Alternate history is a genre that examines what if history had happened a little bit differently. I enjoy reading that very much and Harry Turtledove is considered one of the top writers in this genre. There are things I love about his stories and some things that have vexed me over the years I’ve been faithfully reading him. Right here, this series begins letting me down.
The premise here is that England and France did not try to appease Hitler, but jumped into the war early on. With war on the European continent breaking out early, there are many things that were happening that were different. On top of that, there was some political intrigue going on in England. The up-and-coming Winston Churchill is hit by a car and killed. Coincidence?
What that means, though, is that there is no Churchill with single-minded opposition to Hitler in place as Prime Minister. For this novel, that is very important. With the United States, still neutral in the European conflict, England and France start getting more nervous about what was going on in the Soviet Union, despite the fact that they are supposed to be allies against Germany. Indeed, the Soviet interference in the Civil War going on in Spain greatly worries France. Perhaps having Germany as a buffer between France and the Soviet Union, isn’t such a bad thing…
You can guess from the title what happens. England and France switch sides and begin fighting with Germany against the Soviet Union. In the defense of all of these enemies, the Soviets pull back aid from Spain and troops from the Eastern front in Siberia where they have been battling the Japanese.
It may not seem like it now, but after having fought the first World War only twenty years before this, many in Europe were not enthusiastic to fight again. This was why, in our reality, Hitler was appeased for as long as he was. In this reality, the desire for a quick wrap-up of the conflict motivates England and France to take a drastic, and ill-advised, step. Had Churchill remained alive, the argument is that it wouldn’t have happened.
Turtledove narrates the story from a variety of perspectives. Most are everyday people somehow caught up in the conflict. The characters are interesting, but the problem is he repeats so much about the characters every time he shifts to their point of view in the novel. We know Sarah is unhappy as a Jew in Germany, but every single time the narrative is switched to her character it’s reinforced with little done to advance the character. He’s covering a large territory here with characters from so many perspectives that it seems this book is more bogged down than most as he moves toward the climax of the change in sides. The same is true over and over again, and that is the weakness of this series. In this book, it seems more pervasive than in the past.
There’s not much happening in the United States, except a Philadelphia socialite who was trapped in Eastern Europe when Hitler first invaded is trying to convince the country just how dangerous the Germans are. There is an eye on Japan in the Pacific, but mostly the States are existing in post-Depression ignorance wanting to practice isolationism.
I’m not sure I buy the premise that England and France would have switched sides after initially having declared war on Germany. The characters feel tired here and don’t really seem to develop that much. If I wasn’t committed to seeing the series through to the end, I likely would stop here.
Previous book in the series (link): West and East: The War That Came Early
Next book in the series (link): Coup d’Etat: The War That Came Early