I’ve never been a fantasy reader before now. The closest I’ve ever come before I picked up this novel is when A Wrinkle in Time was required reading in sixth grade. But being the fan of Harry Turtledove’s work that I am, I finally decided one day in the book store while looking over an intriguing cover of a dragon spewing fire over men riding behemoths that I would have to give this novel a try.
And Turtledove has sucked me into another one of his seemingly endless series of stories.
Into The Darkness: A Novel of the World at War begins with the death of one man – the Duke of Bari. There’s not much to know about him, but he must have been quite a strong leader as this one event sets off a chain reaction of countries rising against each other.
In this world, however, there are no tanks, airplanes, machine guns, or nuclear weapons. This is a world where magic reigns; where men fly on dragons and ride behemoths while protecting the planet’s energy sources, or ley-lines. Sea leviathans are ridden in place of submarines; crystals are used for communication, and magical eggs and sticks take the place of bombs and rifles.
I’d read before plunging in that this was supposed to be the first in a series of novels where World War II is set in a fantasy setting. I found that knowledge beforehand to be quite distracting, and probably one of the reasons I had such a difficult time getting into the novel at first. I kept looking for clues as to which nation was which, obsessed with figuring out which of Turtledove’s fictional countries represented the U.S.A., Great Britain, Japan, France, etc. The only two that were obvious to me were Germany and Russia. About halfway through the book, I decided to stop worrying about who was who and just enjoy the read, and this made it a much better read for me.
The other problem with the novel is just the vastness of it. Imagine looking at World War II from the perspective of people in every nation while events were going on. Could you really follow a story where you have three characters in Germany, Great Britain, France, etc. looking at events from various angles all at the same time? Now take that into the unfamiliar world of Turtledove’s fantasy setting. He has seventeen point-of-view characters at the start of this novel. Thankfully, at the beginning of the novel, there are seven pages he devotes to listing the characters and who they are as I had to flip back there quite a bit during the course of the reading. Following these seven pages is a map of the fantasy world, with important cities highlighted and boundaries are drawn. This also helped a great deal in understanding what was going on.
The good thing about so many characters is there’s no safe bet as to who will survive throughout the series, which I believe right now is into the sixth book. The characters we meet are all different and interesting in their own way, with their own little niche and point to the story. With so much jumping around going on, though, to keep the reader in touch with the character Turtledove repeats himself an awful lot. Every time the story focuses on Krasta, a Marchioness (noblewoman) in Valmiera, do I really need to have it pounded into me just how idiotic and out of touch this woman is with the “common people” of her land? She actually quizzes a servant girl and is incredulous to learn that commoners have oral sex too. Zuwayza is a land where the people walk around with no clothes on. Every time the story focuses on Ansovald, the Unkerlant Minister to Zuwayza we have to either hear how uncomfortable he is without clothes or how uncomfortable Hajjaj, the Foreign Minister of Zuwayza, is with clothes. That’s not to say these don’t make for some humorous story points, it’s just that after the third or fourth time reading about how dense Krasta is or uncomfortable Hajjaj or Ansovald is, it just isn’t that funny anymore.
Still, Turtledove’s writing is great and he does tell a terrific tale, even if it is difficult to read at times. I especially liked reading about the “theoretical sorcery” research in a plot akin to the nuclear research that went on before and during World War II. This section seemed to move at a better pace than some others and was quite interesting, even as Turtledove contrasted a woman who seems to be a genius when it comes to magic but who can’t seem to manage to raise her own child. The magic itself is fascinating, as he writes of Mages who can use the magic to do all sorts of neat things like creating disguises and channel the world’s energy to help the army of their country.
I’m invested with the characters now – Turtledove has hooked me. I want to know what will happen to characters like Vanai, a young woman whose heritage makes her a target for the invading forces of Algarve and is in love with a young man with a different heritage than her own. I want to see how Garivald, a peasant in a small village in Unkerlant will cope with the changes coming to his world when all he wanted was to live his life out in obscurity. Characters like these are what make the novels compelling and make me want to continue to read the series.
If you’re looking for an easy read, definitely skip this book. This book alone comes in at almost 700 pages. The length of the series and complexity of the writing and interaction of the various characters definitely make this book a difficult read and difficult to get into in the beginning. Many people can’t follow a story from various points of view, and jumping around at various intervals between seventeen different characters (plus whomever they interact with) is a daunting task. I can’t say how this measures up to other fantasy novels as this is my first foray into the genre, but from my own point of view, it’s a pretty good read if you’re up to the challenge.
Next book in the series (link): Darkness Descending: A Novel of The World at War by Harry Turtledove