Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Originally, American Empire: Blood and Iron was billed as the fourth novel of the “Great War” series. When Harry Turtledove elected to expand the series by two books, this novel was changed to the start of a new trilogy set in the aftermath of the Great War. At the end of that trilogy, it was clear that Turtledove was setting the Confederacy up to emulate the rise of Nazi Germany with Jake Featherston taking the role of a Confederate Hitler.
Nevertheless, some of the events which seem predestined at the end of The Great War: Breakthroughs do not come to fruition indicating that Turtledove does not wish his stories to be predictable. While the book does deal with the rise of a socialist state in the North and a fascist state in the South, neither event is as straightforward as the earlier books may have appeared. Furthermore, Turtledove continues to depict life in North American through a variety of eyes, not all of them particularly interested in politics, except as they affect those characters.
Blood and Iron is much darker in tone than How Few Remains or the books which made up "The Great War" trilogy. With the war behind them, the Confederacy is suffering from tremendous inflation and racism is on the increase. Characters who had racist tendencies in the earlier books are given free rein of their opinions in this book and even the characters who were seen as heroic in the earlier books are now shown as malcontents who fall under the sway of the emerging Freedom Party. Unlike the earlier books, Turtledove doesn't balance this off with Confederate viewpoint characters of an opposing view.
In the United States, Turtledove's world has a government intent on keeping the Confederacy at heel, but whose own pro-business policy is causing an uprising of socialist ideals among the working class who are growing to see themselves as oppressed. Despite the Democrat’s long reign as the party in power and the success of Roosevelt’s war, the Democrats find themselves facing serious opposition for the Socialist Party. In the North, Turtledove’s characters provide a more balanced view of politics, with working class characters, such as Chester Martin and Sylvia Enos, supporting the Socialists while the characters who served in the officer corps, like Irving Morrel or David Hamburger, see no reason to turn the Democrats out of office.
Some of the most powerful scenes of the novel, however, deal with the workers’ uprising in Toledo and Sylvia Enos dealing with the unwanted attentions of her supervisor, Frank Best. In a world with only the most rudimentary of unions, their troubles demonstrate why unions became necessary in the first place.
Blood and Iron is also a novel about revenge. Jeff Pinkard wants revenge on the North and on his wife, Emily, for cheating on him. Jake Featherston wants revenge on the North and the officer class for losing the war. Sylvia Enos seeks revenge on the unknown British submarine captain she believes killed her husband after the was was over. In Canada, even as Lucien Galtier grows used to the idea of American occupation of Quebec, Arthur MacGregor continues to seek vengeance on the Americans for the death of his son, Alexander.
With the war in the past, Turtledove is able to focus more attention on the individuals and their lives and worries. While politics plays a large role in Blood and Iron, it is a necessary role and frequently appears in the background. The surprises Turtledove includes occur when his characters do act completely in character, but the results are not what the reader who has followed them through the three previous books would have expected.
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