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The Great War: American Front
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey Books, 562 pages

The Great War: American Front
Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove was born in Los Angeles, California in 1949. He attended UCLA where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. In 1979, he published his first two novels, Wereblood and Werenight under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson and continued to use it until 1985. In 1991, he left the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he worked as a technical writer, and became a full-time writer. He won the Hugo Award for Novella in 1994 for "Down in the Bottomlands" and "Must and Shall" was nominated for both the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the 1996 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Harry Turtledove Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Household Gods with Judith Tarr
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: Between the Rivers
SF Site Review: Departures
SF Site Review: Colonization: Second Contact

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mark Shainblum

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My reaction to Harry Turtledove is a bit of a mystery, even to myself. In a New York Review of Science Fiction essay co-written with John Dupuis a couple of years ago, I was rather harsh on his Worldwar "aliens-invade-in-the-middle-of-World-War-II" alternate history series. I usually settle down to a thick Turtledove tome with a sigh of resignation, knowing that a long slog is ahead of me. But I keep on buying them! As any author knows, that counts for far more than any bad review.

Obviously, something is drawing me to these books. If you include two stand-alone novels, The Guns of the South and The Two Georges (which Turtledove co-authored with actor Richard Dreyfuss) the Worldwar series and the current Great War series, Turtledove has almost a dozen alternate history novels in print. And I've read 'em all.

Why? Well, though Turtledove is no great literary stylist, he has several things going for him: 1) He knows history, and he knows it well. When he spins an alternate history scenario, you just know that it's been carefully thought out and is historically plausible. (This is even true of the Worldwar series, which suffers a credibility gap because of its suspiciously low-tech, all-too-human alien invaders.)  2) His characters, often derived from genuine historical sources, are sympathetic and real. You genuinely believe in them, you feel for them, you care about what happens to them. In this regard, American Front and its predecessor volume, How Few Remain are very much like fictionalized, alternate history versions of Ken Burns' lauded Civil War documentary series on PBS.

On the other hand, it's this very quality that makes it arguable that Turtledove's books are not really novels. They're more like a series of extended vignettes, stitched together into a rough linear narrative that one would be hard-pressed to describe as a "plot." In truth, the plot and main character of all of these books is history itself; the protagonists are merely scenery. In American Front, as in many of Turtledove's other alternate histories (and notably excepting of The Guns of the South and The Two Georges), there are simply too many characters in too many different theatres of war and far too much jump-cutting between them. And at a certain point it all becomes a grey blur.

For obvious reasons, I loved the scenes on the Canadian Front, as the outnumbered and outgunned Canadian Army manages to keep vastly superior US forces at bay, just as I'm sure dedicated Southerners enjoy the scenes set in the South and the Midwest. I commend Turtledove for his encyclopedic knowledge of history. His understanding of Canadian military history and Canada's military potential circa World War I is frankly astounding, and I also enjoy the way he has pitted genuine historical personages like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson against each other. Despite my criticisms, in the end I came away from American Front with a deeper appreciation for the world I really live in. However bad reality really was -- things could have been far worse.

Copyright © 2000 by Mark Shainblum

Mark Shainblum is a Montreal freelance writer and co-editor of Arrowdreams: An Anthology of Alternate Canadas, published by Nuage Editions. In 1999 Arrowdreams garnered an Aurora Award, Canada's national prize for science fiction and fantasy.


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