Ralph E. Vaughan
Although I have, in general, gravitated away from any science fiction written after after the 1970s, I still love alternate history novels and usually always enjoy reading them, at least on some level. Writers trying to write a novel in a world where history went sideways often make mistakes -- they pivot the alteration of history around some trivial event (one writer based the changing of history on a stubbed toe) or one that is so obscure that it escapes even the professional historian; they have the narrator pinpoint the one event that made everything change as the characters would actually know they are in an alternate world; they create an alternate-history world for the sole purpose of sending a ham-handed message about our own world, sacrificing story-telling for the sake of ideology (if you want to send a message, call Western Union); or, having spent so very much time researching and world building, they try to make the setting the star of the novel, reducing the characters to mere props. Happily, Hugh Ashton makes none of those mistakes in "Red Wheels Turning," which takes place around the time of the Great War, mostly in Russia.
Above all, the novel is a very exciting adventure story set in a fascinating world that is like our own in many ways, and yet fundamentally different in ways the reader is often left to figure out on his own -- some are fairly obvious, such as the existence of the Confederate States of America, while others are subtle, such as the political climate of Russia. The protagonist is Lt Brian Finch-Malloy, a troublemaker plucked from the trenches to work for the hush-hush chappies who inhabit various anonymous offices in Whitehall. He's a admirable cut of Englishman, full of honour and patriotism, and willing to do whatever is necessary to defeat the Boche and root out enemies of the Crown. However, he is just one of a large cast of very strongly delineated characters, and that includes the villains (I should say especially the villains), who are thorough rotters.
Ashton does an excellent job of creating the excitement of the times while avoid the pitfalls attendant in the writing style of the times. Ashton's Finch-Malloy and Sapper's Bulldog Drummond are approximately contemporaneous, and they are cut from rather similar cloth -- adventurous English gentleman, military, somewhat disdainful of authority and title, always putting what's right over what is convenient, and possessor of a personal code of honour that puts others to shame. However, although Sapper's novels are still exciting today, they are difficult reads, infused with the gimcrackery lingo of the times that now seems a parody of itself. Ashton, on the other hand, evokes the period superbly with a very clean sriting style, and while some of the vocabulary is occasionally archaic because of the time period, it is always gentle on the ear.
It is helpful to the reader, of course, to be somewhat familiar with the Great War, Tsarist Russia and the early Communist Party, but so engaging and fascinating is the story that you can enjoy it without any specialized historical knowledge. The action and the characterization will pull you along like a powerful riptide. There is one other (so far) book in the series, "Beneath Gray Skies," but you don't need to read it first to enjoy this book, And enjoy this book you will.