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The Rivers of War, by Eric Flint
Genre: Alternate History
Publisher: Del Rey
Published: 2005
Review Posted: 5/15/2005
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 9 out of 10

The Rivers of War, by Eric Flint

Book Review by Pete S. Allen

Have you read this book?

The thing about historians is, they've seen it all before. So whether you're President John Q. Public wondering why a certain segment of your population is righteously pissed off, or you're a Young Turk planning the next great revolution, you might want to lend an ear to the sage old dude/gal sitting in the corner, spouting off dates of battles into their beer. They just might be able to give you a sense of perspective, and armed with that, you just might go about correcting social injustices, rather than perpetuating them.

Take The Rivers of War by Eric Flint, for example. In this first book of a projected two-book series, Flint gives us a retelling of about a year and a half of the War of 1812, from 1814-5. He starts with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, where a young ensign Sam Houston joins General Andrew Jackson's forces in a battle which, on the surface, is between European American settlers and American Indian natives, over land rights. In the larger scheme though, this battle is a testing ground for the impending clash with the British in New Orleans. This is pretty much the point of divergence between real and alternate history.

"On the surface," is pretty indicative of the whole theme of the book. Flint is taking us back to some pretty formative times in the U.S.'s history, and through the actions and interactions of the characters, forces us to look at some of the harsh realities that made the U.S. what it is today. On the surface, this is a "what if" book. What if the Cherokee nations were more united, and chose to deal with the young republic with a united front, instead of focusing on their own internal strife? What if Sam Houston, a routed militia, several black freedmen, and a handful of Cherokee children actually defended the Capitol from the invading British forces? What if, in a comically brilliant scene, Francis Scott Key had to write his poem according to these events, instead of an alternative poem (with much better meter and more lyrical events) that just happened to be the real national anthem?

One of the big things our aforementioned historians are accused of is being dry and dusty. This history is not. To paraphrase the standard cliché, Flint brings alternate history alive. His writing is swift and to the point. He gives us truly believable, multidimensional characters to love and hate, and most importantly, sympathize with. Jackson is, on the surface, a brusque, shouting tyrant of a general, browbeating his hesitant militiamen into submission and displaying his racist beliefs in the open. But we learn he is a complex character, not necessarily believing in the philosophies he's spouting, but using them as tools, just as his tirades are tools, and his tyrannical fist defends the freedoms of his beloved republic. Sam Houston is an educated, Adonis-like character, preaching speeches from the Iliad as he inspires his soldiers to glory, while questioning his own principles with the perspectives of history and reality. There are a number of other characters rounding out the book, each with their own fully defined needs and perspectives, making this a saga with as much depth as the Iliad Sam so often refers to.

Flint explains the real deals too, not in a preachy manner, but with the calm, patient wisdom of the best history teacher. We get a chance to see every side of the moral dilemmas facing imperialists, slave-owners, slaves, settlers, natives, and the governments and soldiers of each in their turn. Lesson learned? There are no easy answers, and it's all been done before. Like any good history, The Rivers of War looks at the big picture, the points of view of every side, without (as much as is possible) the prejudices of the historian. It is unabashedly honest in its look at racist policies and social injustices that shaped the U.S. And it offers some intriguingly delicious bits of what-if to wonder if we might have become better people (or perhaps a more moral nation) if we had paid attention to some of the lessons that history taught before.

If there's any weakness in this book, it may be that Flint gives his characters too much of the benefit of the doubt, assuming that each hopes for the fairest solution in any number of dilemmas, moral or otherwise. There aren't really any bad guys, but people with their own needs and desires, with a healthy dose of perspective, especially considering the age of many of these characters (around the 21ish mark). Then again, that may be an overly cynical assessment.

To sum up: This is an outstanding book for any "type" of reader. If you are an alternate history fan (or even a history "buff"), this should be at the top of your book-buying list this year. Raging revolutionaries and social activists -- if you can't find any historians in your local bar to buy beer for and learn some perspective from, buy this book instead and let Mr. Flint buy his own beer. The trade-off will be well worth it.
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