A Book Spy Review: ‘Black Chamber’ by S. M. Stirling

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Black ChamberS. M. Stirling kicks off a brand new series set in an alternate historical universe that takes readers back to the days when Teddy Roosevelt was president, just before World War I. 

Set in 1916, President Roosevelt, reelected after President Taft suffers a fatal heart attack, is knee-deep in implementing his progressive agenda and looking for ways to avoid the great war when readers meet up with him. However, after word travels back to the States that Europe, Africa, and western Asia are in danger of falling, and that Germany has a devastating new weapon at their disposal, Roosevelt knows he must do what needs to be done in order to ensure victory for America, thus calling upon a talented operative working out of his CIA-like spy ring, Black Chamber, to find a way to get close to a German agent code-named Imperial Sword.

Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, who is of Cuban-Irish heritage, must impersonate a Mexican-Irish revolutionary in order to get close to Imperial Sword, who turns out to be a charming, good-looking German by the name of Baron Horst von Dückler. Though she’s not his only lover, the two do hit it off. However, extracting details about Germany’s plans to keep America from entering the war proves to be a nearly impossible task. Never one to run from a good challenge, Luz uses every skill she has in her bag of tricks, only to realize that time is running out for her to stop the very plan she’s yet to uncover. . .

While the story, overall, is solid, Stirling’s pacing is very uneven. There are parts, especially in the first hundred or so pages, that move very quickly and are full of intrigue. Other parts are bogged down by seemingly endless descriptions and Stirling’s over-explaining of things that most readers are smart enough to pick up on. Moreover, the emphasis on details feels out of place, as other historical aspects and realities are barely touched on. In the end, if you don’t already have a deep understanding of WWI to begin with, the constant stream of information can feel overwhelming and may leave readers lost. 

As for the characters, Stirling’s cast is diverse and well-developed. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that Luz, who drives the bulk of the story, is a tad too perfect. Then again, you could chalk up her flawlessness to the fact that all of her talents and abilities are what made her perfect for such a dangerous assignment, and why she was selected by Roosevelt in the first place. It’s hard to come up with an accurate comparison, but picture an American, female version of Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond. . . and that’s basically Luz O’Malley Aróstegui. Roosevelt, too, is another great character, and history buffs will enjoy his scenes, which tend to steal the show whenever he appears. 

S. M. Stirling kicks off his new series with a bang. . . Fans of Robert Harris and Tony Schumacher will enjoy Black Chamber and appreciate Stirling’s attention to detail. 

 

Book Details

Author: S. M. Stirling
Series: Black Chamber #1
Pages: 400 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 147678941X
Publisher: Ace
Release Date: July 3, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 6.5/10

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Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.

 

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