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Alternate History Class 101: “Asen and the travelers in 100 Bulgarias” – A review by Valentin Ivanov

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Elena Pavlova (b. 1974) is a well-established Bulgarian science fiction writer and translator, in fact, she is one of its leaders today.

Her contributions to the genre span a quarter of a century and spread over many sub-genres: science fiction, fantasy and horror. She has gained an international recognition too – her novel “Adventure in the Lower Land”. “Caroles versus Hallus Beasts” (Приключение в Долната земя. Коледари срещу Hallus Beasts) won Eurocon in 2021 in the Best Children’s book category.

Recently, Elena Pavlova turned to the young readers and “Asen…” is a book, aimed at “my 12-13 yr old self”, as she once said. At first it may look like a well-known story – about a kid, discovering that the world has hidden folds, not necessarily nice and welcoming. It is also the eternal account of growing-up, with all expected and surprising bruises and wisdom that come along.

The new element here is the setting – Elena avoids the typical American/English point of view and puts the reader in the shoes of a kid growing up in Eastern Europe. It is an open question if this is our time line, but for all intents and purposes it is close enough. Asen, the title character, has lost his Mom to a terrible disease – an element, that can be traced to other works of Elena Pavlova – and even though his step-mother is well-meaning enough, he faces some tough challenges, expecting a new member of the family. It is the step-mother that sends him to attend something akin to a scout’s summer camp that is meant to keep him occupied in these difficult times, and this is where the story begins.

The camp is not as expected, the scouting is not just a game, and everything turns out to be deadly serious. Asen discovers that this is a cover for an organization that recruits young teenagers to travel between alternative realities – for they are the only ones with this ability. Growing up means not only shedding off the youthful naivete, but loosing up this special skill as well.

The danger comes from the same old greed and stupidity that has hampered the human kind forever – the people in control of some timelines look at the other timelines as an easy pray and suppliers of cheap goods. There is a memorable scene with kids, whose heads are barely visible above the steering wheels, driving heavy trucks across the path form such a “supplier” timeline.

To his credit, Asen quickly rises to the challenge and escapes the self-pity trap, he seems to be falling in, at the beginning of the book.

The story is fast paced and cinematographic – and this is the trap I discovered while reading the book with my kids, who, unlike me, had never lived in Sofia: knowing the setting, at least in our timeline, would have helped a lot to visualize the action better and more tangibly.  The author mentioned once that the book – which is beautifully illustrated with black-and-white hand drown graphics (special complements to Tsveta Petrova!) – was supposed to include even more visual materials, but those had to be discarded, probably to save printing costs. A dedicated website may be a solution to this problem.

The alternative history elements deserve a special note. “Asen and…” being a children’s book, is an excellent introduction to this subgenre, as the Americans would say, it is a 101-level class. I am not sure if the parallel with the number in the title was intentional, but it is certainly nice. It is also a nicely educational introduction to the history of Bulgaria, for those who have not paid attention in school. Two sets of supplementary materials help the readier – one with a timeline of the major relevant historic events, and another with a basic intro to alternate history subgenre, listing some important concepts and works.

Good landmarks, if we try to place the novel in the landscape of the Western subgenre, are “The Merchant’s Empire” series by Charles Stross, “A Nomad of Time Streams” by Michael Moorcock, and particularly with the young adult aspect – “The H-Bomb Girl” by Stephen Baxter and the “Everness trilogy” by Ian McDonald.

“Alternate History Class 101: Asen and the travelers in 100 Bulgarias” (Асен и пътешествениците в 100 Българии).

Publisher: Softpress, 2020 (Bulgaria)

Illustrations: Tsveta Petrova.

Cover design: Radoslav Donev

ISBN 978-619-151-633-9

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