Blaise Maximillian: Bitter Defeat tells the story of a British officer fighting in a diesel-punk version of World War I that sees the Germans rise victorious. Told in a series of sequential short stories, the book starts with historically recognizable trench warfare and slowly becomes more and more fantastic as it moves through time, leaving us in a grim alternate reality.
As an American, I was drawn instantly into the setting. World War II gets much more airplay on this side of the pond, and the imaginary foray into that “other” World War was a fun one. The vivid descriptions of trench warfare, including such horrors as chemical weapons and swarms of rats, instill a sense of horror and fascination. Those foggy fields full of men in gas masks and the sound of rifle shot make for a nightmarishly beautiful stage upon which to tell a story.
Author Matthew Sylvester does not waste much time telling us how horrible Blaise finds all of the things he is forced to experience throughout the war. Instead, Sylvester makes it self-evident through vivid description. We are spared the moralizing and redundant over-explanation of emotion that has become so popular in some other genres these days.
Most of the limited moralizing that does exist comes at the start of the story. As things progress, Blaise becomes more practiced at dealing with the emotional impact of the violence and more proficient at dealing it out. Eventually, he even comes to enjoy the game of killing Germans. This is not to say that he loses all his higher virtues, however. Indeed, from start to finish Blaise maintains a respectable degree of loyalty. Really, loyalty seems to be his defining trait. He might be a stone-cold killer, but he is a stone-cold killer protecting what is left of his friends, family, and home.
The story is written with no-nonsense language well-suited to the atmosphere and theme, but still occasionally spits up some lines of grimy lyricism and gallows humor that are all the more entertaining for being so unexpected. One of my favorites came following the detonation of a bomb during one of the trench battles. Sylvester writes, “A couple riflemen assigned to protect the gun crew lay tangled together as if they were trying to re-enact the Kama Sutra but hadn’t quite got the gist of things.” If that image doesn’t make you crack a deranged smile, then you may want to find yourself another genre.
The use of short, self-contained stories as “chapters” was interesting because it allowed the book to be read either in one continuous narrative or in smaller, yet still-complete chunks. My particular favorite of these stories-within-the-story was “Knights of the New,” which introduced a primitive sort of exoskeleton used by the Germans. I was hoping the chapter would initiate a more serious leap into fantasy, but the narrative remains well-grounded in terms of technology and historical plausibility throughout. “The Sniper” was another particularly good tale. It posed an interesting moral dilemma as Blaise had to decide whether or not to use one of his troops as a decoy to flush out a sniper that has been taking down the men in the trench.
Blaise is the kind of officer that infantrymen want to serve under (I say this from personal experience). He much prefers bleeding beside his men to indulging in finery with his superiors. As suggested earlier, he portrays an unshakable loyalty to the men in his command, to his friend Thatcher, and to the cause of the British Empire itself. He is brave, as well, consistently putting himself in the way of danger without hesitation.
I enjoyed reading this story, which is probably why I abhor the preface. Here comes, then, my one major complaint against the book. There were a few places where I thought the writing could be tightened up a bit, and the blurbs before each chapter sometimes took me out of the overarching narrative, but these things were easily forgivable. I wanted more diesel punk machines of death and perhaps some other fantastical elements, but that was purely personal preference and nothing to hold against the author. The one thing that really irked me was that preface.
Before Blaise Maximilian proper starts, Sylvester spends a few paragraphs telling us about his writing process, which is fine, but then labors to justify Blaise’s violent character, which is not. Firstly, I found it completely unnecessary to validate the actions of a man thrust into such a horrific, morally impossible nightmare. Secondly, and more importantly, the preface felt like an apology in advance, as if the author lacked faith in his own work. It did not set a good tone for me. It is the audience’s place to decide whether they like Blaise and whether they do or do not find his violence morally justifiable. It’s the audience’s place to decide if they even care. The preface might fit fine in a later edition of a work, but didn’t fit work well in a first edition, in my opinion. If I spoke to the author before he published this book, I’d urge him to remove the preface entirely.
Ultimately, the reason the preface continues to irk me is probably because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much. I recommend Blaise Maximilian: Bitter Defeat to any reader who enjoys action-packed war stories, alternate-history narratives, and gritty heroes dispatching enemies by the most primitive and intimate means possible. Blaise shoots, hacks, and blasts his way from trench warfare to cloak-and-dagger games of assassination. He is always tough, usually violent, and sometimes a little cruel. At no point, though, does his heroism ever fade from view. Blaise doesn’t need to be apologised for. He stands just find on his own.
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