Breach: A decent start to a Cold War fantasy series

Breach by W.L Goodwater fantasy book reviewsBreach by W.L Goodwater fantasy book reviewsBreach by W.L Goodwater

Breach (2018) is an interesting Cold War fantasy premise (think John le Carré with magic) that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise, though it’s a solid enough start to what is apparently going to be a series, COLD WAR MAGIC.

W.L Goodwater sets his novel in an alternate history where WWII was fought and won as in our own world (though with the Nazis apparently gaining more ground before eventually losing) with the exception that magic was wielded as a horrific weapon throughout, particularly by the Nazis, whose “research” into magic often involved Mengele-like methods. As in our world, Berlin was carved up into sectors and the Russians/East Germans built a wall, though this one is made out of magic rather than cement and brick.

Unfortunately, the wall is starting to fail (the titular “breach”), which on the surface sounds like a good thing, but as one intelligence agents realizes:

We would have thousands of refugees attempting to cross the border within hours. The East Germans would be forced to stop them. The Soviets would assist, and we would be required to match any show of force with our own.

So much for the Cold War “peace” then.

What ensues, therefore, is an urgent attempt to figure out the problem and heal the wall. The CIA flies over Karen O’Neil, a bright young magic researcher from the American office of Magical Research and Deployment who has spent her time in a lab, not in the field. On the other side of the wall, meanwhile, the Russians have sent over a ruthlessly effective and lethal spy known as “The Nightingale” (in his POV it’s “the colonel”) to oversee the Soviet response, which includes overseeing the Eastern German who leads the Wall project — Erwin Ehle. Deadly intelligence games ensue, with the climax greatly ratcheting up in intensity and stakes once it becomes clear that the Wall is more than it seems.

W.L. Goodwater

W.L. Goodwater

The espionage aspect of Breach is decently constructed, a bit simple but with more than a few strong moments of tension, not just between opposing agents but also within, as in typical espionage fashion everyone is keeping secrets from anyone, including their own people. My guess would be spy novel fans (I don’t read the genre, which is why it’s a guess) would find it overly simplistic and maybe a little pedestrian, but it’s an interestingly fresh layer when added to the fantasy genre.

Magic’s place in this world (the larger one and the spy one) is nicely varied. Americans, for instance, harbor an intense bias against magic because of how the Old World, and particularly the Nazis, wielded it in the war. Karen’s father, for instance, has disdain and great anger toward her work because he was a veteran and not only saw the results of magic but had it used against him “and the boys over there” as a fearsome weapon. The English, thanks to the invasion by the Nazis, have almost no magicians left, and the Soviets and East Germans are seen as the best. It’s also akin to the post-war situation with the Nazis and rocketry, with the “good guys” weighing the moral choice of bringing the Nazis to justice or using their expertise.

The magic itself is a bit thin in its explanation and detail. Part of that is built in, as our protagonists, as noted above, aren’t proficient in it and are still learning about it. Part of that, I think, is Goodwater’s choice not to slow things down with detailed worldbuilding about magic itself. And part of it feels like a bit more information could have been helpful and would have assuaged a sense, at times, that magic was used a bit too easily as a plot device. One thing I liked is that magic is presented as quite limited. In fact, when we first meet Karen it’s as she oversees yet another failed attempt to use magic to heal. As with too many of humanity’s tools, so far, it’s far easier to use as a weapon than anything else.

Characterization is a bit hit and miss. Karen’s role is complicated by the sexism of the time (think of her as a less active Peggy Carter), which she fights back against in mostly passive-aggressive ways (makes really bad coffee when asked to serve it to the boys, goes out on her own against orders) and by her relationship with her father and then later with her long-time mentor. She’s engaging enough but not particularly compelling, I found. The Nightingale was more so in his fascinating mix of brutality/ruthlessness combined with surprisingly human touches (thinking of his daughters, for instance). Ehle is also an interesting character for reasons I won’t go into. The rest are solid enough if not particularly memorable, which is only problematic when we’re supposed to care a bit more strongly than we do with regard to deaths or betrayals (I don’t count this as a spoiler: Breach is a spy novel; there will be betrayals).

The stakes, as noted, are raised at the end, but things also get a little muddy and cluttered and maybe overwrought, and here is where I thought the thin nature of the magic was more of an issue.

Breach fell pretty smack dab into that middle ground for me. It didn’t fully grab me or wow me, and I put it down more often than I do the books I really like. But it also had me picking it back up each time I did so, and when I did so it kept me reading along smoothly and easily. I wouldn’t say I’m eager to pick up the second book, but I have enough remaining interest that while I won’t leap on it immediately, I will return to Broodstreet’s universe to see what’s going on there.

Published in November 2018. The first novel in a new Cold War fantasy series, where the Berlin Wall is made entirely of magic. When a breach unexpectedly appears in the wall, spies from both sides swarm to the city as World War III threatens to spark. AFTER THE WAR, THE WALL BROUGHT AN UNEASY PEACE. When Soviet magicians conjured an arcane wall to blockade occupied Berlin, the world was outraged but let it stand for the sake of peace. Now, after ten years of fighting with spies instead of spells, the CIA has discovered the unthinkable… THE WALL IS FAILING. While refugees and soldiers mass along the border, operatives from East and West converge on the most dangerous city in the world to either stop the crisis, or take advantage of it. Karen, a young magician with the American Office of Magical Research and Deployment, is sent to investigate the breach in the Wall and determine if it can be fixed. Instead, she discovers that the truth is elusive in this divided city–and that even magic itself has its own agenda. THE TRUTH OF THE WALL IS ABOUT TO BE REVEALED.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Paul Connelly /

    If fifty people do the same thing it’s a Movement, according to “Alice’s Restaurant”, so I don’t think we’re quite into Movement territory yet for occult/psychic powered spy stories yet, but it’s trending in that direction.

    Ian Tregillis revived the World War II and Cold War settings for these spy stories with his Milkweed Triptych, which was very good. Before that, Charles Stross, Laird Barron and Caitlin Kiernan were using modern or near future settings for their more explicitly Lovecraftian spy tales. I just read the (okay) start of a new World War II occult espionage series by Kay Kenyon and, unfortunately, had DNFs for two others (The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield and The Midnight Front by David Mack). So we’re getting the variability in quality that happens when authors start piling onto a new trend.

    One of the better written ones that I’ve read was The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, by a stellar 5 author team (including Tregillis), but only the first collection came out in paperback. The second is out in Kindle-only format, but I have no desire to add any further to Bezos’s obscene wealth by locking myself into that platform. Too bad.

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