Among the moments in life that I enjoy the most are the ones when I discover for myself a fantastic book about which I was previously unaware. Such moments are few, not because there aren't a lot of fantastic books out there (there are), but because I read so much about books that some of the best are flagged by reviewers and other readers well in advance of when I get to them. In that sense it's a trade-off: the overall quality of what I read is good, but the likelihood that I would encounter an unexpected treasure is low. This, however, bolsters the memory of when I do encounter such a book.
Perhaps the best example of this for me came in May 2009. At the time I was bingeing on alternate history novels, and having worked through most of the Harry Turtledove opus that I was interested in I was branching out to some other titles I had seen on Wikipedia's list of alternate history fiction. One of the novels on their list was Michael P. Kube-Mcdowell's Alternities, which was (and still is) listed only by its title. Unfamiliar with the author (though I later discovered that I had previously read a couple of his short stories), I acquired a library copy and sat down after dinner one evening to give it a try.
Within a few pages I was hooked. Kube-Mcdowell's book was unlike any previous alternate history novel I had read. This was in part because of its premise: in 1966, a businessman in an America somewhat different from our own discovers a gateway to an alternate Earth. Within a few short years, the American government of that world is exploring an increasing array of "alternities," seeking advantages that they can take back home and use to reverse the setbacks they have suffered in their Cold War against a dominant Soviet Union.
While the premise may sound dull to some, Kube-Mcdowell uses it to play out the story through the experiences of a number of different characters. One, a "runner" who transports items through the gate, seeks an escape from an increasingly loveless marriage. He gets an opportunity to do so when the president, a charming megalomaniac, uses the prospect of a safe refuge from a nuclear war to engage in a deadly challenge with the Soviets. Opposing him is his Secretary of Defense, who is locked in a failing effort to head off such a confrontation before it happens. The tension here drives much of the plot, delivering more suspense than action but is no less engrossing for it.
Yet an alternate history novel also needs a successful setting to succeed, and here Kube-Mcdowell really delivers. It's one thing to create an alternate world -- in this book the author creates three detailed in varying degrees of detail, along with another three who are described in passing. His means of describing these world is masterful, as he avoids much of the clunky exposition that bogs down far too many novels of the genre. Instead of characters talking in the sort of potted-history-lecture-speak that is to often the resort of most alternate history novels, Kube-Mcdowell presents the details at a more natural, even subtle, pace, supplementing his efforts with snippets of informational artifacts (articles, lists, etc.) which contribute to the context. It all made for gripping reading when I originally read it, and while my frequent re-readings take place without the same excitement at uncovering a previously undiscovered treasure, they have only deepened my appreciation for this first-rate novel.