Alternative history is an odd genre. It has the potential to be incredible and thought-provoking causing readers to consider how much every simple decision affects the future; it also has the potential to be an utter failure imagining entirely unrealistic possibilities and taking too many liberties. The majority of alternate history novels I have picked up have fallen into the latter category and I typically avoid the genre. I read Iron Maiden by Jim Musgrave not because I am fan of the genre but rather based entirely upon my previous experience with Musgrave’s novels. His previous novels, Disappearance at Mount Sinai, Freak Story 1967-1969 and Jane the Grabber have all received good reviews on CTC so I was open to reading Iron Maiden as well. Once again, Musgrave didn’t disappoint.
Iron Maiden is an alternate history novel of the American Civil War and major deception of the US Government by a group of 8 shifty characters. John Ericsson (a ship builder) and the other characters come together after the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. They scheme to convince the US Government that the Civil War will be won at sea and sell Monitor-class ships to both the Union and the Confederacy. After receiving the money from the sale of the ships they flee America and run to Easter Island where they plan to live out the rest of their lives in “paradise” but little do they know that Easter Island is more “Paradise Lost” than paradise. Easter Island has been transformed into a human ecological disaster overrun by a cult whose behavior far exceed odd and border on insane.
Iron Maiden is absolutely a work of alternate history but it works. The reason it works for me is that the alternate history that revolves around the American Civil War is plausible (deception of the government, war at sea, theft, etc.) and becomes creatively fictionalized once it separates from the war and escapes to Easter Island. It is symbolic in a way that when the characters escape to Easter Island the reader can escape into creative license and imaginative writing. While it’s all fictionalized Musgrave doesn’t embellish too much of the Civil War (e.g.: there are no paranormal influences or other outlandish new political dealings).
The characterization in Iron Maiden is, once again, where Musgrave shines. It was his characterization that hooked me when I read Freak Story 1967-1969 and when I read Disappearance at Mount Sinai; it’s also what hooked me in reading Iron Maiden. Musgrave has a talent for developing characters and creating connections with the reader. I didn’t feel a deep connection with every character but I certainly felt it with John Ericsson and his wife.
Alternative history isn’t normally a genre that works for me as a reader but Jim Musgrave is an author that works for me. Whether he writes mystery, general fiction or alternate history he can count me in amongst his fans.
Iron Maiden is an eclectic collection of historical and literary subjects strangely woven together to create a unique novel–maritime activities during the Civil War; inventor John Ericsson’s battleship–the Monitor; readings from and references to Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Moby Dick and The Bounty; John Wilkes Booth’s attempted assassination of Ericsson; three romances; slavery; anthropological research about the South Pacific islands, Easter Island; and Plato’s Republic. Quite a feat–tying it all together!
There’s adventure, romance, intrigue, deception, betrayal and power struggles throughout. John Ericsson tricks the U.S. Government into buying more of his Monitor-class ships for money to escape the war with seven others to create his own version of Plato’s Republic on Easter Island. To find out whether or not John succeeded, you’ll have to read the book.
I generally like to include a sample of the author’s writing to give you an idea of his style and for this I have chosen an excerpt from John Ericsson’s Journal, pages 255-256:
"My grand experiment is going smoothly, even though the addition of Sinclair and his wife has caused me to change some of my plans. I have had time to reflect and to read, and it has been Plato who has been my ultimate salvation. His Republic has given me the inspiration to design my plan so that it will serve us well in our new environs. Combined with my exploration into the characters of my passengers, this philosophical treatise will become the bedrock upon which we will build our community on Easter Island.
"First, off, Plato’s understanding of the human soul has been of great assistance to me in my own designs for the future. He believed that each of us could be categorized according to our class and according to our interest and virtues. And, beneath our surface life, there is the motivation of the soul. . . .
"I note, with pleasure, that I can place each of my new citizens into one of these three categories. For example, Sinclair and Greene are perfect candidates for the Warrior Class. They have the spirit and courage that is demanded of these ‘Guardians of the Republic,’ as Plato calls them. I know that Green has been aspiring toward something he believes is knowledge, but the Transcendentalists are not true philosophers. Emerson never lived in Nature, about which he preaches so profoundly. And Greene has been truly fooled by the chimera of unity. It will not take me long to put him back into the class upon which his soul is truly based, the warrior of spirit and courage! As for Sinclair, he is the epitome of Platonic spirit. He even saw the South as men who were fighting for honor, and thus he became a compatriot for their cause. Sinclair will be easily swayed by the manipulations I will use on him.
"The Commoner Class shall, of course, be the natives on the island, as well as Mister Charles McCord, the Catholic. Even though McCord fools himself onboard ship, once he gets out into this pleasure-seeking wilderness, he will become his old self again. We will work on his temperance." Ah, and how power corrupts!
So now that you know a little about the book and the author’s writing style, let me tell you something about the Jim Musgrave, and I quote from the back cover:
"Following reading experiences such as Camus’ The Stranger . . ., James Musgrave began his own odyssey to become a published author of ‘radstream’ (radical as opposed to mainstream) prose. His nonfiction title, The Digital Scribe: A Writer’s Guide to Electronic Media (1996), was his attempt to teach techies how to write with their entire brains, and his three novels soon followed in an attempt to teach humans how to read with their brains damaged by American ‘bestsellers.’ . . . He presently teaches collegiate humans in San Diego how to think (and hopefully write) with their brains damaged by the American K-12 system. His motto: Carpe nocto!" (Latin for: Seize the night!)
It’s not a bad read and you just might learn something, one way or another.