Black Chamber: An Alternate WWI Spy Adventure

Meet your new favorite spy character: Cuban-Irish American Field Operative Luz O'Malley Aróstegui.

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Are there any Teddy Roosevelt fans in the house? The 26th president of our United States has been getting a lot of play in our popular culture lately. I’m thinking specifically about his on-screen representation as the young, moral police commissioner of New York City in TNT’s The Alienist (Roosevelt served as Police Commissioner of NYC from 1895 to 1897), but the moustachioed American statesmen is the divergent history crux in the just-released spy novel Black Chamber set in an alternate timeline of World War I.

In Black Chamber, the first in a planned series by S.M. Stirling (The Novels of The Change), Roosevelt becomes president for a second time in 1912 (in reality, he served as president solely from 1901 to 1909), just as The Great War is brewing. As the historical figure must decide how he wants to engage the Central Powers currently laying claim to much of Europe, Africa, and western Asia in 1916, he turns to the most powerful, precise tool in his arsenal: a secret, CIA-like spy network called the Black Chamber.

Something Black Chamber does particulaly well is play with mythic historical figures and narratives while at the same time infusing some much-needed diversity back into our historical imaginings. Alternative histories are in right now—and not just alternative histories, but stories that take our past and remind everyone that it wasn’t just rich, white men who were shaping the story of our nation and our world. 

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From Lin-Manuel Miranda’s color-conscious casting of historical rap musical Hamilton to Justina Ireland’s zombie Civil War alt-history Dread Nation, storytellers are putting the diversity that was always there back into our nation’s history in subversive, creative, and long-overdue ways. (Important note: This can be and is being done in straight historical novels, as well.) On that note, Roosevelt isn’t the protagonist in Black Chamber. That honor belongs to Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, a badass spy working for the Black Chamber, and your new favorite spy character. 

When we first meet Luz, the Cuban-Irish American Field Operative with personal ties to President Roosevelt is posing as an anti-American Mexican revolutionary on a transatlantic airship voyage. (Because what is the point of writing an alternative history novel if there aren’t Zeppelins?) Luz’s mission is to get close to German agent Baron Horst von Duckler and find out what she can about the German Reich’s plans for the U.S. (Spoiler alert: they are scary and should be thwarted at all costs.) She does this with her mastery of multiple languages, superior emotional intelligence, fight skills, and—like Peggy Carter before her—by using society’s underestimation of “the fairer sex” to manipulate the situation.

Luz has endured great tragedy in her life, but that hasn’t made her bitter or evil or self-pitying, even though that last one in particular would be understandable; instead, she channels personal loss into political purpose. I would have liked to learn more about how Luz’s personal politics developed—frankly, I would have understood if she weren’t so pro-American—but Black Chamber is not that kind of book. It is an escapist spy adventure. In that genre context, Luz is having the time of her life, like many spy adventure protagonists before her (complete with her very own sidekick in the form of wide-eyed Irish American Ciara Whelan). This is Luz’s perspective as she departs New York City via airship on a dangerous mission: “Luz let herself laugh in sheer pleasure. It was a marvelous age to be alive, and young, and a woman and an American.” 

Those who don’t know their World War I-era history well may need to have their phone nearby to look up references and dates or else be comfortable with accepting Stirling’s alternate history world separate from its real-world context. Personally, I like this opportunity to delve into U.S. and world history, but some readers may find the lack of context frustrating—really, this says more about one’s relationship to the alternate history genre than to the book itself.

On the whole, Black Chamber is a thrilling spy adventure, a James Bond-esque tale for those who want to see the “Bond girl” take over. (Because, let’s be real, they usually have the skills.) Readers who don’t like superhero-like characters may take issue with just how skilled Luz is, but if you’re into competence porn characters like Sherlock Holmes or Lara Croft, then this is a story and character for you. Luz is a special character, one who challenges the old-fashioned ideas not only of who gets to be a proper action adventure hero, but who gets to be part of the most iconic moments in our nation-building myths.