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Richard Wadholm's first novel is a fast-paced tale of occult warfare that mixes melodramatic fantasy with elements of a screwball comedy. A Clarion West graduate, Wadholm has been making his mark in Asimov's for a couple of years. His short story, "Green Tea," won the 2000 Sturgeon Award for Short Fiction and was reprinted in Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventeenth Annual Collection. If you would like a free taste before buying Astronomy, you can find another of his short stories, "From Here You Can See the Sunquists" on the site of Electricstory.com, publisher of Astronomy.

In the trailing days of World War II, Susan Gilbert is a smart-talking, green-eyed, young redhead who has just been demobilized from the elite Watermark section of Naval Intelligence. Despite a failed attempt to extract a supposed Nazi defector known as Galileo, she was regarded as a top operative. She has even faced the Great Old Ones of the Necronomicon, as we learned of them in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Now, she anticipates returning home to teach Contemporary American Literature (really!) at the University of New York at Stony Brook. Instead, she finds herself lured back by Commander Walter Foley, her old control officer.

Foley is tracking down a mysterious Nazi project, known only as Das Unternehmen, literally "The Enterprise," and he needs Susan's special talents. Foley takes her to a warehouse where 200 tons of concrete and lead have disappeared overnight with no apparent means of transportation, the most recent of many strange disappearances. Left behind is a double agent named Conrad Hartmann who has been drowned, in fact filled to bursting, with mercury.

While inspecting the warehouse, Susan has all of the lights extinguished and on the wall discovers the phosphorescent tracing of the "Angle Web," an interdimensional transportation system that she has seen before. The Nazis are gathering resources for their great project using the most esoteric of occult means. No one knows more about these matters than Susan Gilbert. They say that age and cunning will always triumph over youth and honesty. It works for Foley this time, and Susan is once again committed to the game of foxes.

Wadholm resurrects the named and nameless creatures of Lovecraft's famous tales, captures their essence, and wraps them in a plausible scientific explanation. You can enjoy this book without having read Lovecraft, but you owe it to yourself to try "The Dunwich Horror" sooner or later.

Although it is set in the Lovecraftian universe, I also see this book as a retroactive precursor to the monumental Illuminatus trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, another group of books that everyone should read eventually. As in the back story of Illuminatus, the leftover Nazis have raised an army of the Totenstürm, the walking dead, to defeat the Allies in the final days of the war. Having failed in this, they have taken to the hills with their zombies to wreak their revenge on the victors. It takes a lot of nerve to trace the steps of a master, let alone a master such as Lovecraft. For the most part, Wadholm carries it off smoothly. To prepare for Astronomy, I took time to reread "Dagon" and "The Dunwich Horror." Truthfully, Wadholm's style is more to my taste than Lovecraft's is. He moves faster. He uses language at least as well. Modern readers will probably like him better.

Technically, Wadholm's story telling is excellent. He starts in the middle of the action in a way that draws you in while leaving many questions in your mind. You keep reading because you need to know the answers. Then we jump back to the failed Berlin extraction, learning much about Krzysztof Malmagden (the enigmatic Galileo) and his lethal henchmen known as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Kant, the Four Horsemen of Philosophy, and we learn of the Totenstürm and much about Susan.

Back in the post-war "present," there are many mysteries to be uncovered. Why did the Germans translate the Necronomicon? What was Malmagden really trying to do? Why all the interest in astronomy? What caused the great wasteland that used to be Faulkenberg Reservoir? What revenge will the Nazis unleash?

Susan is surprised to discover that Malmagden is now an Allied prisoner, charged with mass murder and other offences. With Malmagden as her guide and accompanied by a bespectacled, quiet man named Charley Shrieve, Susan sets out on a picaresque journey through the Franconian Wald, first to the Reservoir, and then on the track of the Nazi vengeance. At Faulkenberg Reservoir they find a scene of mysterious devastation and a bunch of very suspicious Russian soldiers. Although they carry a pass signed by Marshall Zhukov himself, the Russians detain them and try to settle their personal grudge with Malmagden. Their credentials keep them alive, but they cannot escape until the Russians are "distracted" by more urgent things.

Running from the Russians, Malmagden's zombies, and worse things, and fighting all the way, Susan and Charley pass through the Angle Web on the trail of Jürgen Kriene, the architect of the Nazi plan for revenge. They arrive at the site of Das Unternehmen just in time for the final steps of the great plan. The Nazi plan involves astronomy, human sacrifice, and interdimensional travel in a grand scheme to bring about Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Norse Gods.

I will refrain from spoiling any surprises for the reader, which means I have to shut up now. I should say that between the vivid action sequences, the evocation of strange desolated places, and the vision of the coming of the Greatest Old One, this book screams to be filmed. Would it be commercial enough to pay for the huge special effects budget?

Finally, a warning for those of you who like to curl up in bed with a good book; this is an electronic-only publication. You can read it on your PC (but not your Mac) with Microsoft Reader or you can use your Gemstar eBook, if you have one.

 

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In real life, C. J. Czelling is the victim of a classical education, member of Mensa, and a professional computer geek who prefers to remain unidentified. He previously reviewed Anne Harris' Accidental Creatures for Strange Horizons. You can see more of Czelling at his Web site.



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