Book Reviews

Book Review – The Great War: Breakthroughs by Harry Turtledove

In this novel, Harry Turtledove wraps up his alternate-history saga of the first World War. My one piece of advice here is to use the map at the front of the novel and use it often. I did, if for nothing else than to keep track of where everyone was.

The premise of the series is that the Confederacy won its bid for freedom during the Civil War, and for the third time in fifty years, they go head-to-head with the United States. This time is different: the United States has as its ally the powerful German and Austrian armies. The Confederacy is aligned with Canada, Great Britain, France, and Russia (with the Japanese thrown in for a good skirmish every now and again).

After finishing the previous novel, The Great War: Walk In Hell, which felt like I was sitting through extra innings at a zero-zero baseball game, it was refreshing to finally see some movement in the war effort. Just who begins making the breakthroughs? Well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Throughout the three novels in this series, Turtledove has woven a great selection of characters from all sides of the war. To really know them, a reader should start with the first novel of the series, or it will seem like they are not given depth here; the depth comes from the history we have of their involvement in the war over the last three years. Turtledove is not above sacrificing his characters – not everyone he began following in the first novel The Great War: American Front will survive. It would be unrealistic in many ways to expect this, yet I had become so attached to certain ones that I teared up at the news of their death – and was flooded with relief when one such interesting character manages to cheat death.

Turtledove describes with great detail the advent of modern war machines. Tanks, or “barrels” as they are called here come to be a real deciding factor in who is victorious. Yet my favorite part was the description of the flying aces in their machines. The war evolves greatly during the novels – the flying aces remark on it often. And it is interesting to see how fast it has all changed and who has managed to capitalize on it the best.

The Canadians were starkly contrasted with each other as well. Though none were happy at the beginning of the war with the United States’ invasion, the citizens of the eastern province of Quebec have a much different reaction than the residents of centrally-located Manitoba. Hate has also come full circle here as we see what happens when a very intelligent man loses a child and lashes out at the occupiers.

We also see the hate coming full circle in other places. Though the United States was very happy to help arm the Socialist Negroes for their uprising in the Confederacy and create havoc, they are not welcoming to the black population at all. Factory workers who went off to fight in the South watched their jobs be taken over by former field hands and eventually see these same men who were shooting at them in the Red uprising handed a gun and a commission by their own Confederate government. How will the aristocracy who once flourished on the backs of the Negroes react? How will the disenfranchised white soldier returning from war react?

If there’s one fault to the novels it’s just how much they do jump around. For a casual reader, it’s easy to get lost and not be able to follow all of the stories and remember who is doing what and where. On the other hand, I enjoyed seeing so many different angles of the conflict. More than once, characters we have gotten to know in totally separate instances come together in The Great War: Breakthroughs on opposite sides. Who do I root for? I have come to like both people for different reasons.

We also don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the world during this time. I felt at times as isolated from the European continent as the soldiers did; they did not seem to have much of an idea of what was going on over there at various times. We are given quick snippets of information at times when it seems crucial to the story. I suppose with as many fronts as Turtledove is following, anything more would’ve made it a lot more confusing.

For the most part, Turtledove has kept his novels showing the war through the eyes of the common man, rather than pivotal historical figures. We have watched the Socialist Flora Hamburger rise from virtual obscurity to her own seat in the House of Representatives, but who has ever heard of this woman? With the notable exception of General Custer and President Theodore Roosevelt, we see just how much the war affects the average citizen; the average soldier.

The novel ends with many of the stories not wrapped up. Yet this is the end of the series… Turtledove, I believe, has become as enamored of the characters he developed as we have. There is another series about to begin: American Empire.

I am looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Previous book in series (link):

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