Book Reviews

Book Review – The Great War: Walk in Hell by Harry Turtledove

If there’s one definite sentiment in this book, no matter who’s side you’re looking at it from, it’s that war is hell.

This is the second novel in Harry Turtledove’s alternate history series about the first world war. The series itself was set up in his novel How Few Remain where he gives us his version of what would have happened had the Confederacy won the Civil War. Turtledove’s The Great War series sets up the sides for the first World War somewhat differently than what history has actually given us.

The Confederacy is aligned with France, Great Britain, Canada, Russia, and the Japanese against the United States, Austria, and Germany. We hear a great deal about Teddy Roosevelt, who is now the President of the United States, but quite a bit less about his counterpart in the Confederacy.

There is a rivalry between Roosevelt and General Custer – who did not make his “last stand” shortly after the Civil War, but lives on in this novel as an ancient Union General. Other than these two, we hear little about familiar historical figures of the time.

This novel is about the great stalemate of the war. Battles are raging everywhere, yet little progress is being made by any side. All that is rising is the body count as neither the Confederate nor Canadians yield to the United States forces in the least. The Confederacy is also dealing with the uprising of the Socialist Negroes, and the United States is containing a secession attempt by the Mormons in Utah.

Because of the lack of great movement on either side, I found that the novel seemed to drag a bit at times. However, this is the effect I believe Turtledove wants us to feel. How could the people of the time feel about the war when there are so many battles, yet not much actually happening.

Turtledove introduced us to many characters in the first novel of the series, The Great War: American Front, and he follows them throughout this novel. The characters are magnificently written. I felt as if I really knew them as the fighting stretched from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to the Atlantic Ocean. Even as the fighting machines change, the people throughout the story largely remain the same.

And the machines do change. Aeroplanes, once used only for spying on the enemy’s troops, begin to evolve into something with which to take the offensive as machine guns with interrupters are strapped on them. Barrels (or tanks as we know them) are first introduced to move in on enemy lines.

Turtledove is not above sacrificing his characters for the story; something I commend him for and cringe at the same time. I felt an emotional investment with them, though not with any one definite side. Neither the Confederacy nor the United States is completely righteous, making the war all that more grueling.

At times the novel is somewhat hard to follow, as Turtledove jumps around between the various characters. However, this is necessary to convey what is happening to each of them at the same time. It is just as fascinating following a displaced former owner of a Southern plantation as it is the former Atlantic fisherman now drafted into the U.S. Navy; the unhappy Confederate soldier who will forever be denied a promotion; the flying ace over the Canadian provinces; the ambitious Confederate submarine captain; the adjutant trying to stop Custer from causing incredible amounts of death; the Canadian farmers in Manitoba and Quebec who are adjusting to living in an occupied land; and many more.

This novel is not one to be put down and picked back up at will. Since there are so many characters to follow in such a different historical context than we are used to, reading Walk in Hell requires a great deal of concentration.

I highly recommend these writings for people who are history buffs. Those books are usually listed in the science fiction and fantasy area, a person really needs to be able to stick with the historical aspect of the times.

Previous book in the series (link): The Great War: American Front

Next book in the series (link): The Great War: Breakthroughs

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