Thursday, June 20, 2013

World War II Alternate History...but GOOD!

HITLER'S WAR (The War That Came Early #1)
Del Rey Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five, all for the delicious idea

The Publisher Says: A stroke of the pen and history is changed. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, determined to avoid war at any cost, signed the Munich Accord, ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. But the following spring, Hitler snatched the rest of that country and pushed beyond its borders. World War II had begun, and England, after a fatal act of appeasement, was fighting a war for which it was not prepared.

Now, in this thrilling, provocative, and fascinating alternate history by Harry Turtledove, another scenario is played out: What if Chamberlain had not signed the accord? What if Hitler had acted rashly, before his army was ready–would such impatience have helped him or doomed him faster? Here is an action-packed, blow-by-blow chronicle of the war that might have been–and the repercussions that might have echoed through history–had Hitler reached too far, too soon, and too fast.

Turtledove uses dozens of points of view to tell this story: from American marines serving in Japanese-occupied China to members of a Jewish German family with a proud history of war service to their nation, from ragtag volunteers fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain to an American woman desperately trying to escape Nazi-occupied territory–and witnessing the war from within the belly of the beast.

A novel that reveals the human face of war while simultaneously riding the twists and turns that make up the great acts of history, Hitler’s War is the beginning of an exciting new alternate history saga. Here is a tale of powerful leaders and ordinary people, of spies, soldiers, and traitors, of the shifting alliances that draw some together while tearing others apart. At once authoritative, brilliantly imaginative, and hugely entertaining, Hitler’s War captures the beginning of a very different World War II–with a very different fate for our world today.

My Review: The "Master of Alternate History", per his jacket copy, takes on one of the most popular subjects in all of alternative hitory: WWII. Equaled in numbers of treatments only by the American Civil War, WWII is a target rich environment for armchair historians to play with: Operation SeaLion succeeds (invasion of the UK); the 1944 coup against Hitler succeeds; the 1940 US election returns an isolationist President and the UK reaches terms; Battle of Midway goes the other way; Japan doesn't get nuked, much loss of life in conquering it; etc etc etc blah blah blah. Since 2001, I've read the nasty, hostile, but very interesting posts on the old USENET group soc.hist.what-if, so it takes a LOT to get me interested in something about WWII. Turtledove's fame in the field wouldn't be enough to entice me, I assure you, since I can't *abide* one of his most popular series about aliens landing on earth during WWII.

Here, however, we have something that really piques my interest. It's an actual historical possibility: Chamberlain of England and Daladier of France refuse to hand over Czechoslovakia instead of buying themselves a little longer preparation time by waving bye-bye to their ally as they did on our timeline. (The antique USENET convention for representing alternative history events is to do this: *WWII means the MODIFIED version of the war, where WWII is understood to be the one departed from by the modified version; henceforward, if you see the asterisk, that's what it means.) So *WWII starts in 1938, not September 1939. Poland isn't the first country attacked, and in fact ends up allied to Germany in opposition to its very long-term enemy Russia. The *Spanish Civil War (remember now!) is run by a General Sanjurjo, instead of Franco; the man died for his vanity in OUR reality (called OTL in USENET terms, so again: "OTL" = Our Time Line, the world we learned about in history books). This means for some very cogent reasons that the *Spanish Civil War isn't over when *WWII begins, and there are some significant results from that. The *Japanese, busy raping China into submission as in OTL, realize that one of their longterm ambitions is in easy reach: The conquest of Siberia, with its **astonishing** riches, to add to Manchuria. It's all very plausible, and it's all very tidily constructed.

What Turtledove usually does, he does here: He tells his story through the lens of many different viewpoints on all sides of every conflict. He makes sure the reader sees through American, Russian, Czech, French, Spanish, Japanese, Jewish eyes what the causes and results of *WWII are. All that tidy construction feels quite fragmented, and seems to be an excuse for chaos. In fact, this book could simply not have been written had Turtledove not had a tight and complete grasp of the facts he's departing from, in order to create the modified world. His success is close to complete.

Oh, but the price one pays for following so many, many characters. Nothing ever gets more than set up; the payoff is pages and pages away, several stories of great interest intervening, and sometimes the action sounds quite repetitive because after 40pp the author or his editor thought it'd be a good idea to give a little review of where we left, for examply, Luc Harcourt and Sergeant Demange. Wearing. Action-slowing. Not usually necessary, IM(never-very)HO. But nonetheless, the suspense manages to build, because unlike the OTL history of WWII, the *WWII has events in it we never even heard of! I like that. I like that I can trust Dr. Turtledove to build those events from sound conjectures. And most of the time, I overlook the little inconsistencies (a character bound for Romania suddenly turns up in Berlin, no explanation offered). I like alternative history because I like OTL history, and I like seeing what a storyteller can do with the astoundingly rich vein of material there is in any historical account.

But will this book make converts among those who have not drunk the historical Kool-Aid? No, on balance, I suspect not. I'd never suggest that someone start reading alternative history here. But for those of us already In The Cult, it's a damn good outing and the beginning of a series that promises some very rich rewards.

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