Book Review – Darkness Descending: A Novel of The World at War by Harry Turtledove

A world much different from our own – and at the same time quite similar – explodes into war. The country of Algarve easily conquers Forthweg, Jelgava, and Valmiera. As they begin to move against Unkerlant, they unleash a terrible new weapon of magic on the world; a weapon which uses the life energy of slaughtered Kaunians, an ancient race of people who have become the scapegoats for all that is wrong with the world.

This world is one where dragons cruise the air and leviathans the seas. Ley line criss-cross the planet providing a means of transport and energy. Mages work their magic for such mundane things as stopping the aging process of food products, all the way to cloaking the troops on both land and sea. Magical “eggs” are dropped on the enemy as troopers engage in battle on behemoths.

Into this magical world at war, Harry Turtledove drops a myriad of characters. They are from every country and every walk of life; all the way from the Unkerlanter peasant to a Foreign Minister of Zuwayza. Soldiers on both sides of the fight present different points of view, as do the occupiers with those occupied. This vast spectrum of viewpoint characters (seventeen at last count) can be confusing at times, but it’s necessary to create the feeling of how this world war is playing in out across the globe.

This novel seems to focus much on the battle between Algarve and Unkerlant, which would have been the battle between the Nazis and USSR during World War II. Although Turtledove keeps the story similar enough to be recognized as parallel to those events, it’s not just a complete re-write of events of the Second World War in fantasy terms. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started reading this series was to look for the direct correlation between the countries in the world Turtledove has created in this series of novels with our own world, and it was too distracting and quite hard to do. Once I gave up and just enjoyed the story for what it was, I enjoyed it quite a bit more.

Turtledove manages to keep the stories of the occupied lands as interesting as he does with the area of continuing conflict. Krasta, a noblewoman in occupied Valmiera vacillates between complicity with her Algarvian lover, a colonel in the Algarvian forces, and outrage as both a Kaunian and Valmieran. Her character is conflicted as to what to do. She does so enjoy being a pampered noblewoman and having people at her beck-and-call to do her bidding. At the same time, she realizes that as long as her country is occupied she is not truly free to do as she pleases, no matter how many times she goes shopping when she’s upset. Meanwhile, her presumed-dead brother, Skarnu, wages guerilla warfare against the occupiers from a small farm in another part of the country. It feels as if something bad is building between these two siblings, and the payoff should be good in future novels.

Most of Turtledove’s characters are as well-rounded and engrossing as these two. There are a few that seem to get pushed aside, or that don’t seem to have as much to do. Cornelu is a leviathan captain in the Sibiuan navy. When that country also becomes occupied by Algarve, he manages to escape, but not for long. The strain of being away from his pregnant wife takes it’s toll and he manages to return to the city he once called home, only to find that his wife has been forced to quarter the occupiers. It’s interesting to watch his tale play out, but much of the story with him feels like filler. There’s a few stories that feel like that with all of these characters, and I’m hoping that as the novels go on they will pick up. However, the stories which seem to propel themselves along more than make up for the ones that don’t flow quite as well.

The other problem with the book is the repetitiveness, something which seems inherent in all of Turtledove’s novels. Because he jumps around so much, he feels the need to repeat the characters’ background and events which have happened to them. In some cases, it feels as if every time the character appears we are again reading this over and over again. It’s fine to be reminded – with this many characters it would be all too easy to become confused – but it gets to the point after a while where it bogs the story down. For me, this was especially true in the area of Turtledove’s version of “The Manhattan Project”. He seemed to create reasons to go back to it every now and then simply because he wanted to show that it was still going on, although the story of the research going on here is not quite as interesting as the stories of the battles. Every time he returned to Pekka and her work in theoretical sorcery, she is thinking about how much her son misbehaves, or talking about the sorcerers she works with and how they behave. It’s hammering the same points home over and over again instead of moving the story forward at it’s own pace. However, this does tie into the story’s own version of Pearl Harbor in a quite frightening way. Turtledove also repeats physical characteristics and cultural points – such as the types of clothing worn – over and over again. While it’s fun to see the differences, I couldn’t keep track of who looked like what and what they wore, so the point really gets lost. Perhaps a heavier hand with editing some of the repetitiveness would have shortened the novel from it’s 718 pages in paperback form.

The time-jumps also make it easy to get lost as Turtledove seems to define time elapsing by the seasons. At one point he’s talking about soldiers trying to make it through the snow, then suddenly he jumps to mud-covered battlefields during a spring thaw. Sometimes I had to stop and re-read a section simply because I discovered that more time had passed than I’d initially thought. Also, Turtledove still doesn’t write sex scenes well – he should just avoid them completely.

Although it feels somewhat padded, the story is really great. If you’ve read the first novel in the series, there’s no reason not to continue it as the story itself is fascinating. I don’t know why you would want to pick up the second novel in a series without reading the first, but Turtledove’s repetitiveness makes it easy to do just that should you choose to. I did like the book quite a bit, although it’s not light reading and I found that when I was very tired or easily distracted the stories were much harder to follow than, say, when I had three hours of uninterrupted reading time sitting in an airport. Anyone who enjoys fantasy stories or Turtledove’s other alternate-history works should enjoy this book.

Published by Patti Aliventi

Once upon a time there was this website called Epinions. I wrote thousands of reviews there. I love books, movies, and television; mostly science fiction. I'm a gun-totin', meat-eatin' liberal with libertarian leanings who will voice my opinion.

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