ADVANCE AND RETREAT
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Harry Turtledove began publishing his recasting of the American Civil War in a fantasy setting with Sentry Peak and then Marching Through Peachtree. He has concluded the series with Advance and Retreat, a retelling of the Tennessee Campaign of General John Bell Hood. As with the previous books in the series, Turtledove tells his story from several points of view, shifting among the belligerents as necessary to relate his story.In Advance and Retreat, Turtledove provides his characters and locations with playful names, ranging from Ramblerville, Franklin (Nashville, TN) to General Doubting George (George Thomas). At times, these replacement names get in the way of the story as the reader pauses to figure out the connection between the neonomenclature and the historic analog. All of them, however, are clever and, if they don't add to the plot, they definitely add to the enjoyment of the novel.
One of the important things than Turtledove can do in Advance and Retreat and the earlier books in the series, is present the American Civil War free of some, although by no means all, of the prejudices of our own history. Furthermore, although Turtledove only mentions that "the geography in the American Civil War differs slightly from that of War Between the Provinces in the Kingdom of Detina," he can also make changes in the events and characters in order to heighten the narrative tension of his story. Furthermore, the inclusion of characters who are not officers allows further expansion of the story.
Although there are numerous viewpoint characters, from the blonde sergeant Rollant to Lieutenant General Bell, Turtledove seems to focus most strongly on a handful of the characters, presenting Doubting George and Captain Gremio as principal characters. Doubting George (and his analog General George Thomas) come across as the heroes of this phase of the war, while General Bell, who was reasonably successful in earlier stages of the battle, has his fortunes turn. Turtledove thereby demonstrates that the qualities of a good general are based as much on the luck of the situation as they are on the general's own abilities.
Advance and Retreat presents the American Civil War in a way which may spark the interest of those who only have a passing knowledge of the Civil War. Turtledove's afterword presents some of the history on which he based Advance and Retreat, further noting that he stole the title of the book from General Hood's (Bell's) own memoirs. The reader whose interest is kindled can, of course, locate other books which will provide more information about the way the war played out in our own timeline.
What could have made the novel more interesting is if Turtledove had delved more deeply into the manner in which magic and unicorns made the strategy and tactics used different, similar to what he has been doing in the Darkness series. Although his Southern mage, Alva, does manage to effect the outcome of several of the battles in the book, his role is smaller than could be desired and he leaves the reader wanting to see more of him.
Turtledove ends Advance and Retreat reasonably suddenly, and although it appears clear where events will lead at the end of the book, especially given the history of the American Civil War as a template, the fact that he doesn't tie up all the loose ends leaves the reader hanging as to the specific outcome of the war and the individual characters' fates. It also means that Turtledove has left himself room for further novels in the series, although more of the innovations he has shown throughout his career may be more welcome.
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