by Robert Conroy
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Robert Conroy has a tendency to name his alternate history novels after the year in which he tweaks history. After moving the first World War up in 1901, he stepped back to the American Civil War in 1862. Now, he turns his attention to the waning days of World War II in 1945. In recent years, the Pacific theatre has seen more counterfactual tales than previously, from Harry Turtledove's Days of Infamy to John Birmingham's "Axis of Time" series to Douglas Niles & Michael Dobson's McArthur's War. Despite this interest, the Japanese-American aspect of World War II still has a lot of potential and Conroy's take is unique.
The action starts after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although Emperor Hirohito is prepared to surrender, he is instead seized by hardline militarists and held hostage while they pursue policy and war in his name, but without his approval. As has become almost de riguer in novels of this type, Conroy follows several characters, from American grunts to generals to politicians to tell the story of an invasion of the Japanese home islands in the wake of the nuclear attacks. Each provides a unique point of view, although in at least one case, it seemed not only unnecessary, but even distracting.
The main focus of Conroy's novel is the strategy and tactics used by the US military to invade the Japanese island of Kyushu. The political aspects follow. Although there is some attempt to examine what the war means to the average Japanese citizen, it is not an important part of the book, seen mostly through the eyes of Joe Nomura, an American-Japanese spy trying to get intelligence on the situation ahead of the invasion and his partner, Dennis Chambers, an escaped American POW. Mostly when examining the human toll of the war, Conroy focuses on the soldiers who are fighting the battles.
Aside from Harry Truman and his advisors, the only character on the American home front who Conroy uses for a viewpoint is Debbie Winston, Paul Morrell's fiancée. When Paul is visiting Debbie between his rotation in Germany and Japan, her character makes complete sense (and adds one of the few female characters to the novel). However, when Conroy revisits her essentially to show that the world has become aware of the Holocaust, her presence and, in fact, the entire chapter, breaks the flow of the novel, which otherwise is completely focused on the war in Japan.
Conroy's depiction of the battle is appropriately bloody, with deaths occurring on both sides. His soldiers are not supermen, but rather suffer from cowardice, combat fatigue, and plain uncertainty as the try to gain a foothold on Kyushu. Some of them, like Paul Morrell, manage to come out the other end stronger, others come out having seen too much, and others don't manage to come out at all. The war on Kyushu and in the waters around the island is anything but glorious. In contrast are the almost antiseptic scenes set in Washington, D.C. as Truman tries to figure out what to do and in the hospital where Hirohito must deal with his impotence in the face of a warrior caste that venerates him but won't listen to him.
Conroy does an excellent job of balancing the war with telling a story which is not simply a rehashing of tactics, armament, strategy, and other aspects of the military which all too often take over in a novel set during a war. His characters are real enough and sympathetic enough that the reader cares about not only whether they make it home intact, but also if they make it home with their humanity intact.
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