on 3 October 2010
Like the curate's egg, this is definitely a book that is good in parts. Yet I give it 4 stars, almost reluctantly, because it nevertheless compelled me to keep reading, devouring it over a weekend.
Basically, this is the concept - the what-if of war over Czechoslovakia in 1938. Included alongside the imagined path of history from there are themes and events taken from reality, such as the feeble French advance on the outbreak of war, which happened as described, only in response to war over Poland; the French tendency to disperse their (generally better) tanks; the importance of the Czech fortifications and the Skoda works; the original German plan for invading the West (which was only changed in Spring 1940); the German generals' plot against Hitler in 1938. There are accurate depictions of some battle scenes and outcomes, such as the vulnerability of the Stuka to any other aircraft and the failure of any Luftwaffe attack on the UK, especially while the Battle for France was still going on. The effect of the wider war on the Spanish Civil War was well done, though I'm not sure why the survival of Gen Sanjurjo was included, save that it explained the attack on Gibraltar.
Harry loves to put in a few allusions and references to an eclectic mix of sources. Here, my favourite, by a long way is "Back in the USSR. Sergei Yaroslavsky didn't realise how lucky he was..". (p 91)
Perhaps the best effect of this and others of Harry's books is that it makes you genuinely root for the right side. I noticed this in his 'Return Engagement' series - not only did the Confederates feel evil, but so too, by extension, did the real Nazis. Naturally, we all know slave-owning is bad and the Nazis were almost unbelievably evil, but Harry makes you FEEL that as well as know it.
Things that could be seen as good or bad are also evident. The story is overwhelmingly given from the point of view of ordinary fighters. That certainly gives a consistent style and generally realistic feel to the action, but it is somewhat repetitive (both in feel and often in specific words and phrases) and it can make it harder to follow the overall picture. Similarly, most of the explanation/conversation centres around smoke breaks. Again, undoubtedly realistic, but repetitive. The characters seem to be almost interchangeable (as noted in another review) - unlikely given the gulfs of social and cultural difference between the Soviet, Nazi, Japanese, American, British and French people of the time. However, it could be seen (along with the universal obsession with cigarettes) as a (perhaps blunt) way of showing the basic humanity of all those actually at the sharp end.
The success of the German advance into France is used to illustrate the power of the new German tactics, but given that a re-run of the Schleiffen Plan was exactly what the Allies expected, and so they placed their best units to meet such an attack, and that the Panzer I's and II's were fatally vulnerable even to anti-tank rifles, I would think the Germans would run out of steam well before the outskirts of Paris.
The technical details are very well done, but I waited in vain for an appearance of the British Matilda II to make a dramatic attack, as they did against Rommel in France, but this time properly supported as a result of hard-learned lessons of the war up till then.
The dialogue, notwithstanding the notes above, is littered with bits of actual foreign language, like the old film convention of the Germans speaking in English, but with a German accent. It also has everyone speaking like Americans and using American idioms, as well as Harry's established favourites, well used in all his books. Again, this might be acceptable as a convention (even with a preface explaining it) to put all the characters on a par for the reader, but this is rejected in favour of stereotypical phrases (the Brits say 'bloody' a lot, as noted elsewhere). A particular, but mercifully short-lived, example was the attempt to write in aCockney accent: arguably the worst few lines in the book. The only place this made sense was in the increasing use of Yiddish by the Jewish family, as that would be secondary to their main language and signifies their shift of identity from German to Jewish.
Harry consistently rates the German Army of 1938 to be superior to the Kaiser's, especially of 1914, when actually the reverse is true, being one of the main worries of the German generals regarding Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. Bar the still small cadre of professionals the conscript masses of 1938 were not as well trained (even motivated?) as those in 1914. This is utterly unsurprising - three years is not enough time to transform an army of thousands to one of millions. Similarly, Harry has the Czech armament works overrun, then producing tanks again inside a couple of weeks at most. Even if it is allowed that only the tanks captured were at issue, a) there would not be enough to equip 4 Panzer divisions (as in 1940) and b) in any event, new divisions, especially armoured ones cannot be formed and activated on the hoof.
Regarding the use of snorkels on U-boats, there is a similar telescoping of possible events. Given that the Germans actually overran the Netherlands in 1940, but took about 2 years to be experimentally fitted to a U-boat, the sheer short-sightedness, obstructionist, stupid and corrupt effects of procurement bureaucracies (of any army in any age) should not be underestimated. Harry has things moving with fantastic smoothness here.
