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by W. L. Goodwater
Ace, $16.00, 368pp
Published: November 2018

Here's something completely different that may not stay completely different for long as the nostalgia point shifts and current affairs loop back to what we've been through and more authors explore the Cold War in terms of modern genres. This is a Cold War novel, full of spies, betrayal and intrigue, but it's also a fantasy novel that's built on the idea that magic is real.

Americans don't particularly trust magic, so the best and the brightest work for the Soviet Union and, a decade ago, they worked the greatest magic that the world had seen: they built a wall around Russian-occupied Berlin, using only magic, and it's stood ever since. The trigger for this book is the news that a breach has been discovered in that wall and it's growing. This Berlin Wall is going to come down and not for the reasons that we're used to.

We might expect the Wall to be the MacGuffin but, as is appropriate for spy novels, we gradually make more and more discoveries and are gradually let in on more and more secrets until we realise that everything's happening for a reason and there's another MacGuffin in play, one that many characters will do anything to possess. I liked that double MacGuffin setup, because, of all genres, spy novels ought to be the most complex, most convoluted and, above all, most obscured stories of all, just so long as we can follow along, of course.

The main reason this succeeds though is that it runs through all the levels of deception that we expect, the bluffs and doublebluffs, the betrayals and counter betrayals, but does so with characters who are neither simple, made of cardboard, or overly complex, so that we can't grasp who they really are. Many of them are expected stereotypes who promptly grow beyond expectations. Others, like our lead, are a little different from the outset.

She's Karen O'Neil, a young American who works in research, looking into the possibilities of magic at the Office of Magical Research and Deployment. The Americans may look down on magic, which doesn't seem to be a good idea, but they're not stupid enough to leave it to the enemy. There is a magic gap and people like Karen might not care about closing it per se, but are likely to do so by asking all the right questions and not being afraid of the answers.

In many ways, she's the female journalist stereotype, driven to achieve more than her peers because she has to, in a world that doesn't place appropriate value on women. We've seen her in films galore from Hollywood's golden age, and she follows that story arc reasonably well, getting into places that she shouldn't, ignoring instructions because of gut feelings and, always best of all, upsetting the people who deserve to be upset, including George, who is apoplectic that he wasn't the one sent to Berlin.

You'll recognise a lot of the other characters in similar ways, as they're a set of archetypes who also mostly grow beyond their expected boundaries and limitations. The author, W. L. Goodwater, who I believe is starting a series with this book, does a fine job with his characters. In fact, I'd say that a number of the best are supporting characters who only appear for a while but get grand scenes for their moments in the spotlight.

The plot is good too: complex, but not overly so. Sure, it wouldn't take a spymaster to see through a couple of the deceptions, including the identity in the present of one particularly nasty historical piece of work, but the eventual unmasking is handled very well. Spy novels require highly capable choreography and Goodwater works that nicely.

Another aspect I appreciated was the idea that the Berlin Wall had become a burden for everyone. People want it down and their numbers are growing, the political will inevitably following in their wake. However, a number of folk in pivotal positions are well aware that its fall would cause a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions, not something that anyone wants. However this story goes, in other words, there are problems. I liked that scenario and I appreciated that there weren't any easy answers, just right ones and wrong ones.

The sense of place is strong too. I've never been to Berlin and one of a few big regrets of my life is that I didn't go in 1989 when the real wall fell, but how the author draws it in prose felt tantalisingly real. We've all seen the photos but they tend to come from the wall itself, depicting both sides but rarely the rest of the city. Goodwater wanders around here: aboveground and below it, both inside and outside the Wall, and he finds an interesting set of places to bring to life. Whether they're true or not, I have no idea but they feel true.

Breach is a quick read and it seems relatively self-contained. Certainly, I can see how this world of magic that Goodwater has conjured up has potential for many other stories, but they wouldn't be a continuation of this one. The problems raised here are solved by the end of the novel. Well, all except an obvious anomaly but there's no way to solve that so further novels wouldn't help. I think any continuation would revolve around the surviving characters and the general concepts in play, with new threats and new enemies added to taste.

Read this now while it's still highly original. I have a strong feeling that more authors are going to start writing urban fantasy in a Cold War setting and, assuming that further books in this Cold War Magic series are as good as this beginning, Goodwater will start being called a pioneer. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other titles by W.L. Goodwater click here

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