Hello, all! I’m following up on last week’s book review with… another book review! I’ve been reading a ton lately, so you’re probably going to get a lot of these—and where Deep Black was sci-fi, the usual theme for this blog, today’s exploration is in another genre entirely: alternate history. We will be taking a look at Mark Ciccone’s 2017 novel Red Delta.
The novel takes the year 1863 as its point of divergence, with a Confederate victory at Gettysburg followed by the death of Abraham Lincoln to rebel artillery. These upsets force a war-weary Union to sue for peace; on November 23rd, General Ulysses S. Grant, Vice President Seward, and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens sign a treaty with Robert E. Lee, acknowledging the independence of the Confederate States of America.
“Wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking, “hasn’t the Confederate Victory trope been done to death?” You’d be right; only a Nazi victory in World War II1 appears more frequently in AH circles. In less scrupulous examples this can lead to a dose of Lost Cause mythology, with gallant Southern gentlemen and states’ rights and avoidance of slavery’s horrors. Mark Ciccone, to his credit, avoids those pitfalls in his book—the Confederacy is portrayed as not only racist, but dysfunctional, collapsing in the 1870s because it was never a sustainable country to begin with2—and the end product is a refreshing, strikingly original scenario.
By 1973, the South is a patchwork of independent countries living in the shadow of the United States up north. Texas3 and Virginia have become fairly powerful on their own; nations like Mississippi and Alabama, by contrast, are unstable banana republics, reliant on the pan-Southern Mutual Defense Coalition (and the anti-communist United States) for military support. While slavery has vanished as an institution, Black Americans are second-class citizens oppressed under rabidly white supremacist governments. The result is civil war—since the 1950s, the guerrilla group known as the Brotherhood Liberation Army has waged a long, bloody campaign for freedom in the former Confederate States. Now, in the war-torn state of Mississippi, the US is attempting to broker a peace treaty that will restore stability to the region…
Our protagonist is Terry Garrison, a journalist sent to cover the peace negotiations in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s not thrilled with the assignment—the US embassy expects him to just jot down politicians’ speeches and tour pre-approved areas—but he starts to poke around, leaving embassy grounds for the streets of a capital city uncomfortably close to the front lines. Then he crosses paths with a Georgian helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who carries with him a terrible secret about the war.
Any experts on the Vietnam War may have noticed something familiar about the name of that pilot. In our timeline, Hugh Thompson Jr. was the aviator who intervened in the My Lai massacre perpetrated by US troops, and later testified before Congress about the atrocity—an American hero. Here, the very same man flies reconnaissance flights for the Georgian contingent in Mississippi, and witnesses the massacre of Black civilians by Mississippian troops. This is the secret he reveals to Garrison and a British journalist named Burrows. The three of them, then, must bring it to light, even if the Mississippi government will do everything in its power to stop them—the perfect setup for a cloak-and-dagger political thriller.
Red Delta reminded me of Robert Harris’ Fatherland, in a good way. Both are effective mysteries/thrillers set in well-realized alternate histories, with plots focused on unveiling incriminating evidence against the ruling regime. Both break the conventions of their respective subgenres: Harris’ work by depicting a victorious but crumbling Nazi regime4, Ciccone’s by showing a similarly doomed Confederate States of America.
In technical terms, Red Delta is very good. For a self-published book by a first-time author—heck, even by the standards of many traditionally published novels—the prose is fluid, polished, and altogether engaging, with plenty of immersive descriptions as well as clever word choice. The scenery of Jackson, Mississippi and the surrounding countryside is clearly conveyed; a torture scene, midway through the story, had me cringing in my seat. Mark Ciccone has a lot of talent and is clearly a natural at speculative writing.
I do have some gripes, despite that high praise. The biggest one is the prologue. For the first thirty pages, we are not in 1973 at all, but in 1863—three successive chapters follow the defeat at Gettysburg, the death of Lincoln, and the signing of the peace treaty with the CSA. All that could have been cut with little impact on the novel. Fatherland didn’t start with a snapshot of the Caucasus Offensive in 1942, depicting the point of divergence in exhaustive detail—it jumped straight into the action and followed the main character, Xavier March, in the present day. Frankly, the point of divergence does not matter here, because the most interesting thing is the result of a Confederate victory and not the means by which it happened.
The end has pacing issues that mirror the beginning. The main conflict is largely (but not totally) resolved by the seventy-five-percent mark, resulting in a few chapters that are essentially wheel-spinning while the characters wait for stuff to happen. Ciccone also struggles with rendering emotion; when characters are angry or distraught, he describes it too bluntly, undermining the effectiveness of certain critical scenes. And a minor inconsistency: in one scene a character gets shanked right beneath the ribcage, but doesn’t seem to need any medical attention later.
One pet peeve was the preponderance of real-life figures more than a century after the PoD. There’s Hugh Thompson, as mentioned above; the author also shows or names Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, William Calley, Huey Newton, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr5.—and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. It’s ridiculous at times. None of those people would have even existed in such a different world, let alone ended up in analogous roles.
Despite that, the contours of this alternate reality are developed with a subtle but skilled hand. We never get a clear picture of how the rest of the world has changed in this timeline—only tantalizing hints that it has changed a great deal. World Wars One and Two have their equivalents in the First and Second Eurasian Wars. Germany still has a Kaiser and Russia still has a Tsar; China, then, is the world’s center of international communism, supporting rebel movements such as the Brotherhood Liberation Army in the American South, and provoking fierce anticommunist rhetoric from US President Barry Goldwater (now a Democrat, oddly enough). The process of decolonization appears to have involved even more bloodshed in this timeline—the French are said to have used nukes (!) against their West African colonies. We never learn why all these strange things have happened; they’re just casually dropped into conversations. I, personally, quite liked this approach, because this world’s alternate history would seem perfectly normal to the people living in it—nobody would interrupt an unrelated conversation to explain how the American Civil War, a hundred years before, led to the survival of the Romanov dynasty. It’s good, subtle worldbuilding that doesn’t get in the way of the plot.
Red Delta is not perfect, but it is a standout indie novel and a creative work of alternate history. The setting is richly developed; the plot is a thriller with many gripping moments. I certainly intend to read more of this author’s work, both alternate history and science fiction—Mark Ciccone has a new reader!
Rating: 8/10. Highly recommended! You can buy it here.
- Admittedly the basis of one of my own novel concepts, though it’s focused more on character conflicts than on the setting itself.
- More details, if you’re curious: in this scenario, the Confederacy is torn apart by the same issues that led to secession in the first place, namely slavery and states’ rights. The novel mentions President Longstreet’s controversial push for emancipation leading to riots, declarations of independence, and the disintegration of the Richmond government’s power. Turns out that a zealous devotion to states’ rights makes it harder to keep those states together—who’d have thought?
- Texas has a powerful fleet of jet bombers deployed all across the region—not to mention a freakin’ nuclear arsenal! This isn’t even implausible; in 2019, Texas had a GDP of about $1.887 trillion, which would make it the world’s ninth largest economy—ahead of (at least potentially) nuclear-capable nations South Korea and Russia. They could probably have gotten the bomb by the ’70s.
- Compare to an earlier Nazi victory scenario, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which Germany and Japan took over the entire world. Fatherland was a needed injection of realism.
- He’s mentioned but never shown. I would have liked to see more of the BLA, but all we got was one face-to-face scene and surprisingly few Black characters. Additional scenes, perhaps after cutting the unnecessary prologue, could have helped a great deal.