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.
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.