OUR MAN ON THE HILL by Matthew Kresal, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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OUR MAN ON THE HILL by Matthew Kresal, Review

Alexander Wallace reviews Our Man on the Hill, the new novel from Matthew Kresal.
Matthew Kresal is doubtlessly one of the stalwarts here on Warped Factor. He has been writing pieces for this site for seven years, and he shows no signs of stopping. It is my pleasure to inform the Warped Factor readership that he has just published his first novel, Our Man on the Hill, through Sea Lion Press.

As Sea Lion Press specializes, Kresal’s novel is an alternate history in the tradition of Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint. It is a world where the unthinkable happens: Joseph McCarthy, the great anticommunist firebrand who had no decency, is a Soviet spy.

One of the things that immediately struck me about the novel is that Kresal avoids the temptation to do the obvious: make McCarthy the major viewpoint character. It’s a tempting proposition simply due to star power, but upon further examination it has its weaknesses, a lack of information being one. Rather, the novel is structured around Ralph Walker, the Soviet agent who is assigned by Moscow to turn McCarthy into an asset and later to be his handler in Washington. This decision of framing allows for a much greater variation of the information the reader is exposed to, going all the way to scenes in Moscow. It’s a flexibility that the narrative benefits from.

Given that this is a book about Joseph McCarthy, Our Man on the Hill is set mostly from the post-war 1940s to the 1950s; for much spy fiction, this period setting is part of the draw. Those looking for that midcentury atmosphere will be quite satisfied here, as Kresal clearly did his research. You can imagine this book as a black-and-white spy drama from the period, so lovingly is everything brought to life. You meet a variety of historical figures from the era, all depicted authentically.

This is also a political novel. Much of Our Man on the Hill follows McCarthy through his political career, from a judge in small-town Wisconsin to the halls of power in Washington. It is a world of endless optics management, vicious gossip and whispered conversations in offices and restaurants and bars. They say that war is politics by other means; here, you understand why that is the case, even if not a single shot is fired. It’s a portrayal that reminds me of Robert Harris’ (of Fatherland fame) novel Imperium, about similar viciou politicking in the Roman Republic; such is the vaunted company that Kresal has joined.

What Kresal succeeds at the most is undoubtedly how plausible he makes this feel. It’s not necessarily strict historical plausibility as alternate historians understand it; rather, it’s this uncanny knack at making you think to yourself “yeah, that feels right.” It’s a high ask for any alternate history, especially one so ironic as this, and yet it works. Kresal has an insight into McCarthy’s personality, one that reveals the man as a firebrand first and an ideologue second, and it really does feel halfway plausible.

I really must commend my fellow Warped Factor writer for this spectacular accomplishment. Our Man on the Hill is one of the best alternate history novels I’ve read in a while, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone to whom it sounds interesting. The Warped Factor reader will profit from his craftsmanship.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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