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Secret life: A fictional spy reinvents history

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If your thoughts go to World War I and spies, the name Mata Hari probably comes to mind.

Mata Hari was the stage name of the Dutch-born exotic dancer who was the mistress of more than a few Allied officers. In the end, she was executed by the French for espionage.

Now there’s a new entrancing First World War female spy – though this one is fictional – who works in the shadows of the war. Her name is Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, the heroine of S.M. Stirling’s new alternate history novel, “Black Chamber.”

Alternate history?

“I generally think of alternate history as science fiction,” said Stirling, a Santa Fe-based writer well-known for his many popular sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Luz is also an intelligent, good-looking, quick-thinking operative of the American CIA-like agency Black Chamber. She is fearless with a pistol or a knife. Stirling said her character “just bubbled up.”

Luz’s target is an aristocratic German spy/work-related romantic interest named Horst von Dückler. Luz must learn from him the specifics of Germany’s plot to keep the United States from entering the war on the side of the Allies.

Luz’s cover name is Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez, a supposed Mexican spy.

Luz meets Horst in September 1916 on an airship leaving New York City for Amsterdam. She not only must prove to Horst that Luz’s Elisa is genuinely anti-American but she must quietly show her true stripes to a Brit and his East Indian sidekick, spies on board the same airship.

Stirling enjoys crafting intense, detailed action scenes, and they’re enjoyable to read. One of my favorites takes place in neutral Holland with Luz, Horst and a German scientist en route to Germany.

They’re being hunted by the French: “Three motorcycles came through the smoke of the burning auto, crowding the eastern edge of the road to avoid the flames and swaying back upright as they followed. Sand spurted from under their rear wheels as they accelerated. Luz loved driving autos and motorcycles herself, work aside, and recognized the model – Alcyon’s dispatch-rider type.”

Stirling has Luz dropping in a few words in Spanish and in German while von Dückler tosses in a few occasionally asides in German. In a scene late in the novel, the author shows Luz thinking about the mess of Mexicans fighting Mexicans while Mexicans fight invading gringos.

She’s reminded of the famous line of former Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

Stirling also slips in Teddy Roosevelt in the prologue. The year is 1912, and Teddy is talking about running for president for a third time, after William Howard Taft dies in office. Teddy does run and wins.

Stirling contrasts Roosevelt, the fit outdoorsman, with the obese Taft: “Taft looked like a walrus on legs for decades.” The description accurately describes the real Taft.

But the historical facts are that by 1909 Roosevelt had completed his second and final term as president. He was succeeded by Taft, who served a full term until 1913 and was followed in office by Woodrow Wilson, who served until 1921.

In “Black Chamber,” set in 1916, Roosevelt, not Wilson, is president and Teddy happens to be an avuncular family friend to Luz.

The trade publication Publishers Weekly said of “Black Chamber” that “Sterling’s lavish historical, linguistic, and cultural detail – including sly digs at real-life figures, such as a youthful J. Edgar Hoover – enhance well-rounded characters to make this a highly enjoyable espionage romp.”

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