Bitter Sky by Tim Stretton

There is something distinctive and distinguished about Tim Stretton’s books. It isn’t just the elegant and precise prose that instantly takes you out of your present location and throws you into something rich, luxurious and intriguing. It is also the setting in time. You open the book and instantly find yourself in an alternative universe and living through alternative history – alternative but very real and believable.

“Bitter Sky” is a steampunk fantasy, but again the setting feels as if it is a snapshot from history – it feels authentic though you can’t quite pinpoint the exact moment in time where it comes from. Despite that, you have this distinct impression that you read about it or studied that period in school. You find yourself somewhere in Germany, perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. There are hydrogen-powered airships and steam trains/carriages. They would have been experimental in those days, but in “Bitter Sky” they are fully-functional, tried and tested weapons. There is the strife of a small territory to secede from the powerful and dominant empire, to reject tradition and monarchy, and establish its own identity. The small territory, Lauchenland led by its revolutionary elite called Volksbund, has ambitions beyond mere independence: it declares war on the Beruz Empire. The Empire strikes back. I was fascinated with how the author built that world from fragments of history. I delighted in detecting nuanced references to the unification of German states under imperialistic Prussia’s rule, or the degradation of  the lofty principles of freedom and equality of people in the reign of terror and bureaucracy that followed the French and Russian revolutions. “Bitter Sky” is full of historical analogies cleverly dressed as fantasy and presented in a vibrant, action-packed fashion.

“Bitter Sky” is a pacey and dramatic war romp, complete with air battles, morally questionable bombings, tragic casualties and grand victories. But there is more to it. There is the human factor. The von Eck siblings, Erich and Saskia are torn between their aristocratic loyalties to the Empire and their citizen duty to fight for their country, Lauchenland. Erich joins the fusiliers on the side of the Empire and Saskia becomes an airship navigator with Lauchenland Air Corp. Again, historical references spring to mind where nations divided by borders found their people fighting – and killing – each other on the opposite sides in the Great War and WWII. Stretton captures that torturous dilemma between duty and loyalty, between following and questioning orders and between glorifying and dehumanising war. He doesn’t idealise or side with anyone. The Empire has its faults as does the belligerent republic of Lauchenland. There is a thin line between good and evil, victory and defeat.

The conclusion of this book was ingenious – tense and ultimately, very satisfying. It tied together all the loose ends, linked to the opening chapters and neatly encased the story. Tragedy and fatalism, black magic and characters caught up in events beyond their control bring to mind the dark fairy tales of yesteryear. If Hans Christian Andersen was to write a tale for adults, he could well have written “Bitter Sky”.

The Last Free City by Tim Stretton – an escape into a world of intrigue and adventure

The Last Free City (Annals of Mondia) by [Tim Stretton]

The Last Free City is a feast of political intrigue, cunning diplomacy, swordfights and assassinations, love, lust and betrayal – and that’s just for starters!

The story is set in one of the last independent city-republics on a peninsula torn between two expansive kingdoms, that of Emmen and Gammerling. This may be fantasy genre, but the settings have a strong historical flavour of Italy before unification. It’s evident in the names, the architecture and the social hierarchy of the city of Tarantanallos. So despite this being a fantasy novel, you will feel like you’ve travelled back in time. It somehow seems authentic and historically accurate. But there are also touches of sheer imaginary ingenuity by the author who has created a self-contained world in its own right, with its own currency, its law enforcement agency called the Consigli, its ruling elite of Specchio, modes of transport astride gallumphers, and time measured in pursuits and activities. Thus you have the Hour of Evening Repast, the Hour of Secret Deeds, the Hour of Noble Pleasures… And so time flies while you’re having fun doing all sorts good and bad things.

Lord Oricien arrives in Tarantanallos in order to secure the city’s submission to Emmen. Factions of influential elites are formed. Nobody can trust anybody. Fortunes are to be made and lost. Dravadan, one of the most powerful and brutal leaders of the city, works on the alliance and the furtherance of his own interests. His younger brother, Malvazan, nurses his resentments while at the same time polishing his fencing skills so that he can climb the greasy pole of influence despite being the second son. Todarko, a poet and skirt-chaser, tries to ignore politics and follow his heart even though it may lead him into the eye of the political storm. The characters are vibrant, complex and full of surprises. That includes the female characters. They are rich and diverse – from impetuous, through treacherous and manipulative to the most noble ones.

The story is written in elegant prose, full of witticism and laced with brisk, intelligent exchanges. The author attributes the inspiration for Todarko’s sonnets to Shakespeare. There is something distinctly Shakespearean in this story, and it isn’t just in the sonnets. It’s in the language, the vivacity, the settings and the elaborate plot. If you want to lose yourself in a world away from home (especially during lockdown), read this book.