Book Reviews

Book Review: Settling Accounts: Drive to the East by Harry Turtledove – When Pittsburgh Becomes Stalingrad…

Contains spoilers for earlier books in the series

Alternate history is an interesting genre. It takes a pivotal point in history – in this case the Civil War – and supposes what would have happened had things turned out differently. Settling Accounts: Drive to the East is the ninth book that author Harry Turtledove has written in this timeline where the South managed to win the Civil War. That was not the end of the conflict between the two nations with a bitter feeling between them on the North American continent. Two more conflicts would follow, until finally a Nazi-like regime rose up in an embittered Confederacy and decided to settle the question once and for all.

Settling Accounts: Drive to the East picks up pretty much where the last novel, Settling Accounts: Return Engagement left off. The Confederacy has managed to cut the United States in half with a drive up to the Great Lakes. President Al Smith of the U.S. was expected by Confederate “President” Jake Featherston to just roll over and give up. However, Smith did not cave. Dead beneath the rubble of the bombed-out White House in Pennsylvania, this only serves to strengthen the resolve of the U.S. Which has the advantage of more men. However, it’s also fighting a multi-fronted war with an uprising by the Mormons in Utah, another one in Occupied Canada, as well as dealing with the Japanese attempts to drive them from the Sandwich Islands. Great Britain, France and others are aligned with the Confederacy and although they are fighting their own wars in Europe, they are around enough to be nuisances to the U.S.

On the other hand, the Confederacy – while better prepared initially for this most recent conflict – is sorely lacking in men to serve. Even with the multi-front war the U.S. is fighting, they seem to be able to find men to throw at the Confederacy with ease.

Turtledove tells his story through a variety of viewpoint characters. None of them are historically significant to us, although they do interact with the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, George Patton, and Daniel MacArthur. (Although there is this one scene with a certain peanut farmer in Georgia….) These characters are very interesting and most are ones devoted readers have followed since the first novel of the Great War series, The Great War: American Front. They represent a wide variety of backgrounds and viewpoints, such as the Socialist Congresswoman (and former First Lady) from New York, Flora Blackford, U.S. Generals Irving Morrell who commands divisions of barrels (tanks) like nobody else and Abner Dowling who seems intelligent enough most of the time but is a bit less the daredevil than Morrell is. I liked that Morrell’s buddy, Sergeant Pound branched off here to his own point of view. It’s also nice to see Flora’s nephew serving on the Mormon front with a viewpoint character, Armstrong Grimes. Those touches move the story along and create an air of familiarity.

In the Confederacy, there’s Clarence Potter who’s the head of Intelligence but has no great love for it’s President. The evolution of Hip Rodriguez and Jefferson Pinkard through the novels was probably the best I’d seen. Considering Jeff worked alongside Negroes during the Great War in the foundry before being conscripted and found them to be quite hard workers whom he even considered defending at times, the fact that he now runs Camp Determination, the Confederacy’s “final solution” to the Negro uprisings which have plagued them for so long took a bit of doing. The evolution for both of these men was handled well, although I would have thought with Rodriguez’s worries about the place of the Mexican in the Confederacy once all of the Negroes are gone would have weighed on him more heavily.

Andersonville here is seen as a prison camp through the eyes of downed U.S. pilot Jonathan Moss. It’s a good plot as it seems to be going nowhere for quite some time as the men in the camp plot to escape, only to be thwarted by Mother Nature and then helped out as fate throws them a few twists. Who they end up throwing in with is real interesting at the end of this novel and promises to be a good story in the next one in the series.

This is the middle of at least three books in this series. Turtledove has said that there are two more in this timeline,. But the fourth might not have to do with the war but be a coda of sorts. There are a lot of characters with stories to wrap up. However, with so many characters with points-of-view Turtledove is not above killing them off. At least one is certainly gone and I think two are. A third is hinted at either never being heard from again or his demise being at the beginning of the next novel, but Turtledove has pulled the trick before of letting the reader believe someone is dead only to have him still alive. Until I actually stop reading that viewpoint, I won’t be certain any longer.

One of the big problems throughout this series (and many of Turtledove’s novels) has been the degree of repetition. It’s not so bad in Settling Accounts: Drive to the East. I heard a lot less about zinc oxide in this one, as well as not as much about other parts that had continually been repeated until I could recite them from memory. Whenever Clarence Potter is written about, readers are reminded of how he intended to kill Jake Featherston once upon a time and ended up saving him. A lot of the time when Tom Colleton’s point of view is written, he mentions how his sister was killed in the bombing of Charleston and how his brother was gassed. Whenever Armstrong Grimes and Yossel Reisen are brought into play, we hear about who Yossel’s Aunt is and how he wouldn’t let that affect him getting conscripted, just like it didn’t for his Uncle David, who lost a leg in the previous conflict. Get the picture? It does get on my nerves but overall I think Turtledove really cut down on a lot of the repetition in Settling Accounts: Drive to the East.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Settling Accounts: Drive to the East. I thought it was much better than the last few novels in the series, especially those in between the two wars. It’s the first novel in this timeline since the Great War novels which I read through fast and couldn’t wait to devour and see what happened to the characters next. Turtledove managed to create a convincing storyline where the characters seemed to naturally flow into the events that take place, rather than it feeling forced. I’m looking forward greatly to the next book in this series and I’m feeling a bit sorry that I have to wait a whole year for it.


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