My first Turtledove book!
For a long while now, friends and other authors had been telling me to read a Harry Turtedove book. See what it says right there on the cover? “The master of alternate history.” I was both surprised and disappointed with this read, but so much so that I’ve added another Harry Turtledove book to my list, GUNS OF THE SOUTH.
The book’s premise is a Second World War that arrives a year earlier than the historical norm. There are two PODs, or point of divergences from real history. The first is that the Spanish general Sanjurjo, who historically was killed when he overloaded his plane with his clothing trucks, instead survives. Sanjurjo was one of the chief military conspirators of the Spanish Civil War. The primary historical differences between Sanjurjo and Francisco Franco (who led in Sanjurjo’s place after his death) are that Sanjurjo was not such a stark isolationist as Franco had been. Interestingly enough though, Spain remains mostly uninteresting throughout the duration of this book, and—from what my research can discern—the rest of the The War That Came Early series.
The other historical change is Konrad Henlein’s assassination in 1938 goes off successfully in Czechoslovakia. This gives Hitler the Cassus belli he needs to declare war on Czechoslovakia and subsequently, the Allies. France and the United Kingdom are forced to abide their pacts with Czechoslovakia and the war proper begins. I find it most interesting that those two were the primary points of divergences, because while things ARE different, they are not necessarily decidedly so until book 2 or book 3 of this series. That aside, I’ll dig into HITLER’S WAR—book 1—now.
The first chapter has character viewpoints of General Sanjurjo and Adolf Hitler both, then they are never seen again (except for Hitler, halfway through the book from the perspective of another Axis soldier). The book itself is from the viewpoint of approximately a dozen characters: a German tank commander, a French infantryman, a British infantryman, an American Marine, a Japanese rifleman, internationals fighting on Republican Spain and Nationalist Spain’s sides, a German bomber pilot, a Soviet bomber pilot and a German U-boot captain.
These characters DO grow throughout the book and there is a major character death near the end. However, I felt strange about a certain piece of history while reading this book. They say war is hell, and it is. War in the Second World War was also, at many times, boring and confusing. Fighting aside, months often went by of soldiers simply crouched in hastily dug foxholes while being shelled by the opposite side. This is true here as well and I applaud Turtledove’s historical accuracy. That being said, it’s boring to read. I feel approximately five percent of this book is simply characters digging a hole, enduring an artillery barrage and smoking cigarettes. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.
There are two non-combative characters, an American stuck in Berlin while the war is on and the other is a Jewish family suffering under Hitler’s regime. The second is well built and they grow as they pages turn, but the former is almost entirely irrelevant to the story. The character—a tourist named Peggy Druce—has almost no agency. She reacts to what the Nazi’s do to her and is mostly helpless to change the plot. Her story from halfway through is frivolous, as she doesn’t achieve much at all.
The fighting scenes are decent enough, though I would’ve preferred a bit more detail as I went into this book with the expectation: “this is war, I want to embody war,” but perhaps I understand why he did that: to appeal to a larger audience.
Turtledove’s writing is impeccably simple though, and in a good way. I, few times—if ever—wondered about what he was attempting to convey with his shorter, simple sentences and method of writing. I felt that I would have a much better opinion of this book had I also possessed the hindsight of the other books in the series, but that’s for another time, perhaps.
A good book, but only marginally alternate history.
Bonne journée, mes amis.