S.M. Stirling,
(Roc, 2003)

Conquistador starts after World War II in a California basement where ex-soldier John Rolfe fiddles with a shortwave radio. One malfunction later, he's looking at a whole new world, an America never seen by Europeans, or anyone on FirstSide. The story quickly cuts to the near future of our California, where Fish & Game warden Tom Christiansen and his partner Roy Tully have discovered a warehouse full of rare animal pelts and one very odd California condor. Tom's left to hunt out the origins of these rare creatures, with some help from his new lover Adrienne Rolfe. The hunt soon gets him trapped in the Rolfe's now settled world of New Virginia, lost to his home on FirstSide and caught in the middle of a plot that may oust his lover's family from the new home they've made.

Despite all that scheming and dimension hopping, the plot isn't terribly deep. It's a straightforward heroic mission, from the first attempts to stop some very black market smuggling to the final battle for a not quite royal family. The simple plot gives the reader room and time to know the characters, all pleasant people well worth knowing. Tom is a likeable hero, if a bit too pure for his own good. His partner Roy is a comic sidekick who actually manages to be funny most of the time. Adrienne is a strong, patriotic woman who never feels the need to develop a girly side and still gets her guy in the end. The present day adventures are also textured by the past adventures of New Virginia's founders. Scattered throughout the book, these past vignettes are much darker and more Machiavellian than anything our heroes attempt in the present, and add rich flavor to a sometimes too forward adventure.

Sadly, not enough time is spent in these past regressions. Through Christiansen's eyes, Conquistador explores much of the territory of New Virginia, but it's a tourist's view of the place, taking in mostly the scenery and the foreign introductions to the landscape. A few conversations with dissidents handpicked by Adrienne Rolfe do little to bring across the feel of daily life in the very new world, and minimizes the moral and practical concerns of another great Western expansion. Stirling makes a point of at least mentioning the problems brought about by the modern invaders; the new waves of plague in the native population, another round of local ecology displacement and the strong societal prejudices native to a place established by WWII-era Southern gentlemen. But it's clear that those issues don't really hold the author's attention, and the often dismissive attitude taken by those who discuss them makes New Virginia a flatter place, despite its varied landscape.

That landscape still holds plenty of room for adventure. The semi-mystery on FirstSide, as Christiansen and Tully circle closer to discovering the secret of the returning wildlife, has a decent amount of tension and enough momentum to sustain reader interest. But once the agents are kidnapped to New Virginia and made aware of the threat to the established order on that world, the story rockets ahead. Stirling is at his best when he can stop worrying about politics and go on a swashbuckling, six-gunned adventure, and the quest to stop the scheming Collettas from gaining control of the gate gives him ample room. The characters sometimes lean towards the shallow side in favor of the adventure, but there's interaction to go around and a gratifying amount of attention given to the sidekicks.

In the end, no matter how far into the future Stirling sets his stories, he has the heart of a Victorian adventure writer. Conquistador isn't his best effort, but it does deliver the thrills and bounces fans should expect from his work. There are exciting new vistas to explore, dark plots to foil and a romance or two blooming out of the untamed wilderness. Westward Ho!

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 26 July 2003

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