A Game Of Soldiers


1914 is a great attraction for alternative historians. Whereas other conflicts, notably the Second World War, loomed over the horizon well before the actual combat, the First World War seemed to come from a clear blue sky. What if Princip had missed the Archduke, or if he had simply decided to stay at his café table and order another slivowitz?

A Game of Soldiers is not really an alternative history of 1914, despite the blurb on the cover. The Archduke still gets shot, despite the best efforts of the book’s hero, and the war still breaks out. It is really an alternative explanation of 1914, involving an internal Russian conspiracy to overthrow the Tsar (as in John Buchan’s Thirty-nine Steps). The story is set almost entirely in St Petersburg and the hero is an honest Tsarist policeman whose worst enemies are his own corrupt superiors, almost identical to the setting and plot of every Boris Akunin novel. However, Miller is American, not Russian, and he writes in short sentences, striving after gritty realism rather than a witty Belle Epoch pastiche. It is very authentic. Miller must know more about 1914 St. Petersburg than anybody else alive, based on a vast range of sources which he cites at the end of the book.

The Miller and Akunin novels are equally violent and implausible. I prefer the lighter, tongue-in-cheek style of Akunin, but if you want something longer, tougher and more cynical then Miller gives it.

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