Tom Christiansen is a California Department of Fish and Game warden, working with the FBI to unmask an animal smuggling organization when he comes across a completely healthy condor. One problem – the Californian condor is almost extinct and this one not only has no genetic connection to the handful of surviving birds but shows to signs of exposure to modern pollution or toxins.
In his search to uncover the provenance of this rare and anomalous animal Tom and partner Roy Tully come across CM&M, a wealthy and apparently publicly-minded business that seems to be at the centre of the smuggling ring. To their amazement they discover that the three founders of CM&M stumbled across a way to access New Virginia, a parallel California untouched by colonisation until the 1940’s and now home to escapees from the America they know. The heavily guarded Gate allows people (and rare animals) to cross realities, and founder John Rolfe VI has a clear picture of the alternate culture he has created.
Stirling’s concept and world building are intriguing and meticulous, though his characters are a little too perfect – Roy, Tom and love interest Adrienne (granddaughter of John Rolfe and an agent who liaises between the worlds) always have the skills and ability to cope with and surmount whatever problems they encounter, and have wholly complementary outlooks and ideologies. There’s action enough to compensate for this, as tensions between New Virginian camps heat up, and the idea of an unspoiled alternate earth is bewitching at a time when we seem to have so completely bollixed up the one we have. Although I didn’t see any scope for a sequel, I did very much enjoy visiting Stirling’s creation, one that is very different from his Nantucket and Change series, though there are explorations of similar themes. - Alex