Book Reviews

Book Review: Out of the Darkness: A Novel of the World at War by Harry Turtledove – Which Costs More, Winning or Losing?

Harry Turtledove has taken the Second World War and masterfully translated it into a fantasy world of dragons and behemoths; of ley lines and magic; of sticks and eggs which release sorcerous energy….

In the sixth and final book of the Darkness series, we’re at the point where we know it’s going to end. The question is how the sixteen different viewpoint characters we’ve been following throughout the series will fare. Several of the characters come together as the Kuusaman mage Pekka must use all of her connections and influence to help save Talsu, a young tailor wrongly accused of collaboration in the nation of Jelgava.

Turtledove keeps up the action with some magnificent battles as the Algarvians (his equivalence to the Germans) fight for their existence. If defeated, they know the price their enemies will exact on them will be high for their slaughtering of people of the Kaunian race in order to unleash a terrible and destructive magic.

Meanwhile, the Kuusamans are perfecting a destructive magic of their own in this universe’s version of the Manhattan Project. Without using the life energy of humans, they have managed to create a weapon of unlimited potential which can be sent across an ocean. Their target is the island nation of Gyongyos, a race of warriors who will fight to the last man.

Turtledove’s descriptions of the battles and the use of magic and it’s effects is vivid and magnificent. I could picture in my mind the terrible powers unleashed and the horrible aftermaths. Likewise, his descriptions of the effect of the war on the physical continent of Derlavai is sobering. No one really seems to “win” here as the fallout and destruction in almost every nation is staggering.

Now the post-war maneuvering begins. Whether it’s Skarnu positioning himself to be seen in a better light than his sister, Krasta; Marshal Rathar positioning himself not to be seen by the mad King Swemmel of Unkerlant as a threat, Swemmel trying to position his nation so it isn’t threatened by the emerging super-power of Kuusamo – the politics takes over and an air of desperation and paranoia takes over in the interaction between some of the nations.

By having characters we’ve followed for so long through the series, Turtledove has managed to bring the war and its fallout to a personal level. As much as I was rooting for Krasta to get her comeuppance, when it finally happened I ended up feeling somewhat sorry for her. It’s not quite as black and white as it seems to those looking at the situation she was in – what she did was in her own self-interest and if she hadn’t been something of a collaborator, she would have been dead. On the other hand, several times she helped the underground (albeit inadvertently) and one time even helped the Viscount Valnu from being executed by her lover.

I was rooting for the romance of Pekka and Fernao, a mage from Lagoas. I was rooting for Vanai and Ealstan, the young couple from Forthweg, to be together in the end. The mysterious Garivald with more power and intelligence than many educated far more than him I wanted to see good things for after all of the terrible events. Not every story is resolved in a positive way, but Turtledove manages to give each storyline its own poignancy and meaning while at the same time staying true to the universe he’s created.

The biggest problem is the jumping around between characters and the repetition, a complaint I’ve had before about Turtledove’s writing. With sixteen different viewpoints to look at world events from, each setting is generally given about four pages of “action” before jumping to the next story. At times that’s hard to follow, which I think is the reason for all the repetition. However, at this point in the series if readers haven’t invested themselves enough that they can remember facts about the characters, why are they still reading?

I would never suggest starting the series here. Go to the beginning if you like fantasy and./or alternate history. I’d never read anything in the fantasy genre before this series, and I would sure like to try reading more now. Overall, he’s done a fine job “wrapping up” the story, although I felt as if I wanted to know more. I wanted to know if and how the cold war develops and plays itself out between Unkerlant and Kuusamo. Will Kaunians regain their place in the world? Will Algarve be able to rise again out of the ashes their empire has become?

It’s a fascinating take on our history. Turtledove has really outdone himself.

Previous book in the series (link): Jaws of Darkness: A Novel of the World at War

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