Review of ST. ANTHONY'S FIRE by Steve White
Baen, November 2008
Searching for the fountain of youth in Florida, Ponce de Leon comes across a strange metal structure. He gets his wish of long-lasting youth, but at a horrible price. Somehow his presence brings aliens back to life and these aliens establish themselves as a holy order. When Spanish King Phillip decides to launch the Armada against England, alien monks of the St. Anthony order go along...and use anti-matter technology to defeat the English fleet which, in our own world, harrassed the powerful Armada to its destruction.
With the English fleet destroyed, the Spanish army invades England, quickly routing the ill-trained volunteers who face them. Elizabeth faces exile. On the advice of her councilors, she decides to flee to the newly established colony of Roanoke, in Virginia. Her advisors have concluded that the aliens are searching for something in the Virginia area. If they can find it first, perhaps they'll be able to defend themselves against the horrific weapons from another dimension. Along with Elizabeth and her advisors, a young William Shakespeare tags along to provide comic relief.
From Native Americans in the Roanoke area, the English refugees learn of a mysterious place. Exploring, they fall through a gap between dimensions, landing in another version of Earth which was long-before invaded by the aliens currently attacking Earth. There they find allies. The aliens, or Grella, have invaded multiple dimensions. The locals have fought a guerilla war for centuries, and have learned to use some of the Grella technologies. Still, even their combined forces are outnumbered and outgunned by the powerful Grella.
Author Steve White (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by White) mixes alternate future with E.T. in a generally enjoyable story. White's writing engages the reader, and his fight scenes were exciting and well-done. A couple of flaws and something that's perhaps personal taste kept me from giving this story an even higher rating. First, for me, the joy of alternate history is an author's vision of how the world is changed by different choices or events. In ST. ANTHONY'S FIRE, we didn't really get to see much of the alternate world and, in fact, spent a lot of time in a different dimension altogether. I also found the Shakespeare bits to feel forced, throwing me out of the suspension of disbelief needed for SFF. I also had a hard time with some of the basic premises. It was hard for me to believe that the Grella were not able to re-locate the lost dimension portal that the English found so easily. As they knew the rough area where the English had emerged, surely they would have brought their equipment to bear. Second, the notions that the Grella lost their ability to reproduce, yet seemed so fragile and died so easily, were hard to reconcile. Even with their ability to ressurect, they should be a dying species, certainly not an expansionary one. Third, that the Eilonwe are able to operate a guerilla war within miles of the main Grella base on their world strikes me as implausible.
I also had a hard time with the religious discussion and the willingness of the Europeans to accept that the Grilla (and Eilonwe) were extra-terestrial rather than demons. Elizabeth repeatedly argues that Catholics were not persecuted for their religion...only if they were traitors. Elizabeth's legitimacy depends on her rejection of Catholicism (otherwise her father's marriage to Elizabeth's mother was invalid and she loses any claim on the throne). In fact, Catholics were denied many basic rights for centuries in England. Likewise, Elizabeth and others quickly adopt modern ideas of female roles, with nobody being shocked about the beautiful ninja, Virginia Dare (who somehow independently developed kenjitsu fighting techniques and the katana). I love warrior-women in fiction, but I had a hard time believing Dare would be accepted so easily.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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