Harry Turtledove is perhaps the most prolific author in the genre known as alternate history. This is where an author takes a moment in history and wonders what if something happened a little differently.
In the case of Turtledove’s War That Came Early series, he ponders what would have happened had British Prime Minister Chamberlain stood up to Hitler earlier and not practiced appeasement?
When Hitler invades Czechoslovakia, war breaks out and everyone on the European side of the Atlantic takes sides. Turtledove uses multiple point-of-view characters to tell the story within the battles as well as among various citizens of the countries affected. A wealthy Philadelphia socialite is trapped in Germany, a Jewish family in Germany attempts to serve their country all the while worried they will be the next ones to disappear, an American Marine in Singapore falls for a Russian prostitute, Japanese soldiers in Siberia battle the Russians and the elements, a German pilot frets over a half-Jewish Polish woman while piloting one of Germany’s best weapons, a Russian pilot fears the German pilots, a German U-Boat Captain attempts to make-up for his accidental sinking of an American ship, and a British soldier worries about getting home after the Germans send them on the run in northern Europe. If that’s not enough, the Spanish Civil War rages with perspective from an American Jew who volunteered to go fight prior to the European War breaking out.
Other than Turtledove’s fantasy series, I think this is the most characters on the canvas at one time. However, they suffer from the same problems in many of the other series’ he’s written. Every time he shifts the scene back to a character, we get a repetition of everything that’s gone on in their lives. I get that things are miserable in Germany for Jews. I get that the socialite misses her husband greatly. I get that there’s a lot of mud in Russia in the spring. I get the the KGB and Secret Police can make things miserable for soldiers. I get it all – over and over again.
What Turtledove does do right is craft a story that feels as if it could happen had something gone different. There are details that work with the change – such as the Polish fighting with Germany against the Russians, rather than having been invaded by Germany. There’s the weariness in everyone who remembers the war that ended less than 20 years earlier that seems to haunt them.
Many names familiar to history appear here but events do not take place as you might expect them to, due to the nature of the story. I felt this particularly with England as citizens sympathetic to the Nazis combined with weariness of battling the Germans just a few years earlier created quite a different narrative. Could things have evolved this way, particularly if certain figures did not have power? It’s interesting to see Turtledove make the case for it.
West and East is not for the casual reader. I can’t see putting the time into it unless you’re committed to the entire six-book series. Even then, I found the repetitiveness frustrating at times and I had to take a break between books in the series, rather than blow through them quickly. I did feel the book is more accessible to people, meaning you don’t have to have a degree in history to appreciate it.
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