This is the third in the "Atlantis" series from Harry Turtledove which currently consists of
1) "Opening Atlantis"
2) "The United States of Atlantis"
3) This book, "Liberating Atlantis"
This series looks at the history of the United States through the prism of an alternative history world in which there is a large island or small continent in the mid Atlantic. The first book described the discovery of the island, named Atlantis, and its early history, which bore a remarkable resemblance to that of the US colonies up to about the seven years war. The second book essentially tells the story of the American War of Independence but translates it onto the island of Atlantis. This book tells the story of how slavery came to be abolished through a civil war in the mid-nineteenth century, though the parallels with real history are not nearly as close as in the second book.
During that second book, the character who corresponds to the historical George Washinton had an affair with a black slave girl, which resulted in the birth of a son.
"Liberating Atlantis" begins two generations later. Frederick Radcliffe, grandson of the general who defeated the |British and gained freedom for White Atlanteans, is a house slave on a plantation in one of the southern states of Atlantis. He doesn't usually dare use his famous surname within the hearing of his master or other whites because slaves are not supposed to have surnames. Annoying as his servile status is, be knows that as a house slave he is far better off than those blacks and "copperskins" (native Americans brought to Atlantis as slaves) who have to work in the fields. But for an accident he would probably never have chosen to rock the boat. But then events outside his control fill him with a burning sense of an injustice - and a chance to do something about it ...
Turtledove once wrote that alternative history provides a "funhouse mirror" through which we can take a different perspective on real history. He has put this into practice: others have described his novels as having taken their plots from actual events but with different historial and fictional individuals and races playing the same roles.
For example, in his book "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" a Third Reich which had won World War II eventually collapses in exactly the same way that the real Soviet Union collapsed. And Turtledove's massive eleven-book saga which begins with "How Few Remain" tells the dystopian history of a world in which the Confederate States of America won independence and survived for nearly a century but followed almost exactly the historical course which in the real world led Germany to Hitler's Third Reich and the Holocaust.
The parallels with real history are much less close in this book than in "The United States of Atlantis" but they are definately still there and looking for them is one of the more entertaining parts of the book. (I was particularly amused when one of the pro-slavery politicans makes a comment to the commander of the Atlantean army which in real history Abraham Lincoln made to one of his less aggressive generals - "If you don't want to use the army I would like to borrow it for a while.")
Includes a fascinating little passage about the extent to which important individuals affect historical trends. At one point two of the main characters are speculating about what course Atlantean history would have followed if Frederic Radcliffe's grandfather hadn't had the affair with the slave girl and he had never been born. They come to the conclusion that the particular war they are involved in would not have happened, but within a few decades something similar probably would have.
Turtledove also puts into the thoughts of his characters ideas which foreshadow future events. One or two of the characters in "The United States of Atlantis" (including, ironically, Frederick Radcliffe's grandfather) were more than a little uncomfortable that their fight for freedom for White Atlanteans did not include anything similar for blacks or "copperskins" in the southern part of the continent. Similarly, in this book two of the main characters opposed to slavery become uncomforably aware that some of the worst injustices against Atlantean women, white or black, will not be abolished with slavery. In both books the characters concerned reluctantly come to the conclusion which can be summarised as "one battle at a time."
All the books Turtledove writes seem to get slammed by some readers who hate them and praised by others who loved them. I am quite certain that this will be no exception. I enjoyed reading this series.
While none of the Atlantis books are a work of genius like "The Guns of the South" or "The Two Georges: The Novel of an Alternate America" they are nevertheless among Harry Turtledove's better novels. I liked the characters, I thought the action was well paced, the descriptions imaginative, the sequence of historical events broadly plausible. And he keeps his tendancy to repeat things too much reasonably well in check!