The worst error (or the one that grates me the most) was Harry's confusion regarding the word 'Whermacht', which he thinks means 'Army'. Actually, it means 'Armed Forces' ie the army, navy and air force, while the correct word for the German WW II army is 'Heer'. Unfortunately, that doesn't sound as sexy and threatening as 'Whermacht' so it often gets submerged, while 'Luftwaffe' and even 'Kreigsmarine' survive correct usage.
Despite everything, you can't help buying and enjoying Harry's books. Indeed, the picking of flaws and disagreeing with the scenarios are part of the fun. More power to Harry's elbow (but do use a wider variety of dialogue).
on 19 February 2011
I first began to read Harry Turtledove books when he published the World War II series and was blown away by the concept of an alien invasion at the height of the Second World War. Since then I've read several of his novels but have always been somewhat disappointed. This novel, I'm afraid, follows a similar pattern. However, I am convinced that my negative reaction to this novel and the others I've read is purely personal and that makes writting a good review difficult. The reason for this is that I was once a university lecturer in modern history and I am intimately acquainted with the subject matter of the novel. There are for me then simply no real surprises in terms of the plot and I'm left with only the action of the novel with which to judge it. And this is where the real problem begins for me, because I'm not eagerly turning the pages to see how the plot will unfold and I found the action a bit "samey." For me it is a simple description of men in combat with little point to it. However, if you're not intimately acquainted with how the original German plan to invade France was abandoned during the winter of 1939/40 and replaced with the plan to invade with a strong armoured punch through the Ardennes, then this novel might be a bit of an eye opener. The trouble for me is that the actual history of the period is simply more interesting and surprising than this novel. Sorry Mr.Turtledove!
on 9 April 2010
Harry Turtledove writes some of the best war and alternate history around. That said, even Harry can write something like this in his sleep. If you look at his website, this is the first in a projected five/six book series and he is taking his time introducing us to his menu of characters. Like most of his series, there are people a plenty and it takes time to explain their situations and how the war is effecting them.
But, this book has the feel of half-a-book, there is such a thing as too much characterization. By the end of the novel I have learned four new ways to say "F..k you". Now that may serve me well sometime in the future, but I'd like to understand more of the history and less of the alternate. Strangely enough, of all the nations fighting in this "WW 2", no one Italian has shown up yet, and the only Chinese is a servant in the US Embassy in Peking. So that's why I think this isn't the whole first book. The second, called "East West" (snappy title) is probably that second half and maybe is the bringing of the US into the war.
The third book due in 2012 (if we live that long) is titled "The Big Switch", which portents that one of the major Allies or Axis will switch sides or come in on a different side (probably the former) to make this more of an alternate as opposed to a replay. So we'll just have to wait and see.
on 22 December 2010
This book is typical Turteldove but, I'm sorry to say, not up to his normal standard. The main story in itself is interesting, WW2 in 1938 with much of the technology (and better plans) available in 1939 still missing.
The story is mostly described as experienced by lower levels in the military hierarchy which makes for a rather near-sighted outlook. Disregarding some technical mistakes like which control moves the ailerons on an plane etc the goings on are fairly plausible. But to assume that civilian life in Germany a couple of months after outbreak of war would be the same as they were in, say, 1944 is ridiculous. My main area of critique, however, centers on the endless repetitions of more or less identical event descriptions. If it is so difficult to get variation into the battle descriptions as seen by the foot soldier, tank commander or bomber pilot then mr Turteldove could have introduced characters from higher up levels of the hierarchy. That would have made for more variation and at the same time made the book far more interesting. The book now gives the impression that the author did not care enough, or did not have the time, to do a proper job.
Having said all that, I still have to admit that I'm looking forward to a sequel, the main idea behind the book is that interesting that I would like to see how it all ends!
on 13 August 2010
What if World War Two broke out a year earlier, during the Czech Crisis of 1938? That is the premise of Harry Turtledove's new alternate history novel, Hitler's War. Germany invades Czechoslovakia in September 1938. As a result, Britain, France and the Soviet Union declare war on Germany. Poland more fearful of Stalin than Hitler, ends up going to war against the Soviet Union.
I found this novel an enjoyable read. There are a few subtle differences in the politics of the time. For example, although the Soviet Union is fighting against the Nazis, they are not quite allies with Britain and France.
The action takes place mainly in Europe, with a bit of attention given to the Japan and the Soviet Union's ambitions in the Far East. There is a rarely a dull moment in the storyline, which is a real roller coaster ride, with a large cast of characters.
Unfortunately, which such an vast amount of characters, it is hard for the author to go too much in-depth about each one, but as this is the first volume of series, I am sure we will learn a lot more about them, in future installments.