Breach Author W.L. Goodwater on Why Cold War Fantasy Is Hot Right Now

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

W.L. Goodwater’s debut novel Breach, new this month, is a fascinating alt-history thriller that injects the tension of unpredictable magic into the unstable reality of the Cold War as we knew it. The result has been called The Magicians meets John Le Carré. Today, the author joins us to discuss why the Cold War and magic mix so well.

When we think about the Cold War, we’re flooded with evocative scenes: grainy footage of catastrophic nuclear tests in the Pacific; graffiti-coated concrete splitting Berlin in half; secretive men in trench coats and fedoras with microfilm hidden in their shoes; school children learning how to hide under their desks when the bomb sirens wail. These images aren’t just history: for many of us, or our parents, or grandparents, they are vivid memories. The Cold War is a unique, complex, fraught era, so it is no wonder fantasy writers have seen its potential for reimagining.

When crafting worlds of magic and monsters, writers often mine our collective memories for inspiration and grounding, but we’re usually after more than just making history sexier by adding wizards or dragons. Taking the past and tweaking it is like observing a work of art from a new angle or under different light; different elements are highlighted while new shadows add unexpected depth. By asking “what if?” we get to guide the reader to an infinitely better question: “why?”

What makes the Cold War such a perfect setting—in addition to the wealth of striking images like those described above—is its endless supply of something all great stories need: conflict.

The fantasies that came out of the horrors of WWI and WWII—like those of Tolkien and Lewis—reflect the starkness of the battle between good and evil. Darkness is overcome by the brave and the true. But now generations removed from D-Day, we demand stories with a grayer scale, and the Cold War is full of that unsettlingly ambiguity. The propaganda of the time certainly painted a picture of Us vs. Them, but we know now things were never so simple. The world of espionage is one of uncertainty, betrayal, and ever-shifting loyalty; after all, even the most moral spy is still a professional liar. Overhang that with the existential threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and you’ve got an explosive combination, even before you throw in elements of the supernatural.

Despite all this, there aren’t yet that many Cold War fantasy novels (highlights include the jointly-authored The Witch Who Came in from the Cold series, Ian Tregillis’s The Coldest War, and Michael J. Martinez’s MJ-12 series), especially when compared to those inspired by medieval northern Europe.

Maybe that’s partly due to spy thrillers providing their own form of magic; how else do we explain how James Bond dodges so many bullets without breaking a sweat? But we are certainly seeing a new interest in examining the conflicts of the Cold War through fantasy’s prism, and you only have to look at today’s headlines to see why. Spies may have traded fedoras and hidden film canisters for keyboards and phishing attacks, but their threat remains the same. The Soviet Union may have fallen, but Russia seems all too keen to reignite conflicts in the East and the West. It is clear that we’re living in the results of the Cold War, but it may be that we declared victory when there were still battles to be fought.

It’s no wonder our imaginations are turning to our recent past to see what can be said about our present.

Breach is available now from Ace

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