on 30 July 2006
And the war slogs on. Harry Turtledove's Settling Accounts: The Grapple continues his alternate history of the second world war, in a world where the Confederate States still exist and they are run by a Hitler-like madman who is intent on wiping out the black population. In my review of Drive to the East, I mentioned that I was getting a bit sick of the wrestling metaphors (how the Confederates needed a knockout punch, but since it wasn't delivered, they were in the wrestling match of their lives). So what does Turtledove do? He continues using the metaphor and puts it in the title! Despite some big problems with this book, I do have to say it's probably the best book in the series so far. Yes, many of Turtledove's normal faults are there, but he's eliminated some others and actually strengthened some other areas. It's not a wonderful book on its own, but compared to the rest, it's definitely up there.
The Confederate army is retreating in disarray from Stalingrad...I mean, Pittsburgh. The United States destroyed a whole army in that inferno, and has now taken the momentum away. General Irving Morrell, the flashy "barrel" (tank) commander, wants to continue driving a wedge through the entire Confederacy, and it's becoming apparent that he can do it. The Confederates are on their heels, retreating so they don't get cut off, and losing ground in huge chunks. Could the war be over soon? Meanwhile, the "final solution" for the black people in the Confederacy continues, though US troops are coming close to the biggest extermination camp, Camp Determination, which may add impetus to the attempt by some people in the North (notably, Senator Flora Blackford) to get the word out about what is going on. Jake Featherston, dictator, madman, and president of the Confederacy, can't allow that to happen. But the more troops he sends to defend the camp, the less he has to defend the rest of the country. Things are looking incredibly bleak for the Confederacy. But the race to build a "uranium bomb" may hold the key to the end of the war.
Let me get my normal complaint about Turtledove out of the way so I can go on to the rest of the book. Yes, the repetition in this book is monotonous. He insists on introducing characters again and again, having them say the same things (I don't know how many times we are told that the Confederates were supposed to win a one-punch victory, or that Featherston should have listened the first time to the scientist who brought the idea of the uranium bomb). The good thing is, he's found new things to repeat, and stopped repeating a few others! There's barely a mention of zinc-oxide cream for Sam Carstens' light complexion, for example. In the last book, he compensated for not repeating this by repeating almost everything else. This time, it's not quite that bad. There is some justification for introducing your characters multiple times (I don't agree with it, but it does exist), but there is none for repeating the same actions, phrases, or figures of speech over and over again.
Which brings us to another problem with the book. A lot of the individual character sequences start to sound the same after a while. This is most notable in the scenes with Dr. O'Doull. He's a combat surgeon, and every time we see him (except one sequence where he's back home on leave), he's patching people up, commenting on patching people up, and making jokes or philosophical observations with his combat medic. None of these scenes advance the plot or the themes much. We get the fact that war is terrible, that a doctor's work is never done in a war zone. To a lesser extent, this is the case for most of the scenes in the book. Yes, he often gives the characters (except O'Doull) something new to do, but the scenes still have a basic sameness to them. It's like we're treading ground while waiting for the war to end. And it almost does, though not until the next book.
That being said, perhaps my statement that this is the best book in the series isn't saying much. It does, however, have some strengths. As always in this series, I love the plotting, wondering what Turtledove's going to do with the war. His inclusion of car and "people" bombs brings a bit of contemporary feeling to the book, and the fear they bring is palpable. I loved the scenes with the two black groups of rebels rampaging through Georgia. He's introduced a couple of new characters to make up for a couple of deaths, though he then kills a couple more main characters off. I love the fact that you have no idea who's going to live or die in this series, and all of the deaths seem unforced by the narrative. They also bring a bit of humanity to one of the characters, overwhelmed enough by what he's doing that he finally makes the final decision. I was sad to see this character go, but given what Turtledove was having him do, it seemed like the right choice.
One thing I would have liked to see more of was the Canadian rebellion. With the death of Mary in the last book, we lose our Canadian viewpoint character, and Turtledove never replaces her. Thus, we hear a few comments about the ongoing rebellion, a sequence mentioning the British trying to resupply them, but nothing more. Of course, the book is bloated enough as it is, so maybe it's a good thing he didn't add more.
The Grapple is a worthy addition to the Settling Accounts series, though you do have to work at it. If you can get through the prose and the dialogue, Turtledove has some interesting ideas. Consider this a qualified 4 stars.