The fifth book in author Harry Turtledove’s The World at War series is probably the most personal. Jaws of Darkness takes the characters we’ve followed all throughout the story Turtledove has been telling and deepens their story. Here they are dealing with the aftermath and consequences of their actions and choices up until this point.
That’s not to say the action or battles are missing from Jaws of Darkness. The entire series is based on the premise of World War II in a fantasy setting where men ride behemoths instead of tanks; dragons fly the skies instead of planes, men slay each other with magical sticks instead of rifles, “eggs” release sorcerous energy as they are either buried in the ground, released from dragons, or tossed from giant “egg tossers”.
The magical energies of this world are generally found on various ley lines which criss-cross the lands. The magical energy in these lines and in life itself is manipulated by mages on both sides. The Algarvians, who are obviously supposed to represent the Germans, have manipulated the life energy of humans to use as a weapon. The only problem with that is they have to kill people to harness that energy. Using the Kaunian people as scapegoats for all that has been wrong with the world, they have had a good supply of lambs for the slaughter.
On the other side of the world, the Kuusano and Lagoan empires, separated from the bulk of the war by an ocean. Have been experimenting with their own magic in Turtledove’s version of The Manhattan Project. As the Unkerlant Empire (USSR), led by the mad King Swemmel, fights the Algarvians on his own turf, these other countries race to perfect their magic.
What’s different in this story is that although the battles present in previous novels is still here, the concentration seems to be more on the story of the people Turtledove has used to tell the story until this point. The vapid noblewoman Krasta made a decision when Algarve first occupied the her country, Valmiera, to make the best of it and took up with an Algarvian Colonel. Now as the Algarvians are pulling out, she faces the consequences of that decision not just for herself but also for the child she is carrying. However, there is a chance that it could be the child of a resistance leader as well – only time will tell.
In the country of Forthweg, Ealstan is a young man who loves a Kaunian woman and has spent the bulk of the war protecting her from Algarvians. Although they also have a newborn daughter to protect, he decides to begin working with the Forthwegian resistance, putting all of them in jeopardy.
In the island nation of Gyongyos (Japan), men defend the islands from the encroaching Kuusanoans. When they are captured and brought to a prison camp on other islands, Istvan and the others must choose whether to follow their Captain in sacrificing themselves to the murderous magic hoping to strike a blow at their captors. Two mages working together to harness energy and direct it against Algarve in the desolate areas of Kuusano give in to their desires and begin an ill-conceived affair. Will this help or harm what they are trying to achieve? At times this story felt more like Peyton Place (especially when Turtledove began follow the exploits of Pekka’s husband, Leino, who has begun his own ill-conceived affair.
The personal stories, always in the background before to the battles being fought are brought to the forefront here. As a precursor to the novel which will finish the series, Out of the Darkness, I could see the tone changing from furthering the course of the war to wrapping up the characters’ stories.
The problems present in the earlier novels are still there. With seventeen different point-of-view characters, it’s a quite difficult read. Turtledove has a listing of all of the characters as well as a map of the “world” at the beginning of Jaws of Darkness and it helps quite a bit. However, he does repeat a lot, and often unnecessarily. By now I am so tired of hearing about Istvan’s scar on his hand because he broke his country’s custom (punishable by death) and ate goat meat. I’m tired of hearing every time his character is brought up about what a secret it is and how only the men of his patrol know. Is Turtledove foreshadowing the fact that Istvan will be the only one left alive at the end of the war? At the end of Jaws of Darkness I don’t yet know and I‘m starting not to care. The joke of the Zuwayza people walking around naked and how much they hate clothes is wearing thin – yet every time the story turns to them it is treated as if the joke is brand-new. The first few times it gave me a chuckle, by now it’s getting annoying. Edit out all of the unnecessary repetition like this and the book would probably be only 555 pages instead of 655.
However, the story is a good one and Turtledove has given the characters enough depth that I care what happens to them to wade through the annoying repetition to learn what is happening to them. The story overall is really good, and well worth investing in, especially if you like the fantasy or alternate history genres.
Previous book in the series (link): Rulers of the Darkness: A Novel of the World at War
Next book in the series (link): Out of the Darkness: A Novel of the World at War