At the point that I began reading Settling Account: Return Engagement by Harry Turtledove, I was well invested in the series. There were seven books to the series before this one. I was looking forward to reading this since Turtledove seems to write much better about wartime than he does about the peace in between.
Settling Account: Return Engagement takes place in an alternate timeline where the Confederacy managed to win the Civil War. They fought with the United States twice since then. The first time they were victorious, the second time they weren’t. This laid the ground for the Nazi-like Freedom Party to rise up and gain control of the Confederacy, headed by the self-righteous lunatic Jake Featherston.
Al Smith is the Socialist President of the United States. He’s tried to maintain peace, but that’s not what Featherston wants. The two nations clash once again in a vicious battle.
The Confederacy has attacked the United States. Featherston was on the front lines to see what went wrong last time, so here he’s shrewder than the military elite in the Great War (World War I) was. He also doesn’t mind going against some of the “rules of war” by trying to assassinate specific military personnel on the U.S. side who he knows are the biggest threats to him.
He also doesn’t mind encouraging the Mormons in Utah to rise up again and give the U.S. difficulty. At the same time, the Negroes in the Confederacy are somehow getting arms and mines. Featherston has a devious plan for the Negroes, however, and although they have some wind of what’s going on, the complete picture isn’t clear to them although it is to me since I know what happened to the Jews in Germany during World War II.
The pacing of this novel is good – better than some of the others before this one. Instead of the feeling of the war plodding along, the modern warfare using barrels (tanks), artillery, planes as bombers, and trucks for troop movement give the novel a faster pace. The speed with which some events happen is good and propels the story along nicely.
However, the repetition is enough to make me crazy. This isn’t the first book Turtledove has done that with, and I am sure it also won’t be the last. It seemed that every time Irving Morrell was brought up, I had to hear again about how the United States dropped the ball building barrels (tanks) to be prepared for war. Every time Sam Carsten is brought up I hear about his sunburn and how the zinc oxide ointment does nothing for him (oh give him skin cancer already and put me out of his misery). Every time the Scipio/Xerxes character who lives in Augusta, Georgia is brought up, I hear about how awful it is to be black, how awful they are treated, how dangerous it is to live in “The Terry” and how his “penguin suit” from working as a waiter at the Huntsman Lodge keeps him from getting in trouble for being out past curfew. Finally, there is Mary Pomeroy, the Canadian who has a penchant for bombing things. Every time the story wanders around her way, I hear about how much she hates Yankees, how her father and brother were killed by them, how she has to be careful and not get caught, etc.
The other problem for some people with the amount of jumping around Turtledove does. There are no fewer than thirteen point-of-view characters. To propel the story along, there is frequent jumping to each character. I could follow it no problem, but for some people, it might be a tad confusing and hard to follow.
If the story weren’t so fascinating, I would probably give up. At 623 pages in my hardcover, I think at least 100 pages could have been shaved off if the editing of the repetition was done with a heavier hand. Turtledove has drawn me in with the characters he’s created and let me see various aspects of what’s going on at the same time. I’m not wondering what’s happening in California, because there are characters set there. I know what’s going on in Confederate Intelligence because there’s a point-of-view character there. I know what’s going on in Congress in the U.S. because the Socialist Congresswoman from New York is still there.
Turtledove also only gives a cursory paragraph or two throughout the novel about what’s going on elsewhere in the world. I would have liked to have heard more about that. I wonder if France and the U.K. will be sticking with their alliance with the Confederacy once what is happening to the Negroes there is more public. The pictures have been brought out of the Confederacy and despite Flora Blackford’s best efforts as the previously mentioned Congresswoman, it seems to be glossed over by the government. That is until she starts asking questions about some budget items that don’t seem to add up and suddenly everyone in the President’s administration is stumbling over themselves to do whatever she wants.
This is what makes it impossible to skip the sections. Most of it might seem like a repetition of the same thing over and over again, but there are little clues as to what’s coming that are dropped in. These snippets might seem like nothing right now, but the payoff on them will be coming down the road. Turtledove could write it tighter, however. There is a scene where Featherston has a meeting with a physics professor who is onto the theory of nuclear bombs. However, Featherston brushes him aside feeling that the professor is just looking for money. That conversation is brought up about three more times in the book. I think it would have been more effective to just drop the whole thing until the point came where maybe Featherston should remember the conversation.
All complaints aside, I enjoyed the book quite a bit and I know I will be devouring the next two in the series. I wish he would do more than three for World War II in the United States/Confederacy vein as I think there’s a lot of ground to cover and he’ll have a hard time squeezing all of that in. The story is very good and told very well, with more detail than many other alternate history novels because of all the characters he uses. I have my pre-order in for the second novel in the series coming out in August.
Previous book in the series (link): American Empire: The Victorious Opposition by Harry Turtledove
Next book in the series (link): Settling Accounts: Drive to the East by Harry Turtledove