I’ve never been big into alternate history novels, in the sense that they’ve seemed as appealing as a giant bowl of chicken-flavored Jell-O. So it’s sort of weird that I ripped right through S. M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity .
I suspect that the explanation largely focuses on the historical eras involved. Most alternate history books focus on either the Civil War or World War II, which are among the least interesting historical periods in, um, history. Stirling’s trilogy takes place back in the Bronze Age. Odysseus is rather more interesting to read about than Hitler or the General Lee.
Besides that, though, Stirling’s books are just plain tastylicious. The setup is perfectly rigged to be intriguing: The island of Nantucket is transported back to the Bronze Age by an Event of unknown origin (the cause isn’t really important to the book; it’s stage-setting), and the people who live there have to cope. A small island is the perfect size for a novel like this: Pulling back a few individuals would just lead to a crossover-fantasy novel; pulling back a larger unit of civilization (say, Britain) would make it too easy on the civilized people. A small island makes it possible, but not easy, to keep a corner of the globe more advanced than the natives.
The “not easy” is really the point of the first (and strongest) book, which is all about the aftermath of the Event, and modern people forging a sustainable way of life in a world without modern infrastructure. It’s almost entirely focused on the moderns and their immediate adaptation.
The second book takes place some years later, and deals with the growing rivalry between the Nantucketers and a more-ruthless adversary created by events in the first book. It’s more focused on the external world, and ends up feeling like a game of Civilization, as each party gains allies and territory, and researches new technologies. You can almost see the little popups declaring “Nantucket has discovered: The Rifle. What will your scientists research next?”
The third book is the final showdown between the two civilizations, and is like the interminable end of a game of Civilization, where you know what’s going to happen, but it takes four fucking hours of micro-management to get there. It’s tedious and padded, and should have been the last 100 pages of the second book.
So there’s the lame ending marring the fun a bit. Also a weak point of the books is the occasionally two-dimensional characterization. It works fine for the omni-competent, totally awesome good guys, because, hey: adventure novel. But the dippy-hippy pseudo-villains strain credulity in a particularly irritating way. Fortunately, the main villain of the books is one of the more interesting and sympathetic characters (one gets the sense that the author likes him almost more than he maybe should), so it works out okay.
Overall, the series is a fun romp with plenty of tasty scenery and story, even if it does have thin characters and a big pile of muck at the end.