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Settling Accounts: Return Engagement
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, 623 pages

Settling Accounts: Return Engagement
Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1949. In 1977, he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA. In 1979, he published his first two novels, Wereblood and Werenight, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson which he continued to use until 1985. In 1991, he left the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he worked as a technical writer, to become a full-time author. 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: Through the Darkness
SF Site Review: The Center Cannot Hold
SF Site Review: Ruled Britannia
SF Site Review: Colonization: Aftershocks
SF Site Review: Walk in Hell
SF Site Review: Darkness Descending
SF Site Review: American Front
SF Site Review: Household Gods with Judith Tarr
SF Site Review: Colonization: Second Contact
SF Site Review: Into the Darkness
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: Between the Rivers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

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This book is the seventh in the on-going Great War saga, and is dense in the manner of genuine, anecdotal, historical accounts. Not that it's boring, or bogged down with intellectual asides. In fact it has an overabundance of solid, well constructed characters, and more juice than a sack full of oranges. But at the same time, it's quite hard going. The twenty or so major characters all have their own stories, moving forward with the relentlessness of a tank, or barrel, as such fighting vehicles are known in this alternate timeline. There are snatches of dark humour, but little in the way of light relief. Settling Accounts depicts realistic war, and its author makes sure his readers understand that in real life, war is never fun.

Despite coming in at book seven, it is the start of a new sequence, and there's no problem getting up to speed with events. The time is the Summer of 1941, and in this world the Confederate States of America were never brought into the union. The last time the CSA fought the USA, was about 20 years ago, but a surprise bombing raid on the US capital, Philadelphia, proves to be the opening salvo of a new, and very bloody conflict. The megalomaniac President of the CSA, Jake Featherstone, struck me as being rather Bush-like, but if that is by design then it's a tweak for this novel. Featherstone is shown to be much more closely modelled as an American Hitler, complete with his own version of Mein Kampf, which is obligatory reading for his supporters. In his warped view, the Confederate State's biggest internal problem is not Jews, but Negroes. The outcome of this racial hatred is obvious, but well realised. Black citizens deemed to be a problem are put into concentration camps, which have their populations murderously reduced, whenever space runs short. As the war progresses, the better equipped and prepared CSA forces focus their efforts on Ohio, and succeed in dividing the USA in two. We're also shown set piece naval engagements, in which the British Royal Navy have come in on the Confederate side, and the Japanese attack the US forces in the Sandwich Islands. Meanwhile, the USA is aiming toward the CSA capital, Richmond. At all times the story is literary, believable and full of bloody detail.

Contained within the grand scheme of things, the large main cast and numerous supporting characters try to survive. From the day to day trivia of their lives, which adds to the sense of realism, right up to the heroic deeds of the few, there are no cardboard cut-outs. At times I felt swamped by strong characters, and it's clear that Harry Turtledove has spent a great deal of time inventing their personal histories and agendas. On occasions, real world historical figures pop up, but stay true to their familiar image. If the author was tempted to present very different versions he resisted, and was probably right to do so. Radical differences could easily have stolen focus from the pivotal lives of the purely fictional cast. Their actions are always well thought out, logical within the context, and presented from a wide selection of viewpoints. It's a story in many shades of grey, through the lens of a very expensive camera. What I mean by that is what happens at any given point can be shown as an overview, in macroscopic detail, or anywhere in between.

Among so many plusses, there are negatives. The story advances like the tracks of Turtledove's barrels, slowly and inexorably. The time period covered is approximately six months, which given the page count is a little over a hundred pages each. Whereas, in his alien-themed Worldwar sequence, whole years can go by in a dozen pages. There's also a certain predictability, which has something to do with Turtledove's eschewing of world changing inventions with military applications. For example, at one point CSA President Featherstone turns down a man who plans to build the world's first atomic bomb. The sheer inventive frenzy that protracted war engenders is oddly missing. Not that this book is ever a glorification of conventional war. Turtledove goes to great lengths to accurately depict the blood and guts spilled at home and on the battlefield. But somehow, there's a lingering feeling of melancholic nostalgia, like a second American Civil War spliced into early World War II. It all seems rather quaint and strangely honest, when viewed from the uncomfortable perspective of today's War on Terror, with all its madness and lies.

In summary, Settling Accounts: Return Engagement is more of a bumpy ride on a straight highway through hell, rather than a roller coaster of destruction. It suffers from a lack of jaw dropping science fiction, has too many major characters, and no wow factor. But on the plus side, it's a great big meat grinder of a book, aimed at readers who enjoy realistic and gritty alternate history with no frills.

Copyright © 2004 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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