Black Chamber

Written by S.M. Stirling
Review by Thomas j. Howley

World War I was a globally seismic and infinitely complicated event. The author rises to the challenge of creating an alternate history novel based on the premise that America’s most interesting president, Theodore Roosevelt, wins another term after President Taft dies in 1912. Russia has just withdrawn from the war, and the Germans are preparing for a massive offensive, using new and terrifying weapons. Before announcing a decision to enter on the side of the British and their allies, Roosevelt deploys his godchild, Luz O’Malley Arostegui, on a covert operation into hostile territory as an undercover double agent.

Luz’s organization, the mysterious U.S. super spy agency, Black Chamber, inserts her onto a transatlantic bound dirigible in the role of a Mexican revolutionary who is aiding the Germans. Luz quickly becomes close with a German military officer who is also in an intelligence role. After a series of chases and battles, they make their way to Germany, where Luz is horrified to learn the plan to keep the U.S. out of the war. With a young Boston Irish-American girl as an ally, she re-crosses the ocean and only barely manages to save most of the American east coast from devastation.

The novel’s overarching story line is fascinating and, given the horrors of extensive chemical weapons use on the front lines, frighteningly believable. The author’s mastery of intricate technical, historical, linguistic and military detail is incredibly impressive. There are some attractive characters, especially Ciara Whelan, an Irish independence sympathizer and, ironically, Hauptmann Horst von Dȕckler, a German aristocrat. A likeable and dominating character, even in the background, is, of course, Teddy Roosevelt. Seemingly omniscient and omnipotent, the protagonist Luz O’Malley, however, is more of a non-credible and cartoonish superhero than a “master spy.” So, paradoxically, except for the annoying main character, Black Chamber is a well-written and action-packed adventure novel.