Alternate History is a genre in which the author takes a particular point in history and asks what if something different had happened? In this case, author Harry Turtledove has built several series of novels on the question of What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?
This book picks up where his previous novel, American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold left off. It is the 1930s as the world struggles out of the Great Depression. In the United States, the Democrats are in power but have not succeeded in creating more jobs as thousands still are out of work. Socialist Al Smith from New York is then elected President (the Republicans are nowhere to be seen) and promptly makes some pretty huge mistakes. Although readers know what is coming based on our own history, the characters seemingly do not. Many people also just plain do not want war again and do understand that to avoid it sometimes there are choices to be made that are unpleasant. Still, many do cringe at Smith’s choices, even some of the Socialists who support him.
The Confederacy, meanwhile, elected its first President from the Freedom Party at the end of the previous novel. During the Great War, Jake Featherston saw a potential military career go down the drain due to the politics of the elite. The simmering anger rose and now boils over as he is now the person in charge of those who held him down before. To forestall an uprising by the “red” blacks in the Confederacy – which hurt them greatly during that first world war – he orders any Negro committing even the slightest crime (or any interpretation of one) to be imprisoned in “prison camps”. The “prison camps” were originally set up for those that disagreed with Featherston politically. What is coming, you can probably guess.
The characters Turtledove introduced readers to back in the first of his The Great War novels which survived until this point are still here. Many have aged considerably. Since Turtledove has never shied from killing off characters readers have become invested in, it’s no real surprise that a few of them die off during this novel. What’s interesting is that in the case of Sylvia Enos, the widow of a Navy man whose ship was sunk by a disgruntled Confederate submarine captain after the end of hostilities, as I read about her son who has grown up and become a fisherman just like his father, it felt as if I were reading of how I’d been introduced to his father all over again. It’s a good effect as the two countries are about to collide in conflict once again that I had such a sense of having to go through the same events all over again.
What was most fascinating in the novel, however, was watching Featherston’s dismantling of the Confederacy’s Constitution to suit his own needs and purposes. If you’ve ever wondered how the Nazi Party managed to get in power in Germany and pull off what it did without the outcry of the people, American Empire: The Victorious Opposition really shows how that happens. Even when the Freedom Party stalwarts begin to protest all that he is doing, it is too late. Some of those who have supported him to this point do begin to question. This is illustrated in Hipolito Rodriguez, a citizen of Sonora (which was sold to the Confederacy by Mexico early on in the series) who has three sons of age to serve in the Confederate military. He has qualms at times with what he sees, but the Freedom Party has managed to pull him out from under the subjugation of the local mafia-like kingpin and his corrupt local officials. This has earned the gratitude of many in the area, in addition to the fact that the local Freedom Party leader treats these men with respect and dignity. It also doesn’t hurt that once the Freedom Party rises to power in the Confederacy, electricity comes to Hipolito’s small town and the local silver mine (which when it closed decimated the town back before the Great Depression) is about to open once again.
Turtledove is a terrific writer who has created characters to illustrate certain points of what’s happening during these times and I enjoy the way they seem to fall easily into these roles, rather than end up seeming forced into them. The characters don’t seem to change to illustrate the point he’s trying to make but seem to fit into the circumstances perfectly.
If there’s one thing that makes reading this novel difficult – and it’s true of just about any of Turtledove’s novels – it’s that there are so many characters to follow that he has to jump around quite a bit. He also sometimes makes the same point over and over again in each sequence the character is present. How many times do I have to hear about Nellie Jacobs being a spy for the U.S. when the Confederates occupied Washington? And that she hated men (except for her last husband and possibly her son-in-law) and killed Bill Reach? How many times when Joe Kennedy Sr. enters the picture do I have to hear about his womanizing? How many times does Anne Colleton have to be characterized as a bitch? How many times do I have to hear about Jonathan Moss being the only American lawyer trying to fight for Canadian citizens’ rights under the U.S. occupation?
This goes on and on with many of the characters and after a while, it does wear thin. It’s one of the things that really pulled the novel down for me. Otherwise, this is a terrific continuation of this series as he builds toward a second world war, leaving his readers wondering what the outcome will be. The promise of the next series of novels detailing that war is what makes reading this novel to continue the series worth it.
Previous book in the series (link): American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold
Next book in the series (link): Settling Accounts: Return Engagement