would be an impressive achievement, but the historical outline continues to expand until it sweeps over the entire world.  Without the American Revolution, and the Americas remaining part of a very different British Empire, the French Revolution takes a very different course.  Different political ideologies are born, some very dangerous; the alternate French Revolutionary Wars, following a different technological development framework, include a French landing in Britain that does immense damage before the French are finally booted out, leading to a dictatorship fully akin to Bad King John before a civil war eventually restores order ... for the moment.  The series touches on issues that plagued our own world - slavery in the Americas, serfdom in Russia; neither of which could be avoided - but always puts its own spin on them. It also draws in figures from our world, ranging from the well-known - Napoleon and Nelson, in very different roles - to the more obscure Henry Stuart, brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in his declining years.


Wars and politics are not the only issues of interest, as the books touch on social issues as much as everything else.  Power shifts lead to different points of view, then to cultural issues intended to shape public opinion.  The far greater chaos of the revolutionary wars in Europe leads to reaction, followed by more revolution.  The different balance of power in the Americas leads to a different take on slavery and racism, with a far less powerful slavery lobby that responds, at least in part, by doubling down on racism.  Others fight back in more subtle ways, pushing people to question their preconceptions.  For example, a hooded hero is eventually revealed, after 50-odd pulp adventures, to be black ... causing everyone to either scream in outrage or re-evaluate their positions.


The book also links back to our timeline, or something close to it, by touching on commentary from a cross-time team of explorers studying the alternate world and comparing it to our own.  Their insights are very interesting, as - unlike the locals - they have a basis for comparison.  They can assess developments and see how and why things went differently.  And this also provides some tension, as the explorers - as of Book IV - to have been discovered by the locals. 


It is difficult to exaggerate the sheer level of detail Anderson has worked into the series, although it can be a little overwhelming at times.  It can also be hard to follow what’s going on, as the borderlines are in very different places.  (Anderson deserves credit for not creating the OTL British Empire, plus the United States.)  The books do have the downside of being very dry in places, to the point where I skipped some sections and returned to read them later. 


If you’re looking for an action-adventure novel, Look to the West isn’t for you.  It reads, like I said above, as a history book.  It is unashamedly written for the alternate history community, rather than a more general readership; it doesn’t try to compromise in hopes of getting more attention from people who might not otherwise be interested.  But if you’re looking for a outline of an alternate history world, and a study of how one relatively small change can lead to a very different world, Look to the West has few equals.  I highly recommend it.


Book One, on Amazon Kindle Unlimited.