[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]
A book that, to me, was more interesting for the world it developed than for its actual plot—I'd definitely like to see this "Futurist 1920s Italia/Europe/USA" revisited and developed more, especially for what the author does with famous figures and events of that time period.
So. It is 1920 in Fiume, and this town poised between Italia and Croatia is run by pirates: anarchists and artists, writers and syndicalists, all at once, boasting ideals and beliefs in the Future, taking over factories and throwing away rich capitalists. It is 1920, and Communism has been alive and kicking for quite a while. Gabriele d'Annunzio is the Prophet (and the man who really established the Republic of Carnaro in our world, too); Harry Houdini, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are working as flamboyant spies for the US government; and in Berlin, a young man by the name of Adolf dies to protect another man in a bar brawl, thus never starting on the path he will be known for in our History. And he's not the one, far from it.
I loved what Bruce Sterling did with this alternate history, dieselpunk Europe, full of contradictions: praise for the Future and strong beliefs and angular colourful clothes; rambunctious pirates proud of their ways, fascists with minds turned towards a different ideology, and engineers stealing armoured cars from the rioters who stole them first; beautiful and mysterious artist women, and a magician without fear who may or may not be human; but also factories churning torpedoes, small guns produced by the hundreds and used as currency, manifestos and propaganda, and a mounting tendency towards a new war.
A constant energy permeated the narrative, nervous and stressful in parts, ecstatic in others, and it provided for a fascinating read. There's humour and pulp and inventions and scary ideas as well in there. There's speed and technology and violence, carried by a youthful spirit—in one word, Futurismo—reflected in the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. Delightful.
What I regret is that it didn't go further. This is more a novella, and one that stops at a turning point that I would so much have wanted to see developed and explored. (In an interview, the author explains his choice, and the writer in me can totally understand it; still, the reader in me felt sad at leaving that alternate world so soon.)
Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Mr Sterling, are you going to revisit this world soon? Please.