Preliminaries and Disclaimers. This is the 13th book I have reviewed in the series on Finalists for the 2018 Dragon Awards. This is the fourth book in the category of 'Best Alternate History Novel,' and will in all likelihood be the very last I review in this category(!), as thus far, requests for review copies of the other two finalists have gone unanswered.
I obtained my copy directly from the Baen website, although the book is also available on Amazon. I'm pretty sure I have never gotten a BAD book from Baen, although there have been a couple, but ONLY a couple, I didn't finish. I've also never gotten a bad book from either Sarah A. Hoyt or Kevin Anderson, DESPITE having to silently close the Magical Shakespeare trilogy and sneak away under the cover of darkness; I'm just not enough of a Shakespeare/ Shakespeare era scholar to catch the nuances. It's a personal failing, although not one that causes me much remorse. On the other hand, I'm neither a dragon scholar nor a diner scholar, and I love 'Draw One In The Dark' and the follow-up books. Go figure.
The review. Halley's Comet was destroyed in a massive battle of wizards. This resulted in some bizarre outbreaks of magic in North America; as far as the rest of the world, we just don't know, because there is an impenetrable barrier in the Atlantic Ocean, and thus no communication with any place in Europe.
Some of the same figures that were prominent in colonial America are still influential in this timeline. Thomas Jefferson lives as a wealthy planter, but has no role to play in government. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, has magically had his aging process arrested at about a vigorous 70, and is the most prominent wizard on the continent. He is quite famous, and fabulously wealthy, and at least as inquisitive as he was in real life.
He has been considering sponsoring a trip to explore the land west of the Mississippi, both to see what lies out there in that great undiscovered territory, as well as to determine if there is a possible route to Europe by crossing the Pacific. Following a serendipitous introduction to Meriwether Lewis, during a dragon attack of all things, he proposes that Lewis head up the expedition.
And thus, the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition of OUR timeline is initiated in theirs. Although this is a private venture, and not sponsored by a non-existing government, the essential purpose is the same, except for the magical components of this expedition.
A pleasing bit of research & writing: the names of the members of the fictional L&C expedition are the same as those of the real expedition. I wouldn't have noticed that, had I not been jotting the names of the characters down. In fact, even the original expedition dog Seaman is included in the book. That's nicely done, don't you think?The 'Uncharted' expedition encounters the same environmental challenges that the original trip did: rivers, mountains, hostile natives, bugs, weather. And, just as happened on the original trip, Sacagawea appears to serve as a guide. However, her motivation in the book is that she is looking for the magical dragon warrior who can protect her and her child, and rescue her husband, along with the rest of the country, from the depredations of the evil wizard. Nasty, nasty person, this evil wizard: raises up long extinct predator animals (which we recognize as dinosaurs), who have a devastating impact on the buffalo herds; kills people an reanimates their bodies. Nasty guy.
The characters are depicted with sympathy. I can't really go into detail about this without spoilers, but I'm struck by how Sacagawea is presented as such a resolute and courageous figure, based STRICTLY on her human qualities. William Clark pours out his heart to his young fiance in Virginia, knowing his letters may never reach her; he strives to find the right words to tell his story, without bringing the horrors into her living room.
Alas, tragedy does strike others not a part of the expedition. One luckless trader/trapper, not very good at his work, is brought low by the pinpricks of a tribe of pygmies. Poor fellow, he was at one point forced to boil and eat his boots during a particularly bad winter, and was ever after known as Barefoot Johnny.
Even the deities of the natives are treated with respect. The two principals here are Coyote and Raven, and the writers do an excellent job, in my opinion, of demonstrating that whatever standard they think they might be judged by, it's doubtful that the opinions of the rapscallion explorers will be a factor in any way.
Concluding comments. The historical character of Meriwether Lewis just couldn't get a decent break, afer coming back from the expedition. He died alone, not many years after returning, and there is controversy to this day as to whether or not that was a result of murder or sucide. Read up on him; it will be enlightening. In THIS book, however, Anderson and Hoyt manage to put into his character some resiliency factors. It's a nice thing they did for him.
With respect to your vote for the Dragon, THIS is an alternate history novel, as are two other entries in this category ("Witchy Winter," by DJ Butler, and "Minds of Men," by Kacey Ezell). I can't speak for the two I requested but did not receive ("Dark State" by Charlie Stross, or "The Sea Peoples," by S.M Stirling), but any one of these three would be an excellent choice.
Tough call, isn't it?
Peace be on your household.