In this third novel in his fantasy series, author Harry Turtledove continues the story of the second world war where dragons have replaced fighter planes; behemoths have replaced tanks, leviathans replace submarines, beams and sticks have replaced bullets and guns, and magic is everywhere.
At this point in the series, it would be difficult to pick up this novel and understand what’s going on. Sure, it’s easy to catch that the aggressive Algarvians slaughtering Kaunians is synonymous with the German slaughtering of the Jews, but in this novel, it’s not simply a matter of the Algarvians blaming the Kaunians for everything that’s gone wrong for them. Instead, they use the life force of the Kauninans to unleash terrifying magic; one that Unkerlant must match if it is to fend off the invaders. There is also a “Manhattan Project” going on as mages in the nation of Kuusamo try to formulate a magic that will have at least as devastating an effect as the Algarvian magic but do so in a way that doesn’t involve the slaughter of humans.
If you’ve been reading the series all along, you’ll have an investment in the characters, and that’s what keeps the book moving. Since there are somewhere in the area of seventeen different point-of-view characters to follow, it can make following the story as it skips around quite difficult. It’s also the reason Turtledove seems to repeat himself over and over again.
For instance, Vanai is a young Kaunian woman in occupied Forthweg, living with her Forthwegian lover, Ealstan. Practically every time Turtledove focuses on her character, he feels the need to bring up the fact that she submitted to an Algarvian Colonel in exchange for keeping her elderly grandfather off of the work crews. The repetition wore on me, especially since the facts have often been repeated through the other books as well. How often do I need to hear how rambunctious and misbehaved Uto, (the child of Pekka, a Kuusamo Mage) is?
For this reason, the story also seems to bog down in spots and plod along. That can be a good thing in some ways as it also serves to illustrate what’s happening in the war. The main fighting is going on in Unkerlant, and mostly between the Algarvians and Unkerlanters. The fighting really doesn’t seem to go anywhere in this novel as Algarve drives toward the mines in the Mamming Hills containing cinnabar needed for the dragons. The Unkerlanters draw the line at the town of Suligen and everything seems to bog down there.
Turtledove has created sympathetic characters on every front. The Algarvian, Transone, is a soldier doing what he is told, even if he is on the “wrong” side. This is a counter to the Algarvian nobles who occupy the various countries and seem to take great delight in rubbing the residents’ faces in it. At the same time, we see how war affects people in different ways, such as Cornelu, a leviathan rider in exile from occupied Sibiu where his wife became a little too friendly with the Algarvina occupiers while he was in hiding. He is mostly portrayed riding his leviathan on various missions for Lagoas. However, feeling that his future in Sibiu is in doubt, he is also thinking about getting on with his life with other Sibiuan natives in Lagoas.
The best plot point, however, in this novel seems to be the detailed following of the Kuusamo “Manhattan Project”. Turtledove seemed to return to that storyline more frequently than any other here. He portrays the mages working with the same urgency and camaraderie as scientists did at the time, and this is one of the main reasons the novel doesn’t bog down. Vanai’s story is also interesting as she is essentially “locked away” afraid to go out of the flat she shares with Ealstan lest she is taken to be used by the Algarvinas in their terrible magic. Her need to get outside of the four walls confining her leads her to experiment with spells from a book Ealstan has brought her.
Turtledove still doesn’t write any sex scenes that well, but he almost seems to be realizing it here as he refrains from getting too graphic and seems to gloss over it. The only other downside could possibly be Turtledove’s cynical and inept portrayal of the Yaninans, who are the equivalent of the Italians. He has changed enough all around that it can’t be taken as a literal portrayal of the Italians, but the possible inference as to their cowardice and ineptness might be offensive to some.
This is a complicated novel and hard to follow at times. I really only recommend it if you’ve read the first two novels in the series. If you’ve invested yourself in the series up until this point, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Previous book in the series (link): Darkness Descending: A Novel of The World at War by Harry Turtledove
Next book in the series (link): Rulers of the Darkness by Harry Turtledove