Presenting the fusion of science fiction with the spellcasting elements of fantasy is nothing new in literature, but it's enjoying a healthy renaissance in the literary realm of late. Add in the tempting alt-universe timelines so popular in TV shows like The Man in the High Castle and the complex wizarding of Lev Grossman's The Magicians trilogy and we've got a perfect recipe for W.L. Goodwater's new sci-fi mystery, Breach.
To prime you for the Russian-flavored adventure, SYFY WIRE has a provocative peek into the pages of this electrifying debut thriller and a chat with its rising-star author.
The captivating plotline chronicles the plight of Soviet magicians to bewitch the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. Now ten years later, the CIA discovers that the Wall is failing as refugees and soldiers collect along the flickering, arcane border and it seems that an impending catastrophic crisis is unavoidable.
Now agents and operatives from both sides of the conflict are converging and it's up to Karen O'Neil, an ambitious young magician sent by the American Office of Magical Research and Deployment, to try and stop the fatal breach and reveal the barrier's true purpose.
The genesis of Goodwater's new alt-history fantasy novel came from reading a lot of John le Carré and a book called The Company by Robert Littell.
"With the evocative Berlin setting of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the calculated betrayals of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy rattling around in my head, I got the idea to throw magic at it and see what happened," Goodwater told SYFY WIRE.
"Magic has always captured our imaginations, from ancient campfires all the way to Netflix. Magic speaks of the impossible, though the best stories also speak about what it means to be human, even when there are dragons flying around. Books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and Laura Anne Gilman’s Silver on the Road have really helped continue a redefinition of the genre. On top of those, Breach owes a lot to the stellar TV show Agent Carter, with its awesome hero and amazing setting."
In researching the Cold War period, Goodwater's process took him to some interesting historical corners.
"On this subject, I highly recommend Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall: A World Divided and Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961," he explained. "What I found most surprising about the Berlin Wall was the West’s complicity in letting it stand. On this side of history, we see the wall as a symbol of cruelty and we think about Reagan demanding it be torn down, but when it was built, it was seen as a potential solution to a growing East-to-West migration crisis. It is easy to judge the past with the benefit of hindsight, but still I wanted to explore this complicated relationship in my reimagining of these events."
Raise your wands for SYFY WIRE's exclusive chapter excerpt below, courtesy of Ace Books, then tell us if the first-time novelist's hybrid fantasy sounds appealing to you.
It was achingly cold, but that came as no surprise. In such a place, comfort would be inappropriate. Comfort invited a man to let down his guard, and only dead men made that mistake here. The colonel waited, as was so often his duty, and listened to the pipes ticking overhead and the watch ticking in his palm. He flipped the watch open. It was a weakness to look, he knew, but he was old enough now not to care. He sighed. The steadily clicking hands were not kind: he would be late. She would, he hoped, forgive him.
The door at the far end of the room groaned and swung out.
Leonid brought their guest in, as requested. The last one for the day. His uniform was mussed, a button missing from his jacket. A struggle, perhaps? No, not from this small man shivering under Leonid’s grip, the man with the broken lens in his glasses and the blood on his collar. This man had no fight in him. Perhaps he would not be so late after all.
“Thank you,” the colonel said softly, motioning to a waiting chair. “I have a place for our comrade just here.”
The man was talking before he had even been forced into his seat. “Comrade Colonel, I assure you—”
The colonel held up a hand and silenced him. Pain erupted just above his right eye at the sound of the man’s quavering voice. The headaches were always bad on days such as these. It was too much for one man to take on himself. That sounded like his wife’s voice: You use too much of yourself. There must be others who can do this. Others they can call on instead of my husband.
But there were no others. No one else who could do what he could.
“I am tired, Artyom Ivanovich. I am tired and I am running late. Let us therefore avoid unnecessary talk.”
“Comrade Colonel, whatever has been said of me, I—”
“We have never met, you and I, correct? Yet I trust you know me, perhaps by reputation. This is true?”
Artyom glanced back at the looming shadow of Leonid and nodded. “Yes, Comrade Colonel. I know who you are.”
