The first semifinal of the Summer 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books matches The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis against Taft 2012 by Jason Heller. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round.
The Coldest War: Tor Books, July 2012, 251 pages, volume two of The Milkwood Triptych, cover art by Chris McGrath. The Coldest War is a fantasy alternate history book set in 1963 after a different WWII. The Coldest War got here by edging out Fair Coin by E.C. Myers in the first round, and prevailing over Faith by John Love in the second round.
Gretel and Klaus, who have Nazi-developed special abilities powered by batteries, escaped a high security Russian research facility. Gretel is a seer and Klaus can "ghost" through walls. They crossed Russian occupied Europe to England. In London, Gretel located their former associate, Reinhardt. Gretel offered to give Reinhardt pieces of a battery blueprint for his unspecified future help.
William Beauclerk, younger brother of the Duke of Aelred, is haunted by things he did for Britain during WWII. He heads a foundation to improve relations between the UK and the USSR. Will and his wife Gwendolyn are invited to a reception at the Russian embassy. Will has a private talk with the ambassador and the cultural attaché. Gwendolyn is uneasy because she suspects the attaché is KGB. Will regrets that he hasn't yet been entirely truthful with Gwendolyn. Will is hurt in a taxi accident.
Gretel and Klaus turn themselves in, in startling fashion, to the Secret Intelligence Service. Gretel won’t talk until they bring in Raybould Marsh, who hasn’t worked for MI6 for years and is currently down on his luck. Marsh isn’t exactly happy to meet Gretel again, but he’s secretly thrilled to be asked to return to intelligence work. Gretel informs them that the Soviets are killing Britain’s defending warlocks.
Taft 2012: Quirk Books paperback, June 2012, 249 pages, cover illustration by Doogie Horner. Jason Heller is a culture journalist and author. Taft 2012 is his first novel. Taft 2012 got here by defeating Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine in the first round, and overcoming Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper in the second round.
Former President William Howard Taft mysteriously appeared covered in mud at a White House press conference in 2011, almost a hundred years after he went missing. Taft's identity was confirmed by DNA tests and his knowing a secret presidential ID code.
Secret Service agent Kowalczyk runs Taft’s security, and Prof. Susan Weschler is his transition liaison. When Taft goes out, he is immediately recognized and mobbed like a rock star. Kowalczyk unsuccessfully tries to make Taft incognito.
Congresswoman Rachel Taft (Ind.-OH) invites her great-grandfather to Thanksgiving dinner in Cincinnati. There’s tension when Taft meets Rachel’s husband, who is African-American, but it’s broken by Rachel’s daughter happily calling Taft "grandpa". Their dinner includes Fulsom TurkEase, which is reconstituted turkey, and afterward almost everyone suffers severe indigestion.
Taft goes on a TV program, Raw Talk with Pauline Craig. He hopes to help Rachel’s cause. Pauline surprises Taft by announcing a new grassroots political party; the Taft Party. When leaving the studio, Taft is surrounded by reporters and supporters of his candidacy. Taft saves Susan from the crush of the unruly crowd.
The Battle: We have a fantasy alternative history set in 1963 going against political satire set in an alternative 2011 featuring a Republican President from a century ago.
Taft 2012 utilizes a man from the past to poke fun at society today. President Taft is portrayed as a likable, grandfatherly man, humorously rolling with the changes. I liked that Taft visited with a 105-year-old woman because she remembered the old days. Taft cleverly becomes a media celebrity, inspiring clip-on Taft mustaches and Taft dolls. This book is a fast read.
Here’s an excerpt about Taft complaining about makeup for his TV appearance:
"Susan," said Taft once the shears had been stashed and the makeup artist had left. "I won't argue with you about the need for this" -- he waved his hands around his face -- "this peacockery. But there's something unnatural about it. Do all politicians in this day and age subject themselves to such ostentatious falseness? Do masks now make the man? Are we all thespians?"The Coldest War is, in my opinion, well written. The plot is developing in ways I didn't expect, such as when Gretel and Klaus turned themselves in. I like that Klaus is puzzled by Gretel's motivations. There's tension building and the characters display strong, believable emotions. That I can follow the book, when it’s book two in a series, without a recap or an info dump, shows that the author is weaving in the backstory well.
"Oh, really, Mr. Taft." Susan sipped her tea and shook her head. "When has politics not been theater? In any case, the makeup doesn't show on camera. It just makes you look . . . normal. More like yourself."
Taft snorted. "This century's infatuation with irony knows no bounds, does it?"
"Scoff all you want, but the outcome of at least one presidential election -- between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 -- was influenced by makeup. Or the lack thereof."
Here’s an excerpt, Marsh is approached by two men while working on a gardening job:
Help? No, not solicitors, then. But the way they carried themselves . . . Government men. Which raised another possibility.Both these books are good and interesting. After reading 100 pages, I would recommend them both. I want to read them in their entirety.
Finally, Marsh said, "It’s Milkweed, isn’t it?"
And he knew he was right, because the quiet man, the one who hadn’t yet spoken, glanced nervously over his shoulder at Fitch. Milkweed: the dirtiest of Whitehall’s dirty little secrets. Milkweed: the real reason Britain survived the war. Milkweed: the org for whom Marsh had faced demons and supermen; the org for whose secret war he’d lost his only daughter; the org that had spit him out when he was no longer useful.
"If you’ll come with us, sir."
Marsh turned his back on the government men and returned to digging holes in the mud. Over his shoulder he spat, "I don’t do that work any longer."
"She said you’d say that."
Marsh froze. Rainwater trickled down his face. Quietly, carefully, he said, "What?"
"The woman who asked for you. She said you’d say that. Also told us to remind you she once said you’d meet again."
I like Taft 2012, but partially because I (Amy) prefer reading books with more fantastic elements, I like The Coldest War more.
THE WINNER: THE COLDEST WAR by Ian Tregillis
The Coldest War advances to meet either Silver by Rhiannon Held or The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others in the finals.
To see the whole bracket, click here.