“Good. Then you know by the fact that I am sitting across from you that certain options are now closed. This is not a time for bartering. This is a time to do what must be done. You understand.”
“This room, do you know what it is for? It is a place for remembering. At times, men must be reminded of the importance of duty. And so they come here. So I can help them. That is why we are here, together, you and I. To do our duty.”
“I have done my duty. I always do my duty. I—”
“At the academy, they teach us that magic is nothing more than will.” He tapped his temple. “Will. That is why some men can use magic and some cannot: they lack will. Will is what gives us power. Will is what helps us do our duty. Will keeps us from making mistakes.”
He clicked open his pocket watch and watched the seconds tick by. “This watch belonged to my grandfather. It still keeps perfect time, even after all these years. It helps me to focus, to impose my will.” His fingers snapped it shut, but he could still feel its pulse, that inexorable march. “Since you are lacking will of your own, Artyom Ivanovich, I will lend you some of mine.”
Now the words, in tongues ancient and lost, a further focus. The spells, those he had seen done so poorly by those who considered themselves masters, were so simple with the right will.
The screams echoed unheard down the long, empty hallways.
The theater was dark when he entered quietly, the performance nearly complete. He had a ticket for a seat, somewhere near the front, but no way to find it. That did not matter, however, now that he had arrived. He stood invisible in the shadowed back of the theater as the final soloist took the stage.
She was young, yet already growing into the dancer’s graceful form. Her golden hair was pulled back tight, her face a powdered porcelain mask. She was smiling, but he saw the determination written beneath. The music began. She moved across the stage, hesitant, slightly behind the music. Uncertain on pointe. No, no. Breathe, he thought. You are better than this. As you have been taught. Yes, like that. There is my daughter. There is my girl.
The first time he had seen her mother had been on a stage like this. She was part of the corps, not yet a soloist, but to him, she had been up there alone, dancing just for him. That had been a lifetime ago, longer perhaps.
Up now, turn and turn. Jump, then back. Yes, she had her steps now. The music was in her, animating her. Ah, a misstep, a near fall. Recovery, yes. Forget it, child. The flaw only makes them see the beauty of the rest.
The applause filled the theater as she took her bow and hurried to the wings on airy steps. He watched her go, content.
“Your daughter, yes?”
He had been distracted by the dance, more so than he would usually allow, and he had not noticed the gray-haired man standing at his side until he spoke.
“Yes,” he said.
“She dances with skill,” the gray-haired man said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Perhaps we should speak outside?”
They stepped out into the granite chill of a Moscow autumn. Cars passed them by, their drivers invisible behind yellow headlights. An early rain caused their tires to hiss. Old leaves tumbled along empty sidewalks. The colonel followed the gray-haired man to the alley that ran behind the theater and lit his cigarette before lighting one of his own.
“The work is done?” the gray-haired man asked.
“We finished with the list earlier tonight,” he answered. “I expect you will find the results satisfactory.”
“We always have.” The gray-haired man coughed. “The Chairman himself would like to extend to you his thanks.”
He bowed, just slightly. “I am honored to serve the Party.”
“That is good to hear,” the gray-haired man said. Those were his words, but the colonel knew that more than this was being said: in the way he held his dirty-white cigarette, the way his small eyes glanced off into the night, the way his arthritic hands trembled.
“I remain at the behest of the Party,” he said. “And of the Chairman.”
“Yes,” the gray-haired man said, sucking on the cigarette like a man drowning. From his heavy woolen overcoat he produced an envelope and handed it across the stale alleyway air.
The colonel opened it and quickly read the terse documents it contained. “Berlin?”
The gray-haired man nodded, then crushed the half-spent cigarette under his shoe. “A filthy city full of ungrateful people,” he said with a shudder. “But an important city as well. We recently received word from a well-placed friend that our adversaries in the city have made a . . . significant discovery. It is imperative that they do not hinder our existing plans. Too much work has already been done. This must be contained.”
He tucked the envelope into his coat. Ahead, people had already begun to stream from the theater out into the streets. He took out his watch and checked the time. “You have my word,” he said. “I will see this done.”
“Yes,” the gray-haired man said. “We know that you will. That is why we are sending the Nightingale